The Beervlei Dam

The empty Beervlei Dam

Have you driven past the Beervlei  Dam near Willowmore in the Eastern Cape?

Were you as horrified as I was to see this empty dam? And if you were, did you also think it was another case of gross mismanagement? I was completely ignorant about what a marvellous feat of engineering this dam is.

The Beervlei Dam is one of South Africa’s most maligned installations, because of ignorance.

The dam in its normal empty state – the wall has no water to hold back

Most people drive past it, and are horrified, because it is EMPTY. Yes, the dam is empty, and all sorts of stories are told about it; that there is a serious drought, that it is badly managed, that is has holes in the wall, etc.

The Beervlei Dam is supposed to be empty.

It is a flood control dam and was built in the 1950s, to help protect everything downstream from it, when good rains do happen.

As happened in January 2022, when record levels of rain fell in the area. Then it was about nearly full, and because of it, everything downstream from it is safe.

An unusual sight: The Beervlei Dam with water in it.

Yes, safe. Without it, farm land would be swept away, and the odd town would be damaged by the ensuing floods. The water was not to be stored, and kept, as in most dams. The water from the January rains, all of about 50 000 cubic metres of it ( 500 million odd litres) would have been  released slowly, but surely, so that it could be used for good. And then the dam would be empty again until the next good rains, which may only happen in ten years’ time.

The little read information board at the dam.

It does not supply any towns with water. Considering that this the dry, almost desert like Little Karoo, you will think that strange, or a waste of precious water. The water from the Beervlei Dam is used for irrigation by farmers below it, and would be welcomed by farmers, but they do not rely on water from this dam, this water is an unexpected gift, and would not be available after a few weeks. This dam was built purely as a control mechanism.

Why? Why waste what seems a precious commodity?

The Karoo soils have a high salt content. If the water is stored for a length of time, it is ‘contaminated’ with salt, making it useless for irrigation, so it is released as fast as possible in a controlled manner, making farmers happy for a short while.

Satellite image of the empty Beervlei Dam. Note the dry countryside.

Beervlei Dam is on the Groot River  ‘Groot’ = Big in Afrikaans. Have a look at it on Google Earth – it sure is big!) which is a tributary of the Gamtoos River. The Groot River starts at the point where the Kariega River and Sout (Salt) River meet, although the river is called the Sout River until it enters the Beervlei Dam. On exiting at the dam wall, it is called the Groot River.

 It was established in 1957, and has a capacity of 85,800,000 cubic metres, and a surface area of 23.145 square kilometres. The dam wall is 31 m high.

The pretty little towns of Aberdeen and Willowmore.

The name – why, what, how? Why Beer? Translated into English, the name is Bear Marsh Dam. The question was asked on my Face Book page, and various suggestions were made. The most logical being that it was designed by, or commemorated a Mr de Beer. Or maybe Mrs de Beer. Another suggestion was that it was named for its shape, that the curved dam wall looked like half beer cans, or as a friend suggested, maybe there was a nearby spring that bubbled out like beer.

But it turned out to be neither, and linguistics came into play. I have a head full of useless information, and I remembered that other places of interest in the area were named after animals, so why should it not be named after an animal? A ‘beer’ in Afrikaans is a bear. Not such a good theory after all – South Africa, as all of Africa, does not have bears, so that didn’t make sense.

Again my brain went to work. In the old days, when the first Dutch settlers were in SA, and did not know much about different animal species, a hyena was called a ‘wolf’ (also wolf in English), the plural being Wolwe, and still today many place names are called Wolwefontein and such like. A leopard was a ‘tier’ (tiger), and in many areas, the colloquial name for leopard is still ‘tier’. In Port St Johns, an area just outside of the town was originally called Tiger Flats, because leopards were common there. But what was called a ‘beer’?

The local Khoikhoi name for the area is Udigaugau, which means Antbear Vlei (vlei is Afrikaans for marshland). The Antbear is the African version of an anteater. It looks a bit like it was designed with left over bits from other animals. Its long snout is used to smell out ants, which it licks up with its long sticky tongue. Its shaggy coat keeps it warm during the cold Karoo nights and its long claws are used to dig burrows, and to get at ant nests. Its rabbit like ears complete this strange looking animal.

But, the Afrikaans name for antbear is ‘aardvark’ (ground/earth pig), not ‘aardbeer’ (ground bear – Africa doesn’t have groundhogs either). Where did the ‘beer’ come from? At last the answer was found. A male antbear in colloquial Afrikaans is called a ‘beer’, a direct translation from part of the English name. Had the dam been given an English name, it would have been: Male Antbear Marsh Dam. That is a quite a mouthful – I think Beervlei is a much nicer name.

And just for once a South African historical and indigenous name is used, even it is the Afrikaans translation of it.

To get to the dam take the N9 and head north from Willowmore, or take the N9 south from Aberdeen.

A typical Karoo Road

By Kathryn Costello

I travel. I read. I get up to mischief. I write about what I have been up to. I also have fun writing down the stories that I told my daughter when she was little about a dolphin named Michaela. I am a tourism consultant. Owning and managing a successful guesthouse, working for tourism organizations and travelling has given me a lot of insight about what makes a tourism orientated business successful.

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