Windmills of the Karoo & Kalahari

carnarvon, northern cape

Text and Pix by Chris Marais

If you are ever on a lonely road in the Great Karoo at the day’s ending, find the nearest roadside windmill (more precisely, a ‘water milling wind pump’) and stop beside it.

You will hear, in the far distance, the call of the blue crane. In the middle distance is the raucous good night bark of the baboon.

Right here, next to you, fresh water gurgles out of a pipe and into a cement dam. Above you, the old Southern Cross creaks and groans as the day cools, hot metal contracts and meerkats pack their pups away for the night.

compassberg, karoo
This old fellow has the eternally beautiful Compassberg in background.

And then a monster Mack truck belonging to Pietie Potgieter & Sons comes thundering past and knocks your sundown reverie for six. Welcome to the Heartland

If you have become a lover of the Karoo, then the sight of a windmill anywhere in the world will always remind you of the vast open spaces between Oudtshoorn and the Orange River.

You think lamb chops, Victorian houses, craggy mountain ridges, dirt roads and donkey carts. And there’s always a snaggy-toothed old windmill around to hold the landscape together.

Of course, life out here is always about the water. The windmill is the Great Matchmaker between the marriage of the land and the water beneath it.

botterkraal farm, karoo
The windmill at Botterkraal Farm outside Prince Albert, where the late outsider artist Outa Lappies used to live.

Some children in the Karoo have never seen the rains. But when it comes, let me tell you, there is no better place on Earth to be.

The skies darken, as velvet folds of cloud swoop down from Angola, across the Kalahari. First drops pock the dust, that ineffable scent rises, fragrant and welcome as fresh bread.

So delicious is the aroma of new rain that some Karoo people are known to pick up smears of earth on their fingers to taste it.

The dead lands come to life. Within days, within hours, this part of the Karoo is dancing again.

karoo drought
The Karoo in times of drought and winter, when the windmill really works.

The rain comes on legs,” say the Bushman. Which is a blessing and a curse for a Karoo farmer.

Oftentimes, a set of rain clouds will walk through a valley, dropping life as they pass. Then they will hopscotch over the next one, leaving the lands as parched as they were before.

Karoo people have their particular ways of foretelling rain:

  • The tortoises are more active;
  • The ants are busy on the ground;
  • The Queen of the Night cactus comes out in bloom;
  • The langasem (or gysie) grasshopper begins his little diesel generator call three nights before rain;
  • The nights are too hot, even for stoep-sitting;
  • The blue cranes fly high and the swallows swoop low over the ground;
  • The bloukopkoggelmander faces north.
kalahari windmill
One of those monster Kalahari windmills, photographed through the open window of an old farm Land Cruiser by Julienne du Toit.

Some farmers avoid working on their windmills because they’re tough to fix and it can get windy and dangerous up there on the platform.

Others have become windmill experts. Like Oom Leon Swanepoel of Carnarvon, who is also known as The Water Doctor of the Karoo. Read his story HERE.

  • For more stories on life in the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black in white) by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at

2 thoughts on “Windmills of the Karoo & Kalahari

  1. Suki V says:

    I love windmills – I think of them as beacons and life bringers. When visiting the Karoo from overseas, I love stopping near one and watching everything gathered close. Often wishing in the heat I could clamber through a barbed wire fence and sit in a cattle trough.

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