A Karoo Ghost Town

By Chris Marais & Julienne du Toit

The massive Orange-Fish Tunnel that runs 150 metres underground through a flat-topped hill called Teebus, connects the waters of the Gariep Dam to the Eastern Cape.

Opened in 1976, the Orange-Fish Tunnel remains one of South Africa’s most outstanding engineering feats. It feeds the Eastern Cape Midlands and the Sundays River Valley.

Entire work camps – essentially full towns called Oviston, Midshaft and Teebus – 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.

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 even musical evenings.

At one stage, more Italian was heard around Venterstad than English or Afrikaans.

But Teebus and Midshaft have long been abandoned, fallen into ruin. At Teebus, where the Italian 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’ (swimming costumes must be decent).

  • For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the Three-Book Special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R720, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at julie@karoospace.co.za


8 thoughts on “A Karoo Ghost Town

  1. Jane Tordoff says:

    I lived in Teebus for 2 years, was married in Steynsburg and my daughter was born in the Steynsburg hospital. I remember being at the final blasting of the two tunnels meeting between the Midshaft tunnel and the Teebus tunnel. Amazing how the two lined up. Such a shame the town has been allowed to decay but guess there is no other choice. I did visit the turbine hall in 1990 and remember the roar of the water in the tunnel. It was certainly a huge feat of engineering.

  2. Doreen Scott (née Murdoch) says:

    I also worked at Teebus for the Resident Consulting Engineer and my dad was the office manager. It was a sensational year and Mr Cruikshank taught me all I needed to know about Secretarial work. I loved all the engineers and folk working there who spoiled me rotten x. I went back there to the Recreation Centre where I had a large dance party for my 21st. Am sad the town did not survive with all the super amenities and my memories of all the lovely folk I worked with are still with me.

    • Mike Tordoff says:

      Doreen, I think you may have confused Teebus with Oviston. As I remember Andrew Cruickshank was RE at Oviston. The RE at Teebus was Peter Hojem and the office manager was Elise van Zeil. Perhaps your dad was office manager at Oviston. Barry Walton would remember, because he was a Site Engineer at Oviston.

      I vaguely remember that the RE at Midshaft was Alan Payton. Dave Edwards would know because he was a Site Engineer at Midshaft, as was Dennis Knight.

      The team at Teebus were: RE – Peter Hojem; DRE – Jon Wood; Section Engineer (Tunnels) – Hanes Boetha followed by Bill Roberts; Section Engineer (Underground and Surface Works) – Alan Brown (his wife Helena was born in Steynsburg); Site Engineers – Rab Brown, Graham Manning, Peter Botham, me, others whose names slip my memory for the moment; Inspectors – Julius Ungerer, Hanes van der Bank, plus others I can’t remember; Office Manager – Elise van Zeil; Secretary – Nora Wainwright (her husband was a local farmer).

  3. Mike Tordoff says:

    One or two corrections.

    The tunnel actually passes to the east of Teebus copjie. It is more correct to say that the tunnel passes under the Suurberg range.

    The contractor at Teebus was JCI de Penta, which was partly Italian and partly South African. The French contractor worked on the Oviston contract.

    The final breakthrough referred to by my wife was between the outlet heading and the southern heading from Shaft 7 (i.e. the shaft at Teebus).

    I arrived in Teebus in early 1970 and initially worked on the underground works, consisting of valve chamber, turbine hall and a complex of connecting tunnels, but after about three months transferred to the outlet works consisting of the canals, bridges, weirs, inverted syphon and energy dissipation works south of the outlet portal. I left in June 1974 complete with wife, daughter and a wealth of experience and happy memories that was priceless.

  4. Philip Liebenberg says:

    I was eight years old when we moved to Teebus in 1970. We lived there for two years. Our house was next to that of “oom” Neil Botha’s, in the street just below the rantjie.
    My Sub B teacher was me. Knoop, and me. Wrede was my Std 1 teacher. Our schoolmaster left Teebus at the end of 1970 and was replaced by mr Karel Senekal.
    I remember mr Alan Brown very well. I also remember the swimming pool, kantien, parents playing badminton, oom Vossie driving his Beetle, the vygies growing on the sidewalk in front of our house.
    I also remember Elmarie van Vuuren, the blonde girl in my class whom I admired.

    My parents were Hannes and Marita Liebenberg.

  5. Freddie Storm says:

    We in stayed in Midshaft and left in 1974. People I can remember! Griessels, Diedericks, Wendy Ellis, Lilian, Linda Liebenberg, Izak Van Heerden, Wim Kers, Fouches, Carol Brill, De Villiers stayed next door to us.

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