Subscribe to 021's newsletter:

CITY SAFARI Going for the source of the Liesbeek - adventure in the city


Bernard Franz - Oct 4th 2013, 02:57

The Liesbeek River

“Down by the river, in the dark shades, the story of the Ganga from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of … the quest of the mind, … of the richness and fulfilment of life as well as its denial and renunciation, of ups and downs, of growth and decay, of life and death.”
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s Prime Minister

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
Heraclitus of Ephesus, 535–475 BCE

“The holiest river is the one closest to you.” – Rob Brezsny

Today’s adventure travel is a lot about reaching peaks, personally and literally. Thousands clamber up Kilimanjaro or Mt Fuji to boast of catching a sunrise above the clouds. The fascination with reaching the top (and less so the dreary bit of having to schlepp back down again) differs from what pushed serious explorers in the 18th and 19th centuries in Africa. Their road to prestige and riches followed the course of a river rather than that of a towering peak, as they tried to discover its source and to link it with its mouth. It was the successful exploration of the Kongo, Niger, Zambezi and Nile that brought fame to the likes of James Bruce, David Livingstone, Mungo Park and Henry Morton Stanley.

South Africa never had many river explorations in its colonial history. Although today you can raft a section of the Orange River and go kloofing the Cape’s clefts, few have emulated the explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was with this idea in mind that I set out to follow the Liesbeek, Cape Town’s gem, from its mouth in Paarden Island to its source somewhere on the flanks of Table Mountain.

I start on Paarden Island one early summer’s morning. I park the car near the Milnerton Flea Market, off Auckland Road, and find the surprisingly clear waters of the river that heads towards the open sea in a long sinuous curve. I negotiate my way down its steep concrete bank onto the fine sand and walk towards an overpass bridge that supports cars, and trains. At the end of the tunnel the river gives way to a deserted beach, and a sweeping view of Table Bay.

Only a few minutes into my adventure, I can’t help but stand in awe of this display. To see the energy of a river hit an ocean is a fundamental experience. It’s about coming to an end, letting go, or clinging on, be it a cape, or be it a river. The confluence causes the waves to move differently, lets the colours mingle, and offers a new perspective of ships and the city and of Bloubergstrand. The clouds seem to float differently. This is not a stretch of postcard Cape Town often visited by people with a camera in hand. In fact the little deserted beach gets covered at high tide, only leaving rows of concrete protectors, so-called dolosse (a local invention, South Africa’s pride), and towering sedimented walls of plastic bottles with no sign of rotting away (it’s shame).

Moving back out, still followed by the smell of the ocean, I begin the journey running. The first 3km stretch follows the wide sweep expanse and solitude of the river towards the N1, which in this part is aptly called Salt River due to its brackish water. It soon submerges under a new barrier of train lines and freeways. I follow Paarden Island Road, which connects to the Ysterplaat Metrorail Station by an overpass, which at this time of day is teeming with commuters heading for the industrial zone. I go against the current, knowing little of what lies at the end of the train station. But there again, people lead the way, as I realise that there is a human river next to that of the Salt, Black and Liesbeek rivers. I join it as they jump off the platforms, onto the tracks across railway lines towards the spaghetti junction of M5 and N1. They squeeze through a gap in a fence, walk across a bridge, before some of them rush across the road, while others jump up a white plastic bucket flipped over onto another Metrorail platform, that of Maitland. Their agile movements appear to be some kind of urban parkour, but this is neither sport nor romance. To sit in a car watching people risk their lives as they run across freeways is one thing, to be amongst them and see it from their angle quite another. In any case, this just shouldn’t be happening.

MP3: MC Solaar: “Nouveau Western” (album Prose Combat)

Another realisation is that of sound. The bridges of the M3 lend rhythm as vehicles clack clack across their metal joints. Shrieks of seagulls create high pitches, wind tickles the dry grass to create a fine rustle similar to that of a musician caressing a drum with fingernails. Trains screech to a halt, trucks give oomph and bass. I remember “An American in Paris”, the Gershwin tune inspired by traffic on Place de la Concorde and Champs Elysees. Here too, there is a concert, an opera, a musical.

From the bridge above the river, I follow a walkway on the right bank, planted with acacia trees. The water is wide, shallow and transparent. I see green algae clinging onto its ground, like the hair of an underwater siren, combed by its flow and a strong wind. Past open-air metal pawnshops and container depots, the river bank reaches Voortrekker Road. This is where I turn right, all the way to Salt River and back towards the Liesbeek River Parkway. It now is the closest route to stay near the river, as the original one on the banks of the Black River into Oude Molen and across a foot bridge into Valkenberg, where Ingrid Jonker once wrote “I drift in the wind”, is no longer accessible since the M5 was enlarged.

After 6km it’s time for a break. At the intersection of Station Road and Liesbeek Parkway I turn into the River Club. In terms of the Liesbeek River, this is a must-stop. Walking past golfers hitting balls towards the Snowflake flour factory, the river has divided into two. I am on an island, one arm infested with South American water hyacinths, and another cleaner one, separating the River Club from the South African Observatory, supposedly the first European scientific institution in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s 19th-century library is renowned for older scriptures on the night sky, but the building is facing the wrong way: its plans were commissioned in England before artificial light filled the night sky. That is why the sunny side faces south. In our hemisphere no one seemed to notice this error until the building was all but finished.

I try to avoid being hit by golf balls (this is not the time of day when the experts are practising) and reach a bird-watching hut opposite a huge willow tree adorned with cormorants and seagulls. This tree grows on an island, a sort of mini-delta officially demarcating the confluence of the Liesbeek and the Black.

And Black it is. Coffee at the River Club, and a rather greasy breakfast.

After that I take to the freshly designed Two River Urban Park. On the Liesbeek’s shores I see an African spoonbill stalk in the muddy water, while some hockey players gather for school practice in Hartleyvale Stadium to the backdrop of the drama that is Devil’s Peak. Past the SA National Circus, under the N2 into Mowbray, the joggers and bikers lessen. Reaching Rosebank, the Liesbeek suddenly tunnels into the Liesbeek Parkway and disappears.

And so do I – into a different world of people living with the river. Nowhere does the river feel so immersed in “normal” people’s lives, those who don’t just use it for leisure. Under a huge fig tree someone is taking a nap. As I approach, he wakes up and asks me for R5. Nearby, a couple washes their clothes in the water and spreads them out to dry. It smells of grass. Purple loosestrife, a pest yet beautiful, adorns the banks; a solitary sunflower grows on the river’s shores. Near a railway crossing, now cooking in the sun, a group of people roll away their matrasses and hide them under bougainvillea. Opposite the Riverside Mall in Rondebosch, another group sits in a circle by the river, talking and braaing their late breakfast.

MP3 choice: Björk: “Army of Me” (album Volta)

Across from Checkers, once past Belmont Road, the river properties become a tat more upmarket and the security features more ostensible. Accessed by a nicely-designed walkway under ancient oak trees, I encounter people walking, running and biking. Some are young students, speaking African languages; others are elderly, out on their bikes. There is a lot of shade now, an almost tropical density, and a first public bench at Roslyn Road. I count the attractions as I zigzag along the river’s shores: Newlands Rugby Stadium, SAB Brewery, Josephine’s Mill with its old watermill, and eventually the Newland’s pool. Kids scream in the pool, someone splashes, the lifeguard whistles, people are frolicking. Kilometre 13.

It’s fairly easy to measure the kilometres I run, but the length of a river itself is of a different matter. With plenty of turns and swings and side arms, a river is not easy to track. A few years ago an Italian artist, Alghiero Boetti, tried his luck to gauge the 1000 longest rivers of the world. He later commissioned Afghan women to weave an outlandish, large embroidery with name, kilometres and positions of all 1000 rivers, which was subsequently exhibited at MOMA. According to this the Vaal is the world’s 112th longest, the Limpopo the 58th and the Orange the 50th. Of course there is no mention of the Liesbeek. It might well be one of the shortest in the world that runs through a city. Some estimates give it 9km, others 14, depending on where the count starts and ends. And yet, at Sans Souci Road (“without sorrow” indeed), behind the Newlands pool, I see why it could also be one of its most beautiful.

MP3 choice: Bebel Gilberto: “River Song” (album: All in One)

The lush walkway ends here and I need to choose between right bank and left bank. Of course it must be the left one. And soon it is time to check into another institution, the Vineyard Hotel. Situated in an area where property owners manage to exclude the public from the river, the Old Dame Vineyard at least offers access to its riverfront, its gardens and terrace, full of lovebirds, open for those ready to spend on its menu. As I watch the ancient tortoises on the lawn I realise their particular feeding technique: as they thrust their head forward, without moving the heavy body even an inch, they rip off the grass by suddenly jerking their mouthful back into its shell.

Replenished by a light lunch of salad, I am back on the road.

MP3 choice: Schubert’s Die Forelle (The Trout), or Smetana’s The Moldau

Across the M3, which isn’t called Paradise Road for nothing, a nice surprise awaits. Just a couple of months ago, residents of the Liesbeek Bishopscourt Village finalised a project to add some beauty to this part of the river by financing meandering walkways, plant clivias from resident gardens under shady pine trees, and add a touch of indigenous ecology by integrating golden Table Mountain sandstone as river banks. Reaching the bottom of this little secluded kloof, I watch dogs splash their heavy fur standing in the little river while children jump from stone to stone with their grandmothers.

Further along, as a thicket of ginger plants prohibits any further access of the river while the nearby road moves away from it again, I decide it’s time to go for a walk on the wild side.

I refuse to use the road and move right into the thicket, only to realise immediately that this will get wet. There are no stones in the middle of the river to use as steps, and the water is deep. The banks are heavily overgrown with alien plants that make this look, for an instant only, like some equatorial rainforest. And so be it. I begin to wade through the water, knee-deep, barely dodging raspberry vines and spiky acacias. Some huge properties with massive electric fencing on my side, the jungle continues. At one point I am in someone’s garden, at another I clamber back down the river bank into the damp, moist world of an African river. This does feel like exploration at last, and I’m ready to face my first pygmies.

Instead I see a young guy, pimply face with massive untamed hair, sitting on a conglomerate outcrop above the river, reading Wuthering Heights. No kidding. Dressed in a positively 19th century outfit with beige bulgy trousers, black leather shoes, blue socks and a patterned shirt, he takes no note of me, as I stumble along, centimetres away from him, my legs dripping of mud, encrusted with sand.

Eventually I get out of the jungle and am back on grass – a clearing, surrounded by oak tress. Leaves tremble in the wind. The clouds are moving in. There are few people in sight, all I see are big dogs walked by big men, and yet there is something surreal about this place. How did this clearing come into being? Suddenly I trip over a weathered tile, sticking out of the ground.

The river by now really is no river any more; it’s a creek at best. It even disappears for a few metres under some heaps of pebbles before it comes out lively again as if nothing had happened. A few hundred metres up, I enter a graveyard on its side, and stand in front of a cute old stone church. The door is closed, and a panel in a window reads: “No cash is being kept on premises”. Another window shows some indigenous flowers, a protea. As I walk around the building I come to understand that the protea was chosen for a reason. A signboard explains very briefly that this is the Church of the Good Sheperd, established circa 1884, built by the people of Protea Village, who came here to worship until they were displaced by the Group Areas Act of 1950. More than 120 families had lived here for centuries as lumbermen, then caretakers of Kirstenbosch. Today a few come from the Cape Flats to gather at the church for Sunday services. Soon there will be a museum recounting their history, perhaps a few will move back to an erf here or there, but for the present their story is not very visible. The signboard reads: “I give to you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.”

Across Rhodes Drive lies Kirstenbosch against an eastern escarpment of Table Mountain already shrouded in mist. I walk up to its upper parking lot, aware that the creek is inaccessible from the street, fenced off. Just before I reach the upper parking lot, I see a bridge on the right with a little sign prohibiting my access. Right, that’s it. The last final ascent to find the source of the river.

(No soundtrack other than the Liesbeek)

At this point there are many, many rocks and very little water. It takes two turns uphill, before the water disappears for the first time. This is when I realise that from now on, it’s not just about seeing the Liesbeek, but also listening to it. If I hold still, I hear its murmur. I follow it, and find the creek again, barely a trickle on this hot summer afternoon. Gone again … there it is. The forest itself is rather dry. Rocks are encrusted by lichen, and there are many dry leaves on the ground. As I gain in altitude, at times crossing a service lane of the forest next to Kirstenbosch, I need to leave the bed of this overgrown creek more than once, my legs soon cut by vines and old dry branches of bushes. I listen again, and hear in the background, like a big cloud, the noise of Cape Town, a shadow of civilisation not very far away, too amorphous to separate into bits.

I always wondered what a source really looks like. Is it a feisty little blubber emanating from the earth, a bit like a mini geyser spouting about? Or is it more like a big swamp that oozes indiscernible amounts of muddy moisture to all sides? Imagine the disappointment some of those explorers must have felt when they reached the latter. But even then, apparently, emotions ran high. Such is the account of James Bruce, who declared to have found the source of the Blue Nile on a rather featureless Ethiopian plateau. Unfazed by this, he got so excited that he ran straight into a moist depression in front of his eyes, only to trip on a root, and to fall with his full body, face first, into the mud. He staggered up, cleaned his attire as good as he could, got his servants to pull out a bottle of wine and a glass from some piece of luggage and gave a toast to Saint Mary, the queen of Russia and the queen of England.

As I move along and further up, without any sign of blubber, geyser or swamp, I wonder about my sanity. What am I doing here? Meanwhile the mood of the forest changes. Soon the dryness gives way to steeper, greener slopes. I climb up, patches of grass now under my feet, and moss. Rocks are getting slippery, and yet the trickle that is left of that river shows no sign of abating. It gets darker too, as the clouds that had moved in all late afternoon begin to block out the sun, which in any case is now behind the mountain.

And then it all ends. First with a sudden outburst of air, wind shaking, rattling the trees. Then when a drop falls, then two. I see them on a rock. First they only widen into a blotch, then gravity pulls them towards the ground. Another drop, another exclamation mark painted on rock. I listen to it, and the murmur of the Liesbeek trickle now faintly begins to echo in the forest. Drop after drop after drop, jumping from leaves onto the ground, first covering up its tracks, before joining with what was left of that creek that I have followed up the escarpment of Table Mountain.

Of course I don’t know what it sounds like, but this was the moment when, exhausted and tired, with cuts and bruises on legs and arms, with shoes full of mud and irritating, itchy seeds, and thirsty, I imagine I can hear the universe laugh at me. “So,” it says, “you want to see the source, well here it is: look around you, listen to it. There is none … or if you so wish, then it is everywhere. Every grass, every leaf is a source, every cloud is one, every ocean wave that brought this moist air is one. Look further than this mountain, perhaps you should look towards the southern Atlantic, perhaps at the tilted earth and its rotation which cause the seasons, perhaps at the sun itself. But truly, don’t even think of finding it here.”

MP3: Richard Strauss, Eine Alpensinfonie, opus 64

It seems from this episode, that at the end of a journey a drop of spirits is always preferable to a sip from the source. And so be it, I think, as I eventually take refuge from the rain at Kirstenbosch Café. I didn’t fall into my source, and I didn’t have a servant carry wine glasses about, but I sure ordered a cold bottle of beer, brewed from Table Mountain spring water, on the banks of the Liesbeek River, ever since 1658, and say cheers to that. And to that as well.

Extra info

This obstacle (parcours) sport first reached fame in Parisian suburbs in the 1990s, later to be followed by appearances in movies such as Casino Royale. In Cape Town, parkour groups meet at the Muizenberg Pavillion or at UCT. To get in on the swing, phone Core Factor on 071 538 9690, or Parkour Cape Town on 083 564 9063.

Friends of the Liesbeek River
For more info on this very active volunteer group who want to further rehabilitate the river, visit

SAB Newlands Brewery
To find our more about brewing along the Liesbeek River since 1658, join the “Brewmasters Walk” tour, Wednesday evenings at 6pm. Sundowner brewery tours on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 5pm. Normal brewery tours, weekdays 10am, noon, 2pm, Saturdays 10am. 3 Main Road, Newlands, 021 658 7440


the cape town opera one & only rupert museum the fugard theatre addis in cape cape philharmonic orchestra cape town ballet cape tourist guide connection Grand West Casino sanlam village & life aubergine iziko kirstenbosch gardens baxter theatre table mountain aerial cableway arts and culture artscape rust en vrede south african national parks vida cafe