At this time of year, for more than 100 years, residents of Greater Hermanus have looked anxiously at the prospects of rain to replace the water used during the dry summer months. The issue of water supply is found on the agenda of every meeting of every city council or village management board in this area, from the start of their histories.

This is because the area experiences such fluctuations in consumption between seasons. Monthly consumption in the four summer months is twice the consumption in the winter months. The huge variation arises from two main sources: the influx of holiday home owners and other visitors during the holiday period and garden watering by residents in the summer months.

As a result Greater Hermanus has to have access to water supply, purification facilities, storage capacity and reticulation to meet the highest level of demand, and which is not fully utilised for the rest of the year. This is just one of the many quirks in the history of water supply in our area.

At the beginning

The first European settlers reached Hermanus in 1855 and for the next 40 years the slowly-growing village used water from streams that rose to the surface at several points along the cliffs. The most famous of these is the one discovered by Hermanus Pieters, and from which Hermanus is named. Then, in 1896, Hermanuspietersfontein (as the village was then known) started its modern development path and its ever growing demand for water. Dr. Joshua Hoffmann opened a sanatorium, which later became the Windsor Hotel. In the same year Walter MacFarlane opened the first guest house in Main Road, his own house, that later became the Astoria Hotel. In 1903 Valentine Beyers and Walter MacFarlane built the Marine Hotel. Immediately, guests and patients started to come to Hermanus in numbers and the little streams were no longer a satisfactory water supply.

Hermanus local authority

Hermanus gained its present name and status as a municipality in 1902. The new Council responded to the demand for water, and a reservoir was built across the Main Road, the present Gateway Shopping Centre (it can still be seen there, painted green). Water was pumped into it from the Onrus River and from springs in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, which were on land acquired by the Municipality for this purpose. Water was also obtained from a spring in what is now the Vogelgat Reserve. Because of the use of the Onrus River, the water supplied to residents was ‘brown’, which was disconcerting to some visitors. One wealthy visitor claimed that “it felt like bathing in sherry”, and another complained that she could never tell when her children were clean in the bath. The Municipality built public laundry facilities in four places in the town and supplied clear water to them. The laundry of the Sanatorium and the hotels was done at the ‘wasbakkies’ as they were known. Remains of wasbakkies can be seen at the bottom of the cliffs below Swallow Park in Marine Drive and in Fernkloof.

Other local authorities

The villages to the east of Hermanus had their own local authorities and created their own water supply by building three dams on the Mossel River, in what is now Fernkloof Nature Reserve. These were master-minded by P John Luyt, owner of the Marine and Riviera Hotels and long-standing chairperson of the Village Management Boards of Poole’s Bay (Eastcliff) and Mossel River (Voelklip). The middle dam is named after him: the P J Luyt High Arch Dam. These are still in operation, but their water is not used for human consumption.

To the west, Onrus village and Vermont built their own water system, drawing on four springs on the Onrus Mountain and continued to use this supply until 1975. As the streams originated underground the water was ‘clear’ – Onrus never had ‘brown’ water. Middelvlei (now Hawston) also made do with spring water until the 1970s, initially from a spring near Herries Bay (Hawston Harbour) and later from a spring on the mountainside above the village, after which it obtained water from the de Bos Dam. In the 1950s, Fisherhaven obtained water from a dam on the Afdaks River, which ran through the Delport’s farm, also called Afdaks. This arrangement lasted until 1976.

Modern Times

In the late 1960s the Hermanus Municipality looked at no fewer than 8 possible sources of supply and eventually decided to pursue the construction of a dam on the Onrus River, at a locality called de Bos. A total of 78 objections were registered against this plan, from farmers who feared the loss of their riparian rights and from other residents and businesses. But in 1973 a "Water Court” took place under Judge Marius Diemont. In his judgement he authorised the Hermanus Municipality to build a dam not exceeding 6 million cubic metres in capacity. Work began at once and the first water from the dam reached consumers in 1976. As a purification plant had been built as part of the project, clear (colourless) water was available in bulk in the Greater Hermanus area for the first time. One resident remarked that at last he could see what a whiskey and water actually looked like.

More demand

The Greater Hermanus area has grown spectacularly in the period 1980-2015 and even the de Bos Dam was soon inadequate. Attention then focussed on ground water, pumped up though boreholes from the immense aquifer underneath Hermanus. This possibility had been thought of as early as 1950 when a geologist named C J Warrington investigated faults in the rock surface in the area of the Golf Course and identified a source of water. The Municipality drilled three boreholes on the Golf Course and found plentiful supplies. However, the water contained too much iron and had to be chemically treated on site before going to the purification plant for mixing with water from other sources.

The Municipality appointed specialist water consultants in 2000 and with their guidance very productive boreholes have been sunk in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and near the Gateway Centre. At present some 45% of the water consumed by Greater Hermanus comes for underground. Elaborate monitoring takes place continuously in real time so that steps can be taken immediately if there is any sign that the underground source may be being depleted. Undoubtedly, Greater Hermanus will demand yet more water in due course. Perhaps desalination will have to be considered, though expensive electricity in very recent times has made that a less attractive possibility than it once seemed.

This article is part of an ongoing series presented by the Hermanus History Society and is written by Dr. Robin Lee. A longer illustrated version of the article is available as a pdf file from him at robinlee@hermanus.co.za If you are interested in the History Society please contact the writer by email or on 028 312 4072.