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The bridge of high treason

The bridge of high treason

Katima Mulilo Bridge
Katima Mulilo Bridge
Peter Roberts

When Dr Klaus Dierks first proposed in 1982 that a bridge be built over the Zambezi to link what was then South West Africa (now Namibia) with Zambia it caused such a stir in the South African government that their parliament sat to create a law to remove the good doctor from his position as chief bridge engineer for the Department of Transport.

This was because South Africa ran Namibia and viewed any external link to ‘Dark Africa’ as tantamount to treason. They had ensured that all rail and road infrastructure from Namibia led to South Africa and that they held the ropes of an economic noose.

The wheel turned in 1990 when Namibia gained independence and Dierks became the Deputy Minister of Transport in the new nation, which meant he could again pursue his goal. He negotiated the finance with the Germans and even persuaded them not to ‘punish Namibia’ when they froze all loans to Zambia because the Zambians had not honoured previous loan repayments. The primary purpose of this project was to link the Zambian Copperbelt to the Namibian harbour at Walvis Bay.

Known today as the Katima Mulilo Bridge, this attractive curved structure was cleverly assembled using a German bridge building technique they call ‘incremental launching’. The entire bridge deck was constructed on the western bank and then individual 31.4m sections were hydraulically pushed over the river on a weekly basis for nearly ten months until all 1,600m were joined.

Then the total mass of 13,000 tonnes had to be pushed into place, accomplished by using a force of 750t which moved it at a snail’s pace of 10m an hour. The design and construction had to be exact as the entire bridge only had a tolerance of a few millimetres. Once it was in place the deck was pre-stressed to prepare it for heavy traffic.

The bridge, with its 19 spans of legs immersed in swirling, rushing waters, was designed to withstand a once in a hundred year flood. Excuse me for saying this but this seems to be a somewhat overconfident financial outlay considering that no one has any clue when the next 100 year flood is expected.

Factfile: Katima Mulilo Bridge
Planner :Dr Klaus Dierks was the person primarily responsible for this bridge.
Opened: 13 May 2004 by the President of Namibia, Dr. Sam Nujoma, and the President of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa.
Length: 1,600m.
Location :Katimo Mulilo, linking Namibia and Zambia.
Fun Fact :The entire bridge stands on Zambian soil because they qualified for a German grant by being rated underdeveloped whereas Namibia would have had to repay a loan.

Read more about the region in our destination guide:

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 14, Sept 2013)

Read more on Bridging the Zambezi:
Bridging the Zambezi
Bridge in the mist
The banana bridge
The dam that became a bridge
A tale of two bridges
The arteries of Tete
The bridge of high treason
Swinging high