Mohembo Bridge: The making of an icon

Mohembo Bridge PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Mohembo Bridge PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

As the builders put the finishing touches to the iconic Mohembo Bridge, THALEFANG CHARLES travels to the site and marvels at the architectural masterpiece. He uncovers an elaborate design plan aimed at producing anything but an ordinary structure

Behind every architectural masterpiece, there is an ambitious visionary with an unconventional taste for finer things. This is the dreamer who ignites and inspires the designer to apply his/her mind to produce great work of art. This dreamer has the capability to box and restrict the designer with the brief or just let him/her free to wander into the design wilderness. The design brief for the Mohembo Bridge was such kind that let the designer adventurously ride free.

Sometime in December 2004 legendary bridge engineer, Kobamelo Kgoboko received a call from the Roads Department with a request to do a quick feasibility study for a bridge at Mohembo over the Okavango River. Initially, the man thought government wanted just a modest bridge as the norm but he soon discovered that the brief wanted anything but ordinary.

Recently Kgoboko narrated to Mmegi how the brief came by.


The minister of the then Works and Transport ministry, Lesego Motsumi, had expressly instructed the Department of Roads that she wanted an ‘icon’ for a bridge, Kgoboko revealed.

“This was justified because the site is one for conservation and tourism. We were required not to disturb the environment, not have too many foundations, not tamper with the river’s flow and our original solution did not meet that requirement. “I was excited to be told to do something iconic. It was an exciting challenge because as an engineer, you don’t get to be told to do that too often," he said.

This week Motsumi narrated why it was important to have an iconic structure over the Okavango River.

“Okavango is not an ordinary river. That area is not ordinary. It might be far from the city and not well developed, but it is a beautiful place that deserved an iconic structure,” she said.

Mohembo Bridge PIC. BASHI KIKIA
Mohembo Bridge PIC. BASHI KIKIA



Motsumi said with funds permitting she wanted to have a lasting legacy bridge that she could be proud of in many years to come.

Ne ke sa bate motshelakgabo hela, but something special and beautiful.” “Kana ka Setswana they say ‘O rata dilo’ when you insist on having fine beautiful things, but when funds permit we should get nice things. The people of Okavango deserved a fitting structure for their great river."

This is the trail of thought that inspired Kgoboko to make the elephant tusk tower bridge design that eventually got the thumbs up. But there were six samples that he presented to government.

Option one was the H-Tower. This was a design with four pylons that were connected like the letter H and holding the suspended bridge with cable stays. The second option was the Leaning Tower, where the pillars were, as the name suggests, leaning out of the river. Another variation was the A-Tower, in which the towers were connected like the letter A. The fourth option was the Single Tower and it had three variations. Single Tower design involved just two pillars holding the entire bridge instead of four. The V-Tower was the fifth option and also as the name suggests involved four pylons with a shape of the letter V holding the hanging bridge.

The sixth option was the Elephant Tusk Tower that actually made the cut. With a length of 1,161 metres, the bridge is the longest in Botswana. It features two lanes, two pedestrian walkways and is about 12.5 metres across. It is the first bridge constructed over the Okavango River, which is part of the Okavango Delta, the 1000th World Heritage site.

This week Motsumi admitted that she has not seen the bridge in person but is proud of what she has seen from the pictures.

“I am a teacher by profession and I take pleasure in seeing my products turning out great. And even though I have not yet physically seen the bridge, I am pleased and proud from what I have seen in the pictures,” said Motsumi.

The H-tower and Tusk tower models
The H-tower and Tusk tower models



But 17 years since the designs were conceptualised and looking at the almost finished product live on the banks of Okavango River, one would agree that pictures do not do justice to the beauty and aura of the Mohembo Bridge.

During the day the tusks and supporting cables reflect beautifully on the quiet flowing Okavango River. In the golden light of the dusk and dawn, the bridge produces an incredible silhouette that would make the Mohembo crossing a collector’s experience.

And the builders are saying that that is not all.

“Wait until it is lit."

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