Kriel, Cosmos Country

The little redbrick town of Kriel, its houses laid neatly side-by-side, lies some 100 km east of Johannesburg alongside its township, Thubelihle. On the opposite side of town are its two huge coal-powered stations, the Dutch Reformed Church spires cast into shadow by the cooling towers.

This is the epicentre of South Africa's power production. Mpumalanga's coal seam runs through here, hence the high incidence of mines and power stations. Within 100 km radius of Kriel there are eight power stations. Witbank lies to the north, Secunda to the south.

When it was built, in 1979, Kriel Power Station was the largest coal fire power station in the southern hemisphere. Shortly after it one of the largest coal fired power stations in the world, the Matla Power Station, joined its cousin on the outskirts of Kriel. At the time they were cutting edge technology.

Kriel Power Station is unique; instrumental in the development of other power stations such as Duvha, Kendal, Matimb and Lethabo. Each turbine generator set is separate, unlike Eskom's other stations where all the turbines are housed in a single turbine hall.

Today, however, Kriel Power Station needs retrofitting to decrease its emissions (only scheduled for between 2017 and 2022); its smokestacks spew grey smoke and when the wind blows the wrong way, the shacks of some of its workers, set in the shadows of the power station, get the raw end of the deal.

It is worse in winter when the lack of rising hot air fails to shift the pollution and it remains hanging like a pall over town. Eskom denies that it is in breach of its Atmospheric Emission Licence conditions.

There is little more to Kriel than these two power giants, although the 'old town' has been here since the late 1800s, 10 km from the last great battle of the South African War. Kriel lies in the heart of Cosmos country, its roads' borders a blanket of the gentle pink, purple and white autumn flowers that bop gently in the breeze in defiance of the town's haystacks.

Kriel lies on the Rainbow Route that links Mpumalanga to the KwaZulu-Natal coast; the nature reserves in and around Kinross, Bethal and Kriel alive with small game and a rich bird life. But its main attraction is a tour of its power stations.

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