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Notes on the Geography of South Africa: Upington and Augrabies Falls

We're a bit over 400 air miles north of Cape Town and west of Johannesburg. That puts us in the northwest corner of South Africa: the nearest large town is Kimberley, 200 miles to the east. We're here for a waterfall--they're a personal weakness--but since this website doesn't do nature photography (bluntly, it hardly does photography, period, at least photography worthy of the name), we'll also poke around Upington, two pokey hour's drive upstream from the falls and a bit of a refuge: it's a late settlement of Boers, ever ready to divert a river (in this case the Orange) to irrigate a bit of desert. Think vineyards. Very green.

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We're on our way out of Kimberley. The town is Campbell, site of an early mission where David Livingstone preached in the 1830s. The mission was established by John Campbell of the London Missionary Society in 1813, but it seems that the Boers were hot on his heels. Who else would build a church of this severity?

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Next town: Griquatown or, more commonly now, Griekwastad. (Chalk up another Boer victory.) The sign over the doorway reads Kgathlane Cultural Tourism.

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Facing it is the London Missionary Society's station from 1805. A Dr. and Mrs. Moffat lived here: the link to us is that their daughter Mary was born here in 1821. She married Dr. Livingstone, to whom we have the potboiler connection of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" The mission lasted until 1895, when this building was sold. About a decade later, in 1904, it was sold again, this time to the Bank of Africa.

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The bank was getting ready to move to new quarters when a letter arrived in 1956 petitioning the bank to allow the townsfolk to convert the building to a museum. The authors "desire the preservation of historical buildings" including this one, "the last one still standing of those which were erected by the London Mission Society at the beginning of the last century." The bank said OK.

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Rear view; the stonework on the street side appears to have been part of the bank's conversion to a museum. Back in mission time, it was probably whitewashed like this. The thatching was apparently also part of the bank-to-museum backward step in time.

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Lots inside, including this pulpit.

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Onward to Brandboom.

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Here we meet the Orange River, which has already run 1,400 miles from the Drakensberg in Lesotho. It's another 100 miles, or a bit less, to Upington.

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The road network is better than anything you'll find in thousands of miles, but go back a century and you'd be arriving in Upington by train.

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There's very little traffic now, and none for passengers, but the line is strategically important for Namibia, whose sole rail link to any other African country comes this way. It's the Transnamib railway, extended this way after World War I when South Africa took over the administration of German Southwest Africa. North of Windhoek, the rail line dead ends at the Angolan border.

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Upington itself began as another mission station. Here's Schroder Cottage, home of the founding missionary. He arrived in the 1870s, when nobody had ever seen a hot tin roof.

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Shroder's portrait hangs in the nearby museum. The sign notes his major role in the development of irrigation canals.

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You can see why. Without the river, settlers here would have starved.

Sidenote: the runway is the longest in Africa and longer than any in the U.S. It was built in the days of Apartheid, when most African countries denied landing right to South African Airways. This was the first spot available to them after the Mediterranean, and the airline's 747s needed an especially long runway because of the heat and altitude (about 800 meters).

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Maybe "starved" is too extreme, but you get the idea: water is life here, and there isn't a lot of it away from the river.

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The missionary's tombstone. (Residents caution against solo visits to the cemetery, which adjoins the railway station. It's a wretched comment on the real or imagined state of South Africa today.)

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Another sidenote: there is a Jewish section here as in cemeteries all across Africa. The diaspora was a lot wider than New York and Montreal and Montevideo.

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Here's Shroder's church, now the Kalahari-Orange Museum.

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Job cases, platen press, paper cutter. What for, you ask?

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Here's at least part of your answer. North of the Orange, Gordonia was an 18,000 square mile administrative district of British Bechaunaland. Why call it Gordonia? The answer is that the Orange River was named by Col. Robert Jacob Gordon, who named it in the late 1770s. He covered a great deal of ground but never apparently saw the great waterfall. Named governor of the Cape Colony, he later committed suicide when held responsible for the loss of the colony to the British.

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Upington grew to have a more substantial church. The denomination is, of course, Dutch Reformed or Nederduits Gereformeerde.

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Older houses in town have the incomparable charm of gardens sustained by an abundance of water and cheap labor.

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Smack in town: an irrigation canal.

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Time to look more closely at the river. Yes, that's the moon, rising at dusk.

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A weir (and bridge) near Kanoneiland, "cannon island."

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Canal headgates.

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Cannon Island vines.

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Many of the local grapes are dried, rather than pressed.

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It seems entirely a case of letting the sun, rather than ovens, do the work.

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Very little acreage is devoted to other crops, but here's an exception: a date garden--a pretty good indicator that it never freezes here.

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There are stretches along the river where the ground is too uneven for reclamation.

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A locally iconic quiver tree, Aloe dichotoma.

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Farmhouses here are usually located just outside the irrigated swath. Some have elaborate ornamental gradens. Not this one.

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Same road, a few miles farther along. The owners can look out their windows and almost forget they're in a desert. Pretty amazing.

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There's always a downside: housing for the farm workers.

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Out of nowhere, churches. Here's one at tiny Neilersdrift.

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A river-blocking ridge permits a dam and this small reservoir.

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Here's the dam, a recent replacement of the pioneer Kakamas Dam.

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Plaque.

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Here's the guy who built the original. He was "Japie" Lutz, trained in Germany as a missionary but later attending a craft school and working as a cabinet maker. Age 22, he moved to Upington, where he worked under Rev. Schroder on early canals. Without formal engineering training, the two laid out Upington as well as the irrigation canals on which the town depended. Lutz died in 1939, not long after receiving an honorary university degree at age 90 for his work at Upington and Kakamas.

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A local settler, Piet Burger, devised a water wheel copied many times along the local canals.

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Almost biblical.

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Not far downstream, the river is bordered by bare rock and patches of sand. Explanation? Once a decade or so, the river floods, scrapes everything clean, but leaves a veneer of sand here and there. Almost lost in the shade on the left, a pump to lift water from the river is mounted on rails so it can be hoisted to safety when the river rises.

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A better view.

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How's that for burnished granite?

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One of those days.

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Do you get the sense that the river is getting excited?

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Whoops.

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Say hello to precambrian Africa.

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It's as historic as the Grand Canyon, but cleaner.

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While we're at it, here's a glimpse not of the past but the future: this is KHI Solar One, a 50 MW concentrated solar power plant. Between Upington and the waterfall, it's owned jointly by a Spanish company, Abengoa, and South Africa's Industrial Development Corporation. You can see it from miles away, and for a few minutes it can be baffling: painfully bright, monolithically silent, a bit like the opening of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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I'd rather sit in some shade downstream from the falls, if I can find some, after checking of course for puff adders. The waterfall is a bit undisciplined, and you're looking at some supplemental streams finding their own ways downhill.


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