The waters of Table Mountain – Part 1: Early Days

May 25, 2012

In my next three blogs I will briefly trace the story of Table Mountain’s water, from the role it played in the establishment of Cape Town to its coming of age as a city. The final instalment will deal with the occurrence of streams on Table Mountain, their significance to hikers and the part they play in shaping the mountain. 

Part 1: Early Days

To the Cape’s indigenous people – the Khoi-Khoi pastoralists and the San hunter-gatherers – the area now occupied by central Cape Town was known as Camissa, Place of Sweet Water, as anyone who has drunk from Table Mountain’s streams would attest to. When Portuguese explorer, Antonio de Saldanha, climbed Table Mountain in 1503 (the first European to do so) to get his bearings, he was delighted to find a strong stream flowing down the ravine (now known as Platteklip Gorge) by which he had gained the summit, more than enough to water his fleet. The bay at the foot of the mountain, present-day Table Bay, became known as Aguada de Saldanha, Watering Place of De Saldanha. Dutchman Wouter Schouten, who tasted the water on the mountain in 1665, had this to say about it: “We found it quite sweet and exceptionally pleasant in taste… Our heavenly liquid now tasted better than ordinarily does the most exquisite drink in the world.”

It was the water running down Platteklip Gorge that induced the Dutch to settle at the foot of the mountain in 1652, building the first structures of an outpost that became the bustling metropolis of Cape Town, Mother City to South Africa. Table Mountain gave rise to five streams, known by the Dutch as the Varsche (Fresh) River, draining the north face (front); the Liesbeek River, rising on the eastern slopes of the mountain; southeast ran the Diep and Spaanschemat Rivers, while the Disa River flowed southwards. It was the Varsche River that sustained the Dutch settlement. Carrying the waters of the Platteklip Stream – and bolstered by two tributary streams, the Silver Stream and Capel Sluyt – the Varsche was soon channelled by the Dutch to water their fruit and vegetable gardens. 

As the settlement grew, so did its water needs. By 1849, water was so scarce that Cape Town’s street services ground to a standstill. Three reservoirs were built – in 1851, 1860 and 1881 respectively; the latter still in use – to solve the city’s water problems, but they failed to quench the thirst of the ever-increasing population. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and in the early 1880s the decision was reached to drive a tunnel through the Twelve Apostles to tap the waters of the Disa River, whose huge catchment ensured a perennial and substantial supply. 

As can be seen from the above, the streams flowing off Table Mountain, especially the Varsche River, played a central role in the birth and development of Cape Town. Sadly, the city has shunned its erstwhile lifeblood. The last remaining Dutch canal, the Heerengracht, was covered in the late 1850s; and the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in 1901 saw the last stretch of open watercourse go underground, never to be seen again. The Varsche River now flows beneath the city, confined to stormwater tunnels, its sweet water going to waste in the harbour. A new initiative is currently underway to put the water to use. 

The Varsche’s main source, the Platteklip Stream, still cascades down the lower stretches of Platteklip Gorge (it being subterranean higher up) above the city center and makes for an impressive sight when in full spate. It is one of only a handful perennial streams on the mountain, swelling to a torrent after winter rains and dwindling to a seep in late summer, when its crystalline waters serves as a welcome refreshment to many an overheated hiker.

(Part 2 deals with the escalation in the city’s attempts to tap Table Mountain: the building of the reservoirs on top of the mountain in the 1890s.)