How to hold the forked branch.
The unwelcome and now familiar news is that in many parts of this country, severe drought conditions exist, and water restrictions continue to apply, or are now being imposed.

Weather experts predict the climate is changing in a way that could bring more, even worse, droughts. Any water that we can find underground is going to be vitally important. Therefore, we need people able to harness the power of water finding, often called “water divining”.

You, too, can find water. An acknowledged expert in water divining maintains that 30% to 40% of the population have this mysterious ability to find underground water by “dowsing”. If that is so, then there’s a fair chance that you, the reader of this article, can do it, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Admittedly, water divining or dowsing is a strange talent, and has been ever since it was first recorded in 16th century woodcuts. Surprisingly, at the start of the 19th century, a local government board in England gave official recognition to the practice.

In 1927, the London Times ran a leading article on the subject, Dowsers and Doubters, and the paper was immediately flooded with letters from readers who said they had used water divining successfully for years, and from others who denounced the whole thing as bunk, or worse, dabbling in black magic.

Glasgow University Professor JW Gregory told how contractors working on the foundations of St Paul’s Cathedral in London had used a water diviner to find the position of water under the crypt. But, he then hastily emphasised he was one of the “doubters”.

To this day, many scientists find it hard to believe in something as difficult to pin down as dowsing. To call it an inexact science, some say, would be to pay it a compliment.

However, if you talk to most rural people about water-divining, they’ll ask what all the fuss is about. Their fathers and forefathers used water diviners as a matter of course, therefore, why shouldn’t they?

South Africa is no different. On the platteland, waterwys is an accepted and respectable profession. In an article in the SA Water Borehole Journal in 1982, the opinion was expressed that there were about 50 competent and experienced diviners in South Africa, and probably thousands more who were unaware of their latent divining abilities.

In one region of the country where rainfall is the exception rather than the rule, Bushmanland, famous water diviners of bygone years were Jakob Kaptein, Johannes Nel and Jakob Nel. In the Sutherland region, the name of Burret le Roux is renowned for his ability. In the drought-ravaged regions of KwaZulu-Natal, it seems Thomas Ncube has been finding water for 20 years or more. As reported in a local paper in 1983, Ncube worked for a drilling company run by Hugh Moore, who said that over a two-year period he had sunk about 320 holes, of which at least 200 had drinkable water. Among other prominent names are KZN diviner Oscar Danielsen, who discovered he had the gift in 1947 and Raymond Stone of Hammarsdale.

At the height of the 1984 drought, Joep Joubert of Grootvlei, then 74 years old, had been finding water for 30 years without using the traditional forked stick. He simply “saw” where the water was.

During the drought that hit the Midlands in 1993, it was reported how diviner and well-driller Lloyd van Schalkwyk was in great demand throughout the region. Van Schalkwyk said he had got into water divining by accident when he was only 16, when an old diviner had handed him a pair of rods and said, “Now you try”. He still uses brass rods, and has a 100% success rate. He prefers to call himself an “aqua-geophysicist”. At the time of writing Van Schalkwyk was in Malawi on a seven-week water project.

All sorts of people find they have the gift of water divining. In 1983, Anglican priest Ken Parker had helped his bishop by finding water at a parched church farm at Springvale.

A priest? Why not? The writer’s late uncle, a canon in the Anglican church, no less, was matter-of-fact about water divining. He could do it, and there was no mumbo jumbo about it. It was a God-given gift Ralph Whitlock, of Devon, England, explains how to make the most popular kind of dowsing instrument, a forked “twig”. He says it should be of some whippy, flexible wood such as elm, hazel, or willow. The pointer (the central part of fork) could be 1 to 2cm thick at the tip, tapering to just under 1cm at the ends of the arms. The pointer might be 15-20cm long, and the arms each 30cm long. But these dimensions need not be exact. The wishbone-shaped twig (called a mikstok in Afrikaans) doesn’t need to be of wood. Twisted wire, or even rods of brass or aluminium, have been used successfully. But Whitlock claims that metal instruments might possibly not be able to distinguish between underground water or buried metal.

How is the fork held and used? Grasp it by the ends of its arms with your palms upwards, thumbs on top of the wood. With elbows braced against the sides of the body, try to bend the arms of the fork further apart so it is in a state of extreme tension. Walk forward. If water is underground, the pointer will either point downwards or move up and hit you in the chest. Some dowsers say that if you walk against the direction of the underground stream, the pointer goes up, while if you walk with the flow it goes down. Others say that a downward movement means that the water is polluted.

Mark the spot where the first reaction is felt. Then walk back from the other direction towards that spot. Again mark the spot where a reaction is experienced. A point midway between the two markers is the location of the underground water.

The fork does not react to bodies of open water and it’s not essential to work outdoors, it can be done inside a house.

D St Leger-Gordon, of Devonshire, says many natural faculties remain unclassified by science. He gives as an example the instinct which guides a young migrating bird on its first journey.

It’s interesting most water diviners seem indifferent to, or actively resist, publicity. It adds to the aura of mystery - and doubt - that surrounds their craft. Perhaps the time has come for a programme of scientific, organised research on the subject.