Book inspired by love for old, majestic road bridges in the Free State

“As an engineer, tackling the bridge stories was a matter of love for the majestic, stately structures that might be forgotten. I consider the old steel and other lesser old Free State road bridges to be iconic for the period 1880 to late 1930,” says Nicol van der Walt. A recently published book, The Way to the Bridge, which he compiled and wrote, provides an historical overview the drifts, bridges and some roads built in the Free State over a period of about 150 years. Mr van der Walt recently donated two of his books to his alma mater, the Stellenbosch Faculty of Engineering, where he obtained the degree BScBEng (Civil) in 1960.

He elaborates: “The then drifts through especially the Orange River were the essential forerunners for the later road transport network. Therefore, I list the drifts as an appendix. The book is the first and only record of these engineering achievements in the Free State and will hopefully serve as a reference source for further research. The heritage value of the book has been acknowledged by the Heritage Foundation.”

Prof Piet Jordaan (retired from the Department of Civil Engineering, University of Pretoria) notes in one of two perspectives published alongside the foreword to the book: “The author is one of a dying breed of world-class padmakers who, during the period 1950 to the mid-80s, planned, designed and constructed the road network of South Africa, in the past generally accepted as the best in Africa.”

In his review of the book The Way to the Bridge, Dr Malcolm Mitchell wrote: “The bridges and drifts were designed and built long before the advent of computer-aided design procedures in an era when the ‘art, feel and romance’ of engineering were paramount in the construction of infrastructure. The research the author has carried out in documenting and describing the construction of more than 100 old bridges built using rudimentary methods, judged by today’s standards, to cross the generally slow-moving westerly flowing rivers traversing the province, is impressive.

“Of particular interest is the description, together with photos and illustrations, of bridges built to cross the major rivers, i.e. the Gariep (Orange) and Vaal Rivers forming the southern and northern borders of the province, respectively, as well as the challenging road conditions along its eastern mountainous border with Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal. The bridge structures the author describes range from submersible drifts to major steel truss bridges built between 1880 and the late 1930s using imported steel trusses placed on masonry abutments and piers. Forty-four steel bridges out of a total of 77 built during this period are still in use today, most of them now showing their age!

“The book also draws the link between the road network of the province and the ‘produce of the land’, as well as the post-1950 opening up of the goldfields of the province. The point is made in the book that, despite the generally flat topography of the province, it is not endowed with good road construction materials, with large parts where active and swelling clays dominate the geomorphology. However, the climatic and soil conditions have provided the basis for essential food production and farming. The way in which the development of the road network of the province has been influenced to serve this end is also described.

“By documenting the evolvement of the road system in the Free State, with the emphasis on bridges, the author has produced a valuable reference work for future road engineers who, when the current problems in the road sector are overcome and resources become available, will hopefully contribute to the upgrading of our secondary and tertiary road networks, thereby stimulating the economic development of our rural areas.”

Mr van der Walt’s career as engineer started in 1960 at the Roads Department of the then South West Africa. In 1965 he moved to the Free State Roads Department and UWP Consulting Engineers in Sandton in 1973. In 1976 het joined the National Department of Transport in Pretoria where he was responsible for construction, funding, research management, roads materials and maintenance. He worked in this capacity until 1995. Thereafter, he had a brief spell in academia, lecturing at the University or Pretoria. He worked as a specialist in road materials and labour-based construction at GIBB Africa (1997- 1999) and at ARCUS GIBB as consultant from 2000 to 2007. Thereafter, he continued working at the latter as freelance specialist consultant until 2016 (when he was 80). He published his book at the age of 83.

Mr van der Walt concludes: “My Free State collaborators and I regard this book as a documentation of the iconic value of the old steel structure road bridges and the legacy left by civil road engineers.”

The Way to the Bridge (An overview on the historic drifts, bridges and roads of the Free State)

Year Published: 2020

Author: Nicol van der Walt

Publisher: The Heritage Foundation

ISBN Number: 978-0-9947175-2-8

Price: R230 Incl. VAT

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The book can also be ordered directly from the author @ R300. Contact him here:

Photograph: The cover of the book The Way to the Bridge.

Insert: The author, Nicol van der Walt.