FROM our veranda we watched the sun setting over the great brown sea, the last sunlight turning the koppie-islands golden and catching the masts of the boats in the yacht basin below us.
After a long day on the hot road through the Free State we had found our way to the most surprising place. Turning off the N1 between Springfontein and Colesberg we swept up over a bult, through a sleepy little dorp with spotless streets …. and there it was.
Perched on the north shore of the mighty Gariep Dam, looking across from the Free State to the Eastern Cape, the De Stijl Gariep Hotel takes its inspiration from the Dutch artistic movement founded by painter and writer Theo van Doesberg, which flourished between the two world wars.
De Stijl was about abstract ideas, straight lines and primary colours and here in the heart of the ancient Karoo the very European design of the hotel reflects this look. But there is a friendly, unostentatious air pervading that is intrinsically South African.
It’s a four-star establishment but one of the lovely, unfussy touches is that if you’re travelling with your dogs, you can book them in too. They even supply a doggie bed for the corner of your room if you haven’t got one.
Having enjoyed the amazing view from our veranda we decided to explore the koppie that drops away to the dam below the swimming pool, and not far down the path we surprised a scrub hare which eyed us contemplatively before bounding away.
Receptionist Michael Mashile explained that the adjacent property was the provincial Gariep Dam Nature Reserve and often wildlife, especially kudu and other buck, wandered across.
The unusual little village above the hotel, also called Gariep Dam, is said to be South Africa’s youngest town. It was built as an “instant town” in the 1960s to accommodate the construction workers on the dam. The very progressive strategy was that “it will be of a good standard to avoid a constant turnover.”
So it was developed replete with schools, clinics, a vet, library, cinema, soccer fields, tennis courts – and a beauty parlour. These facilities still seem to be in place and the whole place seemed intact unlike, sadly, so many of the disintegrating dorps we had passed through.
The town of Gariep Dam is home now to officials from various government departments, primarily Water Affairs and the Xhariep district and Kopanong local municipalities, and staff from the Gariep accommodation establishments. Mashile, who has worked around the country, told me it was “definitely the safest place I have lived”.
In 2010 it was named tourist town of the year. There’s yachting on the dam with national and international regattas, as well as other boating activities. Besides the Gariep Nature Reserve there is also the Free State provincial Tussen-die- Riviere reserve on the east side of the dam and Oviston to the south, which falls under Bhisho.
With a base at De Stijl Gariep Hotel, I learned, you can go gliding, 4×4-ing or horse riding. You can take a tour of the dam wall (and the 13km of passages and halls within the wall) or visit famous conservationist John Varty’s Tiger Canyon. There’s the 1823 jail and Lourens van der Post Memorial Centre in Philippolis, and Boer War sites and the home of dramatist Patrick Mynhardt in Bethulie.
This is an area steeped in our history. Fossils collected before the construction of the dam began date back 150million years and show early human presence.
The dam’s main source, the Orange River, rising at Mont-aux- Sources in the Drakensberg and spilling into the Atlantic at Alexander Bay, was originally called Gariep or “great water” by the Nama. Discovered in 1779 by Col Robert Gordon of the Dutch East India Company, it was renamed in honour of the Dutch Prince of Orange.
In 1830, at Norvalspunt, just west of De Stijl, where the main wall of the dam is today, the Voortrekkers floated their tent wagons across the river on their way to opening up the interior of Southern Africa.
In 1971, the first phase of the dam, the biggest construction job ever undertaken in South Africa, was completed. Built across a gorge in the Ruigte Valley, the “gravity arch hybrid” design was chosen as the gorge is too wide for a complete arch. So flanking walls form abutments to the central arch. Dumez, the French construction company commissioned, used 1.73 million cubic metres of concrete to build it.
The dam that was formed, the largest in South Africa, with a shoreline of 400km, was named after the architect of apartheid and the first prime minister of the Republic of South Africa Hendrik Verwoerd. When apartheid fell the Orange River and the dam regained the name Gariep.
The dam was developed as a cornerstone of the Orange River Project to supply water for drinking, industry and irrigation.
It would inject new life into the parched Great Fish and Sunday’s river valleys via a complex chain of tributaries, canals and a tunnel driven beneath the Zuurberg plateau.
The vision was that it would be a great tourist and recreation facility and would help to check the drift of the population from the country to the cities, stabilising farming communities.
Through a hydro-electric generator it would also generate extra electricity which was “essential to the country’s continued wellbeing”.
Today, remotely controlled by a management office in Germiston 650km away, using a water flow rate of 800m/s, the plant generates 360MW of hydro-electricity for the Eskom grid. My understanding is that there is some argument for upgrading this generation but the major risk is the uncertainty of the Orange River flow.
Creating new dams changes the flow of rivers and in so doing can harm important ecosystems which support people, wildlife and plants. But the argument is that there are about 4500 existing dams in South Africa, of which at least 1100 could be retrofitted to become electricity generators.
Over 20 years, at a cost of five times less than coal-fired power, a 1MW hydro plant could replace about 6000 tonnes of fossil fuels while supplying 1000 households with electricity, the Sustainable Energy Society of South Africa says.
Sitting on the terrace of De Stijl with a glass of wine looking out at the vast Gariep is a good time to consider these things. But we had spotted spaghetti bolognaise on the kids’ menu and the boys were starving so we went inside. It was delicious.
- De Stijl Gariep Hotel’s room charge per night for two people sharing is R1270.