Connecting the Karoo: how the internet is changing South Africa’s semi-desert heartland

Back in the Victorian era of the late 1800s, farm life in the Karoo was hard and isolated.

There were great distances between farmsteads, and the families saw each only on special market days and when they held nagmaal gatherings in the local dorpie.

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So imagine, if you will, sitting on such a farm in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but the same-old-same-old spouse, kids and household help for company.

And then you hear, over the veld, the tinkle-tinkle of a heavily laden horse-drawn wagon in the distance. As it comes closer, you see the swaying cast-iron pots, the carefully folded bolts of cloth, the boxes of gunpowder and tobacco.

This was the much-awaited monthly arrival of the smous (Jewish trader), who came with all manner of goods for the whole family to pore over and, possibly, purchase. What’s more, he would bring news from afar.

And when he left, with traded goods like skins and meat in the back of his wagon, a silence would descend on that farm and there would be a touch of gloom.

Things are still the same here in the Karoo.

The Northern Cape dorpie of Philipstown has branded itself as the Wire Car Capital of South Africa.

The distances between farmsteads are still pretty awesome. There is still a degree of isolation, and some farmers’ wives stuck out in the boondocks will drive hundreds of kilometres once a week to attend a quilting session in a designated town.

Anything for live company.

However, the next best thing to the human touch for a Karoo person is good Internet connectivity. Whether it’s broadband in the town or satellite connections out on the farm, we’re a click away from the world these days.

The legendary Plains of Camdeboo – in the Karoo Heartland

And it has changed the survival dynamics radically. Karoo farmers, who have traditionally had the benefit of elder-mentoring and a stint at a university or agricultural school, can now take their information from the Internet as well.

They know the global prices of livestock and crops. They find new markets online. They promote their farmstays to the world at large. And they can now run a number of Internet-linked businesses, a concept unheard of in these parts 30 years ago.

The service industry in operation outside the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda.

They sign up for distance-learning courses and communicate with their friends and family via Facebook and, of course, Skype.

They get their books, their music and their movies from Internet downloads.

This wire and feather Karoo Angel is exported to Norway every Christmas from a railway siding in the middle of nowhere.

Imagine waking up on a Karoo farm, downloading Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze and playing it to the Merinos an hour before breakfast. Don’t laugh. It happens.

A Fish River farmer who runs a number of huge electrically-powered irrigation centre pivots (what they jokingly call central privets around here) can happily go on holiday in Port Alfred and, via a special app, control the flow from a distance.

Downtown Willowmore, where the shopping hub offers free Wi-Fi to customers.

A blacksmith who works by day in his forge writes a blog by night, and attracts droves of visitors to his shop and, subsequently, to his town.
Being web-connected in such a far-flung region has a special cachet. You can enjoy the pleasures and benefits of country living without giving up your connection to the world. And, increasingly these days, you’re able to trade internationally from your isolated spot.

Ha, you say. Things have to arrive at your front door at some stage. And do they still come to you via the smouswagon?

Ganora Guest Farm outside Nieu-Bethesda – talking to the world via the farm website.

Well, in a way they do. Because since the Post Office dropped the ball so badly in the past year, the small courier business has boomed out here.

The rates are reasonable, the services are generally good (because of stiff competition) and all manner of goods are transported to and from your Karoo farm or village address without a lifted eyebrow.

The site of the SKA field of radio telescopes in the Carnarvon district.

Now unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past couple of decades, you would have heard about the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project outside Carnarvon in the Northern Cape.

Here’s one of the coming benefits of SKA: fantastic Karoo connectivity.

Hundreds of homes near the site will get the benefit of high-speed Internet and the ability to make voice calls using satellite.

The isolation of a Karoo farm – balanced with the connectivity of satellite internet.

Farmers in the area initially voiced their concerns about the effect of the project on their traditional telecoms, but this proposed system looks to potentially iron out the problem.

Obviously, the rest of us in the Karoo are watching the SKA developments with eagle eyes and hoping to benefit from all that massive fibre-optics that will be leading to the vast network of dishes that will eventually sprout up over the prairies.

These days, the tinkle-tinkle of the cast iron pots dangling on a distant wagon is more likely to be replaced by the whistle-flute of a WhatsApp call on your smart phone.
But the effect is still the same. It is welcome and useful contact from a distant place.

Featured image: Oggmus via Wikipedia.

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