Water furrows of the Karoo
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.’
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Prince Albert Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)23 541 1366
Nieu Bethesda information:
Tel: +27 (0)49 841 1642
Cradock-Middelburg Tourism & Schreiner House, Cradock
Curator: Brian Wilmot
Tel: +27 (0)48 881 5251
How to get here
The most scenic way to get to Prince Albert is from Cape Town via the R62 to Oudtshoorn, then over the Swartberg Pass. It’s a journey of about 490km, which will take about six hours or more if you stop along the way.
Nieu Bethesda lies approx. 80km north of Graaff-Reinet, which is approx. 670km (eight hours' drive) from Cape Town and 830km (nine to 10 hours' drive) from Johannesburg.
Cradock lies about 250km north of Port Elizabeth (three hours' drive) on the N10, and about 810km (nine or 10 hours' drive) from both Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Best time to visit
The best times to see the Karoo are in the spring (September to October), autumn (April to May) and, for the hardy (because it can get very cold), the winter months of June and July.
Around the area
If you visit all three towns in one road trip, your journey will take you through most of the Great Karoo.
Tours to do
Contact Karoo Connections in Graaff-Reinet for tours to places like the Valley of Desolation.
Driving yourself is the best way to get around and see the Karoo.
What will it cost
Accommodation costs in the Karoo are generally 20% or more lower than in the urban areas of South Africa.
Length of stay
Set aside a week if you can (or at least a few days) for your road trip to Prince Albert, Nieu Bethesda and Cradock.
What to pack
Pack seasonally and informally, and don’t forget to include some good hiking boots.
Where to stay
All three towns have plenty of good accommodation – see the listed websites for some options.
What to eat
Try savouring lamb chops from each region – and see how they differ in taste according to the vegetation they eat.
There's lots on in the Karoo, from the Olive Festival in Prince Albert to the Arts Festival in Nieu Bethesda and the Fish River Canoe Marathon in Cradock.
Check in at farm stalls en route and ask for woolly winter slippers.