For the thousands who watched as it was unveiled recently, the Kazungula Bridge is an architectural and historical wonder. For bridge engineer, Kobamelo Kgoboko, who has worked on more than 100 bridges across Africa including Kazungula, the upcoming Mohembo Bridge will be his greatest achievement. Staff Writers, MBONGENI MGUNI & THALEFANG CHARLES report
Praises of the Kazungula Bridge and the determination shown by Botswana and Zambia in building it will continue for decades to come. A bridge resisted by apartheid South Africa, threatened by the late Zimbabwean ruler, Robert Mugabe and plagued by financial constraints, is now a marvellous reality over the majestic Zambezi River. Veteran bridge engineer, Kobamelo Kgoboko and the consulting firm he leads, CPP Botswana, worked closely on the Kazungula Bridge after being asked to review the designs of the French firm that initially drew up the plans.
Kgoboko knows every inch of Kazungula Bridge and at its launch, could be seen in many places at the event, explaining the nitty-gritty of the architecture, the design and other technical details. But it is at the Mohembo Bridge that his heart lies. When it is officially opened, possibly by the end of this year, Mohembo Bridge will be the only bridge over the Okavango Delta, an ecologically sensitive and iconic World Heritage Site.
Mohembo will also be the longest bridge in the country, at 1,161 metres, which is exactly 238m longer than Kazungula Bridge. Not only will Mohembo be the longest bridge now, but also for some time to come, as no other bridge longer than that is envisaged for the country. The bridge features two lanes, two pedestrian walkways and is about 12.5 metres across. Its most stunning feature is the elephant tusk pylons that stand 200 metres apart and are technically known as cable-stays, holding up the bridge. Although he does not come right out and say it, it would appear Kgoboko’s love for Mohembo stems from his intimate involvement with the project and the trials he has gone through to get this close to the official launch.
For a man who says his passion for bridge engineering is driven by his love of technical challenges, Mohembo has delivered all the goods.
“My involvement with Mohembo goes back to 2004 when we were asked to do a pre-feasibility study, a quick one, for Cabinet because they needed to make a decision on it,” Kgoboko says in an interview. “I got a call from Roads Dep’t saying ‘get on a plane in two days and come up with costing, feasibility etc in 21 days,’ which meant by 21 December 2004.
“I had to work very close to Christmas to get that done! “They wanted a wider solution and part of that could have involved using floating bridges that had become available from Iraq at the time.
“I came up with different types of bridge designs, provided prices and recommendations and explained what could be possible.
“Nothing happened after I presented the report, until two years later a decision was taken to design and build the bridge across the Okavango.”
CPP bid for the project consultancy and won the job. Kgoboko recalls that at the time, he believed the bridge would be a simple structure like the types he had done scores of time before, going over a river. But the man who loves challenges soon got good news on that front.
“Roads Dept advised that then Works and Transport minister, Lesego Motsumi, was not looking for an ordinary structure; she wanted an icon. “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.” Unlike Kazungula where Kgoboko and his team came in when the project was already rolling, at Mohembo they did the design, design review and supervision of construction.
The engineer cannot help the glint in his eye when he talks about Mohembo and its place in his career. With more than 100 bridges under his belt over a career spanning nearly 30 years, with structures across the continent, Mohembo has a special place in his heart.
His modest office at Kgale Mews, where the interview is being conducted, features several large pictures of Mohembo at various stages of conceptualisation and construction. The final elephant tusk design was chosen over six other designs and Kgoboko is pleased with the outcome.
“For me, this is it. This is the masterpiece of my career and I still cannot think of what else can beat this. “It is well-constructed, well-designed and it has the touch of Botswana with the elephant tusks.
“It makes a statement that may not be relevant in the United Kingdom, but in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and others, have a strong meaning.” Curiously, the other bridge close to Kgoboko’s heart is the opposite of the grandeur at Mohembo. It is a 30-year-old standard structure over the Lotsane River in Tuli Block that was the engineer’s very first bridge designed and built in Botswana. Kgoboko had by then already
“It was a challenge of doing everything. Usually, you get various engineering looking at different parts such as foundations, the hydrology, sizing the level of the bridge, structural design and others.”
The man who lives for challenges still relishes the achievement all those years ago at Lotsane. “I go there once in a while to see it. Not because I doubt that it will still be standing, but because I like it,” he explains.
The passion for bridges began in the late 1970s when Kgoboko finalised his degree in Edinburgh, Scotland, following two years spent at the University of Botswana doing Part One of the programme. When he returned home. The then director of Roads, Armando Lionjanga recruited him and Kgoboko remembers reluctantly agreeing but insisting that he works on bridges. “They said they didn’t have a roads department but said they would make a plan.”
That plan saw Kgoboko working on a project to raise Gaborone Dam and realign it with the old Lobatse Road. This then required bridges along the road and the railway. He was later awarded a scholarship to pursue a Masters in Engineering, specialising in bridge engineering in Australia and returned home in 1988 where he formed the bridge section at the Road Department. Kgoboko recalls the heavy floods when he returned that saw the section of new bridges pioneering emergency Bailey Bridges in the country and training the Botswana Defence Force on their use. He remembers Members of Parliament being so excited over the emergency bridges that the whole National Assembly came out for a demonstration over the Notwane River in 1989. His passion for bridges would later take him to some of the most dangerous parts of the region in pursuit of their development. Kgoboko was involved in a project from the Zimbabwe border with Mozambique deep into the east African country, a route called the Beira Corridor. The project involved mainly widening at least 30 bridges along the Corridor.
“Every 10 kilometres we had the army from Zimbabwe along that Corridor protecting the road. “It was difficult to work and the company said only take reasonable risks. “When you were inspecting the bridges, you had to step where other people had stepped before but not anywhere else that looked undisturbed due to the presence of landmines.”
But what exactly is it about bridges that captivated Kgoboko all these years? “The challenge of it is a major interest.
“Bridges are a more specialised structural engineering.
“From the beginning, I have had that interest in the science, everything is calculated.” The Bobonong native is looking at hanging up his tools soon. He foresees himself working part-time on certain projects and perhaps moving into the field of dispute resolution in engineering.
Kgoboko is also mentoring and has mentored several upcoming engineers, teaching them the passion for the science. His firm regularly engages university students on its projects to give them a first-hand feel of real-life bridge design, supervision and construction. He expects that once retired, he will go into farming full time. “I have two farms in the Sandveld and I like being there. “From spending a lot of time in Kasane, I have seen how people can actually do ploughing at Pandamatenga in a professional manner and I have developed an interest in that.
“I have about 200 hectares there, which is about the smallest in that area because 250 is the starting size, then 500 hectares is the median. “This year, I ploughed 175 hectares out of my 200 hectares, planting three types of beans.
“We should be starting to harvest next month.”
The 64-year-old has been married for 30 years and has two sons and a daughter. None of his now grown-up children chose engineering as a career. “I had hoped one of them would do so, without having to push or force them,” he says wistfully.
“At the end of the day, they made their own choices.”