Did you know?
The Gariep Dam stores about 5 500-million cubic metres of water and has a surface area of more than 370 km2 when full.
The thing about the Gariep Dam (aka Lake !Ghariep) is that although it is South Africa’s largest standing body of fresh water, it’s also a ‘secret in plain sight’.
A marvellous lake like this would normally be awash with waterfront developments, yacht clubs, waterskiers, a string of cruise operations and hordes of fishermen. However, except for some local weekend activity near the small town of Gariep itself, it’s blissfully quiet out here.
Oviston, on the eastern shores of Gariep, competes passionately for title of ‘South Africa’s Sleepiest Hollow’. Established originally for the dam workers who built the Gariep Dam in the 1960s, Oviston has become a secret spot for retirees, holiday fishermen and the occasional boater.
Once you’ve puttered out in your cruise boat from Oviston to the vast waters of the Gariep and dropped your fishing line, you could be right up there in exotic Africa, possibly in Lake Kariba or somewhere once frequented by the likes of David Livingstone, the missionary explorer.
Let’s say it’s early morning in the spring month of September... You'd be hoping to land a largemouth yellowfish or an Orange River mudfish or, possibly, a moggel or a sharptooth catfish. They’re the ‘usual suspects’ that live in the waters of the Gariep.
Mist is rising off the lake as you sip hot coffee from the thermos and look across the waters at the Oviston Nature Reserve, a 16 000-hectare wildlife area on the Eastern Cape flank of the dam.
You can expect to see a selection of springbok, gemsbok, zebra and hartebeest coming down to the water’s edge to drink. Any twitchers in the group can expect to see Verreaux’s eagles, fish eagles, blue cranes, secretary birds and steppe buzzards, to name a few species that thrive around Gariep.
Later on in the day you might take a game drive through the Oviston Nature Reserve for more sightings of the plains animals. Lucky encounters – most often in the early evenings – may include bat-eared fox, porcupine, mongoose and clawless otter.
Two other wildlife areas around Gariep Dam are Tussen-die-Riviere and the Gariep Dam Nature Reserve – both on the Free State side of the water. The long-term vision is to amalgamate these three nature reserves into a conservation area that will span more than 85 000 hectares.
Possibly the highlight of a day at the Oviston Nature Reserve is a sunset cruise. Through the golden filter of a dusty late afternoon, the waters and the wildlife you see take on magical tones. It’s Africa completely at peace with itself...
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Oviston Nature Reserve
Tel: +27 (0)51 655 0000
Eastern Cape Parks
Tel: +27 (0)43 701 9600
How to get here
Heading south on the N1 from Johannesburg, take the Gariep turnoff approx. 190km south of Bloemfontein. Drive 50km to Bethulie on the R701 and then take the R390 to Oviston, which is approximately 50km south of Bethulie. The reserve entrance is at the town.
Best time to visit
Visit the Oviston Nature Reserve in spring (September to October) or autumn (April to May) for best blooms and most pleasant temperatures. It can be very hot in summer (November to February) and very cold in winter (May to August).
Around the area
Visit South African War (also known as Anglo-Boer War) concentration camp sites at Norval’s Pont and Bethulie for an insight into a crucial time in South African history.
Self-drive: the roads are in mostly good condition and having your own vehicle gives you many route options.
What will it cost
Accommodation is inexpensive in the reserve, with cabins costing no more than R250pp per night and campsites going at R35pp per night and the Komweer Lodge at R480 per night for up to four people out of season.
Length of stay
Set aside at least one full day and a night for your visit to the Oviston Nature Reserve.
What to pack
You’re going to be near water and in the bush, so pack accordingly. Always take something warm to wear after dark.
Where to stay
The reserve has an old farmhouse, various cabins and a camping area available. Oviston has self-catering options, while in the town of Gariep town you can stay in the De Stijl Gariep Hotel, which is full of character. There are also a number of lakeside accommodation choices – see the listed websites.
What to eat
Each of the little towns along the Gariep Route is proud of its meats, biltong in particular.
There are many festivals in the area during the year – check the listed Gariep Route website for details.