The Bloodhound Project Desert Update, November 2012

Desert Update, November 2012

Desert News
Thursday, 15 November, 2012

History in the making

By Rudi Riek

A satellite image of Verneukpan – note the black streaks everywhere – these are outcrops that would have had to be removed.

How does one cram three years of extraordinary feats into an article such as this? This was the question I was faced with when asked by Andy to update the BLOODHOUND readers on the progress at Hakskeenpan. You will recall from previous articles that the partnership with the Northern Cape first started in 2009 when BLOODHOUND looked at Verneukpan as a possible option. After spending a week with a surveyor on Verneukpan, it soon became clear that this was not the ideal run site for BLOODHOUND.

Verneukpan is certainly long enough, the problem however is that it is riddled with shale elevations, some of which are almost one meter high and run for hundreds of meters.

Being faced with the very real possibility that South Africa could loose this opportunity, I begged Skip Margetts, South African project Manager, to allow me to go and view Hakskeenpan before giving BLOODHOUND the results of the survey. Skip told me that it was not an option and was discounted earlier because of the provincial road going straight through it. Nevertheless I managed to convince him as we had nothing to lose. Google Earth was outdated! The road had been decommissioned and a new road was built on the northern edge of the pan.

Andy Green amongst 317 workers at Hakskeenpan

The Northern Cape Government has been a crucial partner in creating the ideal run site for BLOODHOUND. To date they have spent close to R8 million rand in clearing Hakskeenpan and in the process of doing so, have managed to create employment for 317 people.

Hakskeenpan is surrounded by 5 small villages, together housing approximately 5000 people. The latest statistics indicate that this area has a 98% unemployment rate. The decision to clear the stones on the pan by hand was not only made because this would be the best way to ensure minimal
impact on the surface, but it was the best way to uplift the community.

Why has it taken three years to complete this project? You might ask. Well, this is an extreme environment, the temperatures range between minus 6 degrees and plus 45 degrees Celsius and if it is not extremely dry, then it is extremely wet. The project has been stretched out due to rain delays and since November 2010 to date the team has worked a total of 130 days.

Hakskeenpan in January 2011

a group of workers in a dust storm

Stone Removal

Workers clearing the track

As mentioned in previous articles, the track is 20km long and including the safety zones, is 1.1 km wide. The team of workers has completed clearing the entire track, the entire Western Safety Zone and 14km of the Eastern Safety Zone. The remaining 6km of the safety zone has been left for completion after the rain season in 2013 as it has very light stone coverage and clearing it would not create damage that requires rain to fix. Yes, rain, although responsible for the delays, is our ally. All the superficial damage caused by removing the stones gets repaired by a decent rain season.

Currently the team is busy with the final clearance of the main track removing any stones missed the first time.

I need to give you some perspective
20 000m x 1100m = 22 million square meters of area cleared by 317 people in 130 days. Add to that the fact that even the smallest little stone is lodged into the clay and needs to be forcibly removed and then imagine doing this in extreme conditions including sub zero temperatures in the morning, soaring temperatures in the afternoon and on some days severe dust storms.

All the stones collected are carried out to the edge of the area in which they are working, thus creating four rows, two on the edges of the actual track and two on the edges of the safety zones, these rows are each 20km in length, thus 80 km of stones that needs to be collected with heavy machinery. There is approximately 6 cubic meters of stones generated every 10m.

6 cubic meters x 4 rows x 2000 such piles of stones in each row = 48 000 cubic meters of stones. That equates to 8000 truck loads of stones that need to be removed from the track.

This process has started, but will continue after the rain season in 2013 but in time for BLOODHOUND’s arrival, the team have removed 15 km of these piles of stones with another 65km to go. This is not a priority at the moment as the main concern is getting the track surface clear and ready before it rains and the plant is currently being used to remove the other big concern, which could not have been anticipated before, stone slabs.

Removal of Stone Slabs

When the project was started, there seemed to be only surface deposits which could be dislodged by hand quite easily, however as the clearing progressed it became clear that in certain areas, what looked like only a small protruding stone, turned out to be quite literally the tip of the iceberg. Currently we estimate that about 100 such slabs have been removed in areas scattered across the Southern section of the track and safety zones. Some of these deposits are 10m x 10m and large amounts of stone also needed to be transported off the track as a result.

This has brought about the next obstacle that needed to be overcome, we are now left with numerous large holes that need to be filled, but they cannot just be filled with anything, they need to be filled in the manner in which nature has filled the rest of the pan. If the hole created is deeper than 30cm, then it first needs loose shale that is compacted and then the remainder needs to be filled with playa that is mixed with water to a wet cement consistency and then allowed to dry. This process is not complete yet and although the team is racing to get it completed before the next rain season, it is doubtful if it will be completed on time. We do however have from March until August in 2013 to continue with this process as we can use our own water to recreate the rain in these isolated areas. It is not the ideal situation as it would have been better to have this done before the rain, but unfortunately time is now against us. We are confident however from tests that have been done, that we can adequately repair these holes without needing the rain.

Holes are filled with wet clay and left to dry, the last picture in the above series taken one month after the repair was done.

Removal of the elevated road

You will recall from previous articles that an elevated road runs across the track at about 4km from the northern border. This road was created by digging holes on the pan and compacting this material, the road which was about 50cm above the surface and 6m wide and stretched across the entire width of the track and safety zones (1,1km) has now been removed. The Northern Cape also contracted a company to grade the area with a laser guided grader to within 10mm accuracy. On the one side of the road there was a ridge that was also laser graded and on the other side of the road there where two manmade tracks that dipped below the surface, these tracks where ripped and graded and have been successfully rehabilitated and now just require good rain to complete the process.

The above series of photos starting top left are of the elevated road in the various stages of removal.


In order to secure the perimeter of the pan, the Northern Cape has completed a new fence on the Western border of the pan; the completion of this fence now means that the entire perimeter is not accessible by vehicles or animals.

Weather Station

A weather station that is on loan from the UK Met office has been installed on the pan and with the help of our partners MTN, will shortly be relaying accurate weather data.

How much work is left?

1. 15 km of the main track needs to be re cleared (very light, low impact, final clearance)  – this should take 20 days
2. Some of the stone slabs still need to be removed
3. All the holes created need to be filled
4. 65km of piles of stones need to be removed
5. 6km of  safety zone needs to be cleared
6. There is some grading work to be done at a ridge in the south and manmade tracks in the north.

Are we going to be done in 2012? Probably not, the rain season is upon us and we are working on borrowed time as it is, the work that is left however can be done in the six months prior to BLOODHOUND’s arrival in 2013 once the pan has dried out again.