The gurgle of a Karoo water furrow in action is an unmistakeable sound that will immediately remind you of hot summer days and lounging on the wide porch with a lunch of lamb, cheese of origin and olives – and perhaps a glass of chilled white wine to top it all.

Did you know?

Prince Albert furrows are fed by 'Die Fonteintjie' (the 'little fountain' in Afrikaans), which is a stream running down from the Swartberg range.

One of the most special features of certain little towns in the Karoo – South Africa’s dry heartland – is the old water-furrow system.

You’ll see how, on a summer’s day, children are drawn to these ingenious networks of gravity-fed furrows that send water coursing through the streets. There’s normally a quickly constructed paper boat or even a cork to hand, which is sent floating down, with youngsters running alongside it.

The water furrows of the Karoo are fed by dams, rivers and mountain streams in the vicinity. They were mostly designed and set up in the 1800s, and access to water from a furrow is and was jealously guarded and treasured.

Of the many Karoo towns that used to have functional water furrows, the three most prominent that still operate part of their water systems this way are Prince Albert, Nieu Bethesda and Cradock.

In Prince Albert, the legend goes, your leiwater (water furrow) allocation times are strictly set by the church clock.

At some time in the distant past, two farmers nearly came to blows because of disagreements about whose watch was fast or slow – and who, subsequently, was getting the wrong end of the stick. It was subsequently decided that the Prince Albert Dutch Reformed Church timepiece would be the arbiter when it came to water-furrow time.

In Nieu Bethesda, deep in the Sneeuberg range, sweet water comes tumbling down from the mountains into the village via the water furrows. As you walk around the dusty streets of Nieu Bethesda in the evenings, you will hear the unmistakeable gurgling of the water in these furrows.

The stream water, after all, made the existence of this iconic little settlement possible.

The famous man of letters, the late Professor Guy Butler (a legendary South African author, lecturer and poet), grew up in the Eastern Cape Karoo town of Cradock, where the Bree Street water furrows are still fed by the Great Fish River that flows past.

In Karoo Morning, Butler writes about the water furrows in front of his grandmother’s house: ‘The sun could be blazing on Bree Street, but the furrow under the beefwood trees would be cool. So one naturally took one’s playthings into the furrow with one.

‘There is a family story of Grannie pulling a sopping Butler grandchild out of the half-full furrow, both its chubby fists full of her silver teaspoons.’

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