Where does the water on Table Mountain come from? Part 1/3

Jul 28, 2023

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 deals with the occurrence of streams on Table Mountain, their significance to hikers and their role in shaping the mountain.

Table Mountain hikes often follow watercourses, sometimes aiding progress, but often complicating an ascent. During winter, dry watercourses transform into cascades and sometimes raging torrents.

Hiking Table Mountain in these conditions accentuates the hydrology of the mountain and the erosive forces of running water. The mountain seems to come alive with the sound of gushing streams, and the choral chirping of frogs greets you at every turn.

Table Mountain Water Discovery

To the Cape’s indigenous people – the Khoi pastoralists and the San hunter-gatherers – the area now occupied by Cape Town city centre 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 he had ascended.

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.”

Where does the Table Mountain water flow to?

It was the water running down Platteklip Gorge that induced the Dutch to settle at the foot of the mountain in 1652. They built a trading outpost that grew to become the bustling metropolis of Cape Town, Mother City to South Africa. Five streams rise on Table Mountain, draining down different sides of the mountain.

  1. The first is the Varsche (Fresh) River, a confluence of three smaller streams on the front of the mountain: the Platteklip, the Silver and Capel Sluit. Cape Town owes its existence to the Varsche River.
  2. The second stream, the Liesbeek, drains Table Mountain’s luxuriant eastern slopes.
  3. Then there’s the Diep and Spaanschemat streams, both flowing southeast towards False Bay.
  4. Table Mountain’s largest stream, the Disa, drains southwards into Orange Kloof before debouching in Hout Bay.

When did Cape Town build its reservoirs?

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 – 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 made to drive a tunnel through the Twelve Apostles to abstract the waters of the Disa Stream, 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 vital 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. 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 and drains, its sweet water going to waste in the sea. A new initiative is currently underway to put the water to use.

How can I get to the Varsche River?

The Varsche’s main source, the Platteklip Stream, still cascades down the lower stretches of Platteklip Gorge (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 waters serves as a welcome refreshment to overheated hikers. Hiking Platteklip Gorge in summer, with a late start, makes you realize the value of streams on the mountain.