If you mention Deneysville, many people narrow their eyes and slowly shake their heads. Mention the Vaal Dam, and a light goes on. Deneysville is often stereotyped as a stop-over for fishermen and dam-shore campers, or as a playground where the rich build their mansions and launch their yachts. But somewhere in-between is the town’s true character – a place of families and interesting people.
Text and photography: Leilani Basson
The little Free State town of Deneysville is beaconed by the majestic Vaal Dam wall that was completed in 1938. Construction started during the Great Depression in the early ’30s to create jobs for impoverished farmers.
What few people know is that Deneysville was the site of SA’s first “international airport”. The dam was used as a base for flying boats, from 1937 to 1950, by British Imperial Airways. The planes mostly delivered mail that had to be distributed to the rest of Africa. Landing on the dam saved the cost of building an airport.
From that time the town expanded and went through various phases of boom and gloom. But it was always an aquatic haven for people with an affinity for water and adventure, resulting in interesting people from all walks of life settling here.
Bryan Marshall is Deneysville’s weatherman. In his neat thatched loft room, he monitors the weather with all kinds of interesting digital equipment, relaying the information to anyone who wants it. He is also a radio ham who has used this valuable resource in saving many people from certain death in stormy seas. He even assisted the sailing legend, “Biltong” Bertie Reed, on his ocean races several times.
“I started sailing as a boy seaman in the Royal Navy when I was only 15,” says the 78-year old Bryan, leaning back in the cream leather chair in front of his antique writers’ desk.
It is here that he spends most of his day. He is a fountain of knowledge with a fascinating and varied life story, once he opens up enough to share it.
In the Royal Navy, he specialised as a maritime navigator and also served in submarines.
“He is also a musician and theatre director,” says Bernice, his lovely wife.
After a few years in Somerset West, the couple sought a quieter life in a village that also offered a “marine” lifestyle. Deneysville on the Vaal Dam was the perfect place.
Bryan and Bernice welcome school groups and visitors to share in his passion for understanding and predicting the weather, and learn the basic rule of weather safety: “When thunder roars, go indoors.”
Many people draw artistic inspiration from a life at the Vaal – among them Julien and Rosemary Girard. They own a studio gallery in Deneysville, where Rosemary offers art workshops and tuition to like-minded people.
“That is how we started,” laughs Julien, a real French gentleman. He is editor and publisher of Deneysville News and was chairman of the Deneysville Tourism and Business Association for 37 years.
“We wanted to offer something for tourism and had a huge shed that we could use. We asked a friend from Clarens to stock it with his paintings. Rosemary and I then decided to also start painting and it turned out that we were quite good at it. That was 14 years ago. I never thought I would turn out to be an artist, after many years of owning a boat-building operation and marina.”
Not surprisingly, Julien loves painting watercolours of yachts, boats and flying boats.
Another accidental “artist” to emerge from the enchantment of Deneysville is Nico Moolman, historian and author of eight books.
“Six years ago, I started creating a book for my children and grandchildren containing family photographs, history, anecdotes and hand-written recipes from my mother, aunts and grandmother,” says Nico. He is a storybook character himself – the type that would be used to depict the perfect grandfather, Geppetto or Father Christmas in a children’s tale.
“At the printers, an editor from Coral Publishers spotted my work. I was only going to print a few copies for my relatives, but he wanted to publish it.”
The book, Kuier in ’n Plaaskombuis, is now in its fifth print edition.
More books followed — all accepted for publishing before Nico could even finish writing them.
“I have written a children’s book, two short story collections and a book about the history of the Afrikaner vrou as depicted on a quilt that my wife, Naomi, made for the War Museum in Bloemfontein.”
The Boer Whore is the story of Susan Nell, a teenage rape victim in one of the British concentration camps in the final days of the Anglo-Boer War. She became one of the world’s first female psychiatrists and champion of the women victims of the Second World War’s Japanese “comfort stations” in their Asian campaigns.
“My last published work is called South Africa at a Canter… a Cultural Rhapsody. It is a journey through South Africa’s cultural heritage and museums.”
Nico has just finished writing another book and has already started on the next.
John Boswell is another resident whose dreams came to fruition in Deneysville. John built the first motorcycle museum in Africa two years ago and has so far lured 15 000 visitors to see his collection of vintage and racing bikes. It tells the history of motorcycles and highlights the great names in the sport of motorcycling.
The museum is in the grounds of Lake Avenue Inn, a beautiful bed and breakfast establishment. This is where visitors will find John, surrounded by motorcycle engines in his workshop next to the museum.
“I service all these bikes myself,” says John, a real character with his long hair and cowboy hat. “They are all in running order.”
Breakfast runs to Deneysville are very popular and bikers flock to the Lake Avenue Inn on Sundays.
The clear night sky over Deneysville is a huge stargazing attraction. Deon Serfonteyn, the local astronomer, regularly hosts stargazing evenings. Deon welcomes everybody, whether they have a telescope or not. Just observing him at work with his hi-tech equipment and telescopes makes the outing worthwhile.
On the shopping front, Mienna’s Ietsie van Alles is a bric-a-brac shop with the most beautiful antiques “at the best prices”. Owner Egmont Heydenrych travels far and wide to find pieces for his shop.
Danica’s Boutique is a must for any woman who loves something different — very different. All Danica’s fashion items are sourced overseas by owner, Vanessa Csaszar. She sells handbags, sandals and dresses with a difference.
Ready for a snack? Well, Deneysville has a lot to offer. Visitors looking for a dining experience with an ambience should visit Die Pappot. This is Sarie Niemand’s “pension plan” that just happened on their stoep.
“When Louis and I retired, we started thinking of ways to supplement our pension money. Since I’d been in catering for many years, we decided to enclose the stoep area and turn it into a quaint little restaurant with a real farm kitchen feel. Well, that’s what we did and we have never looked back.”
Sarie’s fish dishes are a highlight on the town’s menu, and Sunday lunches are always booked out well in advance.
The Country Kitchen in the main street offers an array of pizzas with a twist, like the Bikers’ Breakfast Pizza that was created to provide a bit of “lining” to bikers over weekends.
Sunday lunches here offer real value for money, and many residents make use of Country Kitchen’s “takeaways with a difference”. They drop off their plates before church and pick up their scrumptious, traditional Sunday lunches on their way home.
As far as resorts and camping facilities go, Deneysville has something for every taste and budget. Vaal Prive is one of the newer establishments that boasts self-catering, villa-style, three-star accommodation in a pristine resort with a wide variety of water sports and other activities.
Guests can choose from kayaking, sailing, motor boating, skiing, aqua tubing and barge boat trips on the dam.
Vaal Prive also offers boat storage and launching facilities, a gym, a swimming pool, trampoline, clubhouse with indoor activities, flat screen DStv, braai and picnic areas, scooters, dune buggies, a double-storey party boat and bicycles.
This is a good base for an extended visit to the Vaal Dam and the surrounding areas.
Manten Marina is another popular holiday spot. It is situated on the banks of the Vaal Dam and has three walk-on jetties, harbour moorings and open roadstead moorings.
For personal service and professionalism in the aquatic arena, Dicky Manten is the man to speak to. A legend in the Deneysville area and a friend to boat owners countrywide, Dicky offers harbour and swing moorings that are well maintained and can be adjusted as required.
Standing at the harbour overlooking all the boats and yachts, it is easy to forget that you are not at the sea, but at the Vaal Dam… in the Free State.
SA has so many underrated dorpies and towns, and Deneysville is one of them. This is not simply a fishing or boating destination. It’s a place of character, charm and fun in the sun for those with a soft spot for water sports, or who just like to be close to water.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Vaal Prive: 083 2977 286
Nico Moolman: 082 421 7001; www.nicomoolman.net
Bike Museum: 016 371-1115; www.lakeavenueinn.co.za
Die Pappot: 073 153-5982
Danica’s: 083 688 3142
Studio Gallery Girard: 082 464 8606
Castle Marina Wedding Venue: 082 5585377
Bryan Marshall: 082 695 5158
Crocodile and Lion Ranch: 082 801 7070
Country Kitchen: 084 764 4267
Weltevreden Lion Farm: 082 823 1038; www.lionfarm.co.za
The Vaal Dam lies 77km south of OR Tambo International Airport. The lake behind the dam wall has a surface area of about 320 square kilometres and is 47m deep.
The dam is on the Vaal River, one of SA’s strongest-flowing rivers. It has more than 800km of shoreline and is SA’s second biggest by area and the third largest by volume.
Construction of the Vaal Dam started during the depression of the early thirties and was completed in 1938. The wall height was initially 54,2m above the lowest foundation and the dam had a capacity at that time of 994-million cubic metres.
It is a concrete gravity structure with an earth fill section on the right flank. It was built as a joint venture by Rand Water and the Department of Irrigation (now the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry).
The dam was subsequently raised in the early fifties to a height of 60,3m, which increased the capacity to 2,188-million cubic metres.
A second raising took place in 1985 when the wall was raised by a further 3,05m to 63,4m. The capacity is currently 2,536-million cubic metres and a further 663-million cubic metres, or 26%, can be stored temporarily for flood attenuation.
The flood attenuation properties of the dam were severely tested in February 1996 when the largest flood ever recorded at the Vaal Dam was experienced.
An inflow of more than 4700 cubic metres per second was measured into the dam, which was already at full capacity. It was only through the expert management of the hydrology staff that the maximum flood released from the dam was limited to 2300 cubic metres per second. Flows above that would have caused serious damage downstream.
The situation became extremely tense as the storage in the reservoir peaked at 118,5% of full supply capacity on 19 February 1996.