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YYou’ll see them lining the N10 highway from Colesberg to Cradock in the Karoo. Their little roadside stalls are packed with spinning, silver-wheeled windmill replicas, the ultimate icon of South Africa’s dry heartland. They don’t cost much, they’re low maintenance and by buying one, you’re helping to sustain a decades-old crafting tradition.
Over the decades, dozens of crafters have fashioned the little Karoo windmills (less romantically, but more accurately called ‘windpumps’) you see outside the towns of Cradock, Middelburg and Colesberg.
There is, however, one man who stands out as a legend among windmill makers: Oom Das Mowers, ‘Godfather’ of the Cradock crafters. Although he died in 2002, these roadside merchants remember him well.
‘Oom Das! He was a demon with wire!’ recalls Ben Taks, standing among his miniatures on the side of the Cradock-Port Elizabeth road. ‘He didn't even need a pair of pliers. Oom Das could just bend the wire into any shape he chose, using his teeth. Now that was a man for you.’
Then there's DJ Wiltshire over in Middelburg. A former star loose forward for a jaunty local rugby union team called The Young Kangaroos, he was planning to make a career out of his sport before he shattered his knee one Saturday afternoon during a hard match.
Luckily the windmill bug bit DJ Wiltshire, and he now runs several stalls on the N10 highway. He began by making bog-standard windmills. Now he's producing 5-star ‘DJ Specials’.
He says a backyard windmill is also good for chasing away moles.
‘They can’t stand the noise of the spinning blades,’ Wiltshire reckons.
The traditional Karoo wire crafters’ circle numbers around 15 men. Theirs is a life of feast or famine. During the tourist seasons and holidays, business is brisk. Then, as with most little enterprises in the Karoo, when it’s quiet, it’s deadly.
The next time you buy a little roadside windmill, have a look at its components. Apart from the wire, you will see artfully glued bottletops, parts of spray cans, coffee tins, window blinds and any number of items discarded on the rubbish dump of a small Karoo town. This is recycling in its finest form: making art from trash.
TTravel tips & Planning info
How to get here
The towns of Colesberg, Middelburg and Cradock lie on the N10 highway. Middleburg is a handy halfway stopover on a trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town, as it lies about 700km from Cape Town and 790km from Johannesburg.
What will it cost?
The windmills cost anything from R30 to R150, depending on the size.