For visitors driving through South Africa’s arid Karoo, a delightful new tourism route running around the Gariep Dam reveals more than ‘big water’: historical sites, eccentric country types, a plush hotel, waterside herds of antelope and wide-angle landscapes to thrill the eye.

Did you know?

The Gariep Dam, completed in 1971, is the largest dam in South Africa. 'Gariep' is an ancient San word for 'great water'.

Perhaps the most beautiful dam in South Africa, the Gariep Dam lies between the Free State and Eastern Cape provinces.

This massive piece of water covers more than 370 sq km when full, and can store nearly 6 000-million cubic litres, giving life and flow to the Great Fish River, the Sundays River and, the mother of all South African rivers, the Orange.

It was officially opened in 1971 and overflowed for the first time the next year. In 1975 an 82km tunnel was opened, sending water from the Gariep into both the Fish River Valley and the Sundays River Valley.

Overlooking the great expanse of water is the town of Gariep Dam, established in 1960 for the resident labour force. As the youngest town in South Africa, Gariep Dam has become a popular holiday resort, and is home to about 600 people. On a ridge overlooking the dam is the De Stijl Gariep Hotel, a surprisingly cosmopolitan establishment you would probably expect to see in a large city more often than a tiny Free State village. It is popular with locals, contractors working the area and visitors to the dam.

At the waterside is a Forever Resorts holiday camp, complete with chalets and boating facilities. Nearby is the Gariep Nature Reserve, which runs around part of the dam.

Two more lakeside reserves (the Oviston Nature Reserve and the Tussen-die-Riviere Reserve near Bethulie) will one day combine with the Gariep Nature Reserve to form nearly 100 000ha of ‘wilderness at the water’.

The other great attraction of Gariep Dam is in the air: there’s an airfield with a double-tarred runway, and the kind of aerial conditions that make the district ideal for flying gliders.

International gliding championships are held there every December, and a number of world gliding records have been set in this area.

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