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Lani van Vuuren 

A 100 years after Lewis walks the Orange

On 12 December it will be exactly 101 years since Dr Alfred Dale Lewis, former Director of the Irrigation Department (as the Department of Water Affairs was known in 1912) completed his epic journey along the lower end of the Orange River.

This was not just a casual stroll. The water engineer’s aim was to explore the lower reaches of South Africa’s largest rivers for the possibilities of irrigation. Decades later Dr Lewis’ vision would be fulfilled when the Gariep and Vanderkloof dams, along with the Orange-Fish Tunnel were constructed.

“There can hardly be a true South African and certainly no irrigation engineer, with a soul so dead that he can contemplate our greatest river tearing down to the ocean through a vast area of country which is thirsty for water, without feeling that some great effort should be made to design and carry out irrigation works for the Orange River which would rival those famous works of other great rivers in the world,” Dr Lewis wrote in 2012.

His journey started on 24 November 2012, He first travelled by horse-drawn cart from Kenhardt to Pella mission station. It was one of the hottest years on record and the country was suffering from a great drought. By the time Lewis reached Pella on 27 November two of his horses had died.

 From this point onwards it turned out to be impossible to follow the river even on horseback, so Lewis decided to complete the journey – a distance of over 400 km – on foot. For 16 days he travelled alone beside the river, over rough terrain, carrying all his gear. Temperatures reached 41̊C in the shade in some places.

He sometimes managed to procure the services of carriers from Khoi villages dotted along the landscape to help him with his load (in his final report Lewis writes how he had to ‘bribe’ these men with tea and tobacco). When his food ran out he procured goats for slaughter from the passing villages.

Through all of this he kept his sense of humour. Managing to procure a riding ox for a while, Lewis writes how comfortable it is to ride “the only body part tiring being the arm from slogging.” He reached the Orange River Mouth on 12 December, and the detailed report he prepared shortly thereafter served as the main information source for planning for many years.

Source: In the Footsteps of Giants – Exploring the history of South Africa’s large dams

Contact  Lani van Vuuren: laniv@wrc.org.za


Dr Alfred Dale Lewis
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