The Gariep is a chameleon dam, an ever-changing body of massed water sprawled across the midriff section of the Grassy Karoo. We’ve seen it in the rushing splendour of the 2011 floods, the drought of 2016 and, now, in the green bloom of a lucky late-summer rainstorm. And it’s different every time.
At first light, the surface is dark blue and copper. By midday, it is a moody, khaki colour. In the late afternoon, it’s shot silk, all silvery pink and pale blue. At night, the moon casts a bright path across the pewter-smooth water, and the clouds merge with the hillocky flat-topped islands as the dark sky falls to Earth.
In the summer, lightning flickers in the towering thunderheads before they drop magicians’ cloaks of invisibility, hiding
the horizons and then the islands with wet veils, before lifting them to reveal a dramatically shiny landscape.
One of the best places to behold this rather extraordinary body of water, South Africa’s Mother Dam, is from one of the balconies at De Stijl Gariep Hotel on the hilltop overlooking the landscape.
But when it is overflowing, people head straight for a view of the spillway, where the wall rises smoothly like a man-made cliff, and the water tumbles over like a neat Victoria Falls. This only happens when the dam tops 100 per cent full, as it did in April this year, for the first time since the floods of 2011.
Living in the Eastern Karoo as we do, this beats the heck out of prime-time television. And it seems the rest of South Africa gets a kick out of the spectacle as well, especially after some of the country nearly ran dry this past season. Every time the Gariep Dam reaches capacity, the water tourists stream into the area.
Dinky Schultz, general manager of De Stijl, posted a picture of the overflow on the hotel’s Facebook page in April. “The next day, our restaurant was packed to capacity. Everyone wants to come and see the dam full after this terrible drought.”
The national Department of Water and Sanitation has offices overlooking the dam and occasionally takes groups on tours into the wall, which is 88 metres high and 914 metres long. Remarkably, the wall is partially hollow inside, with 13 kilometres of galleries and staircases. Were it not hollow, the wall would not be able to flex, as it must with the enormous weight of 5 500 million cubic metres of water pressing against it when full.
Every day, someone from the department goes down into the wall to record the slight movement of the concrete. This is a job for one who is fit and undaunted by stairs. The dam wall is about 28 storeys high, and there is no elevator.
The enormous turbine hall has occasionally been hired out for dances and launches, with a cash bar in the corner. In 1998, local farmers staged a sheep auction here, although no one seems to remember whether the woolly beasts in question were actually present.
When you have tired of gazing at the dam from its edges, book a boat cruise. Wikus Wiese has a flat-bottomed craft equipped with tables and chairs, and it leaves most afternoons from the jetty at Forever Resorts.
He has lived in the town on and off for most of his life, as has his assistant skipper Jacques Ackerman. Wikus efficiently guides the boat through the yacht basin where the various vessels gleam in the lowering sun, with names like Vlugvoet, Star Spirit, Just for Fun, C’est la Vie, Felicity, Firefly and Wild Child. A profoundly inelegant and nameless flat-bottomed raft is also moored there “just for braais”.
At a respectful distance from the dam wall, Wikus stops the boat on the invisible border between the Free State and Eastern Cape. “In December when it’s peak holiday season [and all 63 guest houses in Gariep are full to capacity], I do this trip up to seven times a day.” From this vantage point we can see the faint brown highwater mark right across the dam wall, more than a metre above the water.
This marks the time of sustained floods in 2011, when the Caledon and Orange rivers rose dramatically and almost simultaneously, filling the Gariep Dam way faster than it could empty.
“Gariep remained over 120 per cent full for three months, and water roared over the spillway at a rate of five Olympic-size swimming pools per second.” A few Capetonians on the boat gasped and paled. The only other time the dam topped that level was briefly, in 1988, at 129 per cent.
Wikus also explains why the towns originally built to accommodate dam builders in the 1960s have remained comparatively small. They include the towns of Gariep (population 2 000 rising to 10 000 in holiday season) and Oviston (population well under 1 000). Despite the splendid water views, neither town sports flashy casinos and timeshare accommodation. There is no Karoo Riviera to be found here.
“The water that is stored here is extremely important. It is the lifeblood of the Eastern Cape right down to Port Elizabeth, and also the Free State. Millions of lives and jobs depend on it, so it must be kept as clean and unpolluted as possible.
“That and possible floods is why the whole dam, practically, is surrounded by provincial nature reserves along the 430km shoreline. We often see ribbokke on the islands, buffalo, eland, pairs of Fish Eagles.”
Unlike Kariba, Africa’s largest dam, there are no hippos and crocodiles. “It’s way too cold for them,” says Wikus. The Gariep’s water temperatures, despite being sited in the summer-sweltering mid-Karoo, seldom rise much above 12 degrees in summer, and a chilly nine degrees in winter. In part this is because of the dam’s average depth, 33 metres when full.
When the decision was taken to build the dam in the early 1960s, the South African government called for tenders from contractors across the world. The main tender was awarded in 1965 to a French-South African consortium called Union Corporation Dumez-Borie Dams Thousands of workers poured in from faraway countries.
Thanks to a helpful tip-off, we find one of the old crew, still living by the river he loves so much. Paul Johns, a German of Welsh descent, left Europe after World War II to work on South African mines, then Kariba, before taking a job at Gariep.
Paul was one of those mineworkers who tunnelled underneath the river to check the geology, and later worked on cementation.
He met and married local girl Suzette, and they ended up owning the nearby Glasgow Pont Hotel at Norvalspont. “I remember hearing seven different languages in the bar some nights,” he says.
While living and working at the hotel, Paul decided to expand into vegetable and fruit farming. He and Suzette bought an irrigation farm on the Orange River. He adored the place, the wild vegetation, the rush of the river, the toot of the trains crossing the river bridge.
On the land he’d bought was an old Anglo-Boer War blockhouse, a sturdy fort made of stone and steel. Its twin had once stood on the other side of the river. Both had shooting slits and housed soldiers who guarded the bridge against the enemy.
Not well enough, as it turned out. The Boers succeeded rather spectacularly in blowing up the Norvalspont bridge. The twin fort on the other side of the river was dismantled by a farmer decades ago, its stones used to build a piggery.
“I decided to turn the sturdy old blockhouse into a home,” says Paul. “My first job was to clear out the snakes and rats, then make a doorway at the bottom. The British soldiers had used a ladder that led to a narrow entrance several metres up.”
Transforming a mini-fort into a dwelling was a work of love and cunning construction. The kitchen and living area is at the bottom, with a fireplace that heats up the three storeys above it. He and Suzette have lived here for 45 years and raised four children in it. It is as snug and colourful as a gypsy caravan. But, for Paul, the best thing is the view over the river, which he adores.
“One of our sons has been nagging us to come and live with him on his farm outside Bloemfontein. We’ve decided to move there now because I am over 80 years old and tired of farming. But I told him we would have gone sooner if he could divert the river there. I’ve loved so much about living here, the blockhouse, the farming, the veld. But it’s the Orange River that I’ll really miss.”
Any water tourist to Gariep should also take in the very pleasant drive to Bethulie where the dam starts, and stand atop the Hennie Steyn Bridge. With its pleasing arches, this is the longest road and railway bridge in the country, and it stands tall and proud over the Orange River far below.
One of the final stages originally envisaged for the Orange River Project was the possible heightening of the dam wall if silt build-up began to limit its capacity, which is why this bridge is so lofty.
It has not escaped the attention of Bethulie residents that if the dam wall ever was made as tall as planned, all that would remain of the town would be their Moederkerk steeple poking above the water. And, of course, this lovely bridge.
Book a dam wall tour with Gert Isaks 078 888 9845.
Take a boat cruise with Wikus Wiese
082 730 6853, 051 754 0190.
Accommodation options (including farmstays) and general attractions www.gariepdam.co.za.
Bethulie’s attractions www.bethulie.net.
This article was first published in our July 2018 issue and is published here for historical interest.
Photos Chris Marais.
For more articles by Julienne and Chris take a look at karoospace.co.za