Top Nav

Victorian engineering

By Jennifer Stern

I recently did a road trip through Baviaanskloof in a cute adorable but ever-so-tough bright green Subaru XV, that I picked up from Action Rentals. And en route I stopped in Hankey, where I learned all kinds of interesting things.

Hankey New Sarah Baartman Centre

If you know anything about Hankey at all it’s probably as the final resting place Sarah Baartmans graveof Sarah Baartman, but there is lots more to this little town. It’s the fruit basket of the Eastern Cape – and there’s an interesting story behind that. Hankey is the site of the very first irrigation tunnel ever built in South Africa.

Big deal, you may think. But wait – it was built in 1843 completely by hand-powered tools – basically picks and shovels. And here’s the interesting bit, it was dug from both sides at the same time – and they met in the middle – right on line. Not bad for 19th Century engineering. The tunnel was never lined, no props were used and it was in use for about 130 years till it was closed up when the Kouga Dam was built in the 1970s.

It was all the idea of William Phillip – the son of the well-known London Missionary Society’s John Phillip. There was a small mission station at Hankey but not enough water to grow much, and the Gamtoos River, which flowed past the settlement was too low to allow irrigation. But then William had a bright idea. The river meandered around a fortuitously narrow mountain before flowing past Hankey, and William worked out that – just on the other side of the mountain – the water level was sufficiently high to allow furrow irrigation. So he started digging. Literally. It took about a year to complete the 128m-long tunnel, and it transformed the valley into a veritable cornucopia.

Local tour guide Kobus Kok took me to see what is left of the tunnel and, en route, we passed a beautiful berry and veggie farm. So on the way back we popped in to buy some fresh berries and dried strawberries – yummy. And that’s when I discovered that – I don’t know about other farms but on this farm – packers are colour co-ordinated. Hankey - strawberry ladies

The people who pack the spinach wear green, the people who pack blueberries wear blue but the people who handle the strawberries and raspberries are the brightest and most cheerfully clad workers in the packhouse.

Hanky - Philips Grave

Unfortunately, William Phillip’s story has a sad ending. Soon after the tunnel was finished, he – along with a nephew – was drowned in one of the irrigation channels. We popped in to see his grave, which is looking a bit neglected, but his real monument, is the extensive fields of berries and vegetables and sweetly scented citrus groves.

Comments are closed.