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Skipping a century

Andrew Harding | 18:36 UK time, Wednesday, 27 October 2010

We arrived just too late to catch one of the world's great flower shows - when the endless plains burst into a kaleidoscope of colours. But the arid beauty of South Africa's Northern Cape is startling at any time of year.

Turning off the tarmac into the tiny town of Nieuwoudtville, and on towards the brown hills, waterfalls and canyons behind it, felt like slipping back a century, or two.

The high street was deserted. It was Saturday and the farm workers had retired to a tiny white building with a dark interior, where a woman inside a heavy steel security cage served beer to a thirsty crowd. I bought two bottles and tried to take them to the car. A man grabbed them from me, thrust them down his trousers, and headed outside. It turned out he was briefly renting his trousers to me to deliver the bottles safely without contravening a law banning the public consumption of alcohol.

No national grid

We were heading, for a weekend break, to a sheep farm half an hour south of town that keeps a couple of cottages for visitors. The farm has been in the hands of the same family of Dutch settlers for some 200 years. Generations of crumbling gravestones peeped from a rough patch of sand.

It was shearing time for the lambs, and three men were working their way through the flock in a rusty shed, to the roar of a generator - a disconcertingly modern sound. The isolated farm has never been on the national electrical grid. Hurricane lamps are still used at night. Brackish drinking water is pumped to the surface by a handful of creaking windmills.

And yet, it struck me that the farm isn't behind the times at all. Instead it has leapfrogged a century.

A newer wind turbine now provides a fairly steady current to power the family's DVD player and hairdryer. A handful of solar panels store their power in some car batteries. More turbines and panels are planned. It all reminded me of the mobile phone technology that has rendered landlines redundant across much of the continent.

South Africa's power industry is in a mess - dependent on coal, and struggling after years of underinvestment. But I thought of the farm when I got back to Johannesburg (where the sun has shone in a blue sky for almost all of the past six months) and saw a series of articles about plans to capitalise on the country's enormous solar energy potential.

The solutions are out there. Fog-farming anyone?


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