By Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
One of the Karoo’s most obscure tourism attractions is 150 metres underground, smells faintly of fish and is open for only a few weeks a year.
Here, under a distinctive flat-topped hill called Teebus between the small Eastern Cape towns of Steynsburg and Hofmeyr, is the outlet end of the world’s third-longest continuous aqueduct, the Orange-Fish Tunnel.
With its dark underground passageways and a large valve chamber hewn from solid ironstone, it looks a little like an underground film set for one of those old James Bond movies. The ones full of weird machinery and busy men trotting around in overalls, overseen by an evil man stroking a large kitty.
Opened in 1976, the Orange-Fish Tunnel remains one of South Africa’s most outstanding engineering feats, critical for millions of people in the Eastern Cape.
For more than 11 months of the year, an average of 22 cubic metres of water per second from the Gariep Dam thunder through this 82.45km underwater aqueduct under the Suurberg Mountains, supplying the towns of Cradock, Cookhouse, Somerset East, Kirkwood, Steynsburg, Addo, Adelaide, Bedford and the cities of Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth.
The water irrigates crops and dairies in the fertile Eastern Cape Karoo Midlands as well as the multi-million-rand Sundays River Citrus orchards around Addo and Kirkwood.
The Orange-Fish Tunnel becomes a fleeting tourism attraction in midwinter, when the massive cloverleaf intake roller-valves at Gariep Dam are closed. The constant roar of the water quiets to a trickle while a maintenance team from the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) comes in.
Dressed in overalls, gumboots and head torches, they splash through this odd world, with the occasional dead or live fish or crab brushing past their ankles in the deeper tunnels as they caulk tunnel linings, fix holes and replace the worn linings of the pepperpot valves specially designed to control the flow of the water.
During these few weeks, visitors (usually curious irrigation farmers and friends) are allowed to see this exceptional place from the inside, as long as there is someone available to guide them around.
A Long Time Coming
According to the Water Research Commission’s Water Wheel editor Lani van Vuuren, the Orange River Project (building and linking the Gariep Dam and the Orange-Fish Tunnel) happened in part because of the international shockwaves caused by the Apartheid government’s shooting of 69 Pass Law protesters at Sharpeville in 1960. The then government “needed to restore confidence in the country’s economy”.
It wasn’t a new idea though. Back in 1912, Dr Alfred Lewis, who was to become Director of Irrigation, went on a gruelling trip down the Orange River in 41 deg C heat and later wrote a detailed report about the potential of diverting part of the river’s water through a series of tunnels to the Great Fish and Sundays Rivers.
He and many others recognised how it would unlock the potential of the drought-plagued Eastern Cape Karoo, where the soils were fertile, but the rainfall was sparse and the rivers ephemeral.
The Orange River Project was proposed to the government in 1948 but it was dismissed as too expensive.
In the end, it was international pressure and the threatened outflow of foreign capital in 1960 that provided the trigger and R490 million was found to fund the Orange River Project (about R75 billion in today’s money, estimated one water engineer).
The first step, of course, was the building of the dam to tame the mighty Orange. Construction on the new dam, the largest in the country, began in 1965, and was completed in 1971. Initially called the Ruigte Valley Dam, it was later named after Hendrik Verwoerd, and then renamed the Gariep Dam in 1996, using the original Khoi name for the river.
Europe in the Desert
Planning for the Orange-Fish Tunnel part of the project began in 1963, including aerial photography, geological mapping and the drilling of nearly 300 exploratory boreholes.
Entire work camps – essentially full towns – had to be created from scratch. At its peak, the building of the tunnel would involve a workforce of 5 000 locals and foreigners from all over the world – including junior and senior engineers from Britain, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Belgium.
The tunnel construction was considered too huge a project to entrust to one civil engineering contractor to handle, and was split into three.
An Italian company worked on the inlet section (the town became known as Oviston – a shortening of Oranje-Vis-Tonnel). A South African company handled the middle section (based at a work town called Midshaft), and a French company took on the outlet at a town called Teebus, named after the nearby mountain shaped like an old-fashioned tea cannister.
Everything was of the highest standard, with no expense spared. The commemoration book on the Orange-Fish Tunnel published in 1975 notes the townships were “almost entirely self-contained, with their own electric lighting, sewerage, roads, medical clinics, primary schools, administrative staff and artisans’ quarters, all recreational and sporting facilities (including swimming baths, all-weather floodlit tennis courts, football fields etc), housing…, site offices, assembly halls, shopping centres, banks and other appropriate amenities”.
Fire and Mudstone
It also records that the building of new roads “opened up a part of South Africa never seen before by more than a bare handful of farmers on the Suurberg Plateau”.
Department of Water Affairs resident engineer WJR Alexander remarked at the time that this tunnel was “50 miles of risks and unknowns.” He was right. The work was dangerous and had to be remarkably precise.
All the way there were rockfalls of mudstone and sandstone, explosions and floods of groundwater as they drilled through iron-hard dolerite. One methane-fuelled fire burnt for months, and was so hot it melted the rocks.
To this day, no petrol vehicles are allowed into the tunnel. Diesel bakkies are less risky in terms of creating potentially deadly sparks.
No fewer than 102 people died in the building of the tunnel. The Orange-Fish Tunnel commemorative document (1975) reads: “Some who died were from distant lands; the tunnel is their enduring monument.”
Movies at Midshaft
Local farmers still remember the thrill of all these exotic foreigners moving into their midst in the late 1960s. Suddenly there were movie houses, drive-ins, Olympic-sized swimming pools and social clubs springing up. There were musical evenings.
At one stage, more Italian was heard around Venterstad than English or Afrikaans.
Dave van Heerden, now living on Johannesburg’s West Rand, was a young boy when his father started work at Midshaft.
“I still remember the movie house and the shop, like a mini-Makro. There were 150 kids at school with me, all between Grade 1 and Std 5. The weather was extreme. I’ve still got a slide picture my dad took of me in the snow – on 16 December 1970!”
“It also made a big impression on me when they brought in this enormous tunnelling machine from France that cost many millions of rands. It used to move forward on funny little peg legs. I’m pretty sure they ended up leaving it underground in a tunnel somewhere.”
Laser Sharp Engineering
The Orange-Fish Tunnel is so long that engineering calculations had to take the curvature of the Earth into account. Along the length of the tunnel, scientists from the Geological Survey of South Africa noted anomalies in the gravity field, so adjustments had to be made in surveying techniques to minimise ‘levelling errors’.
Engineers used lasers – then a really cutting-edge technology – to keep the tunnel in line as the miners dug through solid rock.
The calculations were so accurate that when the tunnelling teams broke through and met one another, they were less than 4mm out of alignment.
The first water from the Gariep flowed through in 1976.
Farmer Charles Jordaan still remembers the day the tunnel was opened. Everyone stood waiting to see the water. When it came, tons of dammed up fish also came through.
“We caught them in netting and loaded them by the bakkie load. Everyone feasted on carp and barbel.”
The town of Oviston still survives, a quiet place of holidaymakers and retirees who have adapted the old engineering camp’s prefab houses with views over the Gariep Dam.
But the engineering towns of Teebus and Midshaft have long been abandoned, fallen into ruin. At Teebus, where the French tunnelers lived and worked, guarri bushes are slowly taking over the brick and stonework of the recreation centre.
The massive space of the swimming pool is still there, presided over by a tall diving board. Some of the pines, poplars and beefwood trees live on.
A rusted sign admonishes the passing lizards and red-winged starlings that ‘Swemdrag moet ordentlik wees’ (Swimwear must be decent).
There are no real tours, but the Department of Water Affairs does allow small groups to visit when convenient in their work schedules. To make an arrangement, contact the Gariep Scheme Manager in May. And if you go, remember to take gumboots, a strong torch, spare clothes just in case and a camera (with a powerful flash) of course. And owing to the methane levels, matches and cigarette lighters are strictly banned from the premises. No petrol vehicles are allowed underground for the same reason.
More Interesting Facts
- Nearly 2.5 million cubic metres of rock were removed from the tunnel excavation, enough to build two Empire State buildings.
- Every week 14 000 tons of bulk cement was brought in, first via 40-ton rail tankers to three small railway stations around the tunnel, and then trucked by road.
- The tunnel diameter is 5.33 metres, roughly as wide as a train tunnel.
- Lining the tunnels evenly took 842 000 cubic metres of concrete.