Vision of riverside loveliness
Cape Town - Andre Brink is a man with a vision. He wants to stand in the grounds of a restored Vissershok – the historic farm dating from 1683 that started as a VOC (Dutch East India Company) trading post – and see the waters of a rehabilitated Diep River lapping at the walls of the farmyard and people enjoying the tranquil scene with its views across the rolling hills to Table Mountain in the south.
These visitors could sit under trees listening to music, sampling the wares of a traditional farmers’ market or paddling boats on the placid river, watching the rich birdlife in the adjoining wetlands.
But the Durbanville farmer knows it will require a massive amount of work and huge sums of money to turn that dream into a reality through restoring what are now mostly dilapidated architectural remains and rehabilitating the severely degraded river.
And – arguably equally challenging – there’s the need to negotiate a maze of red tape and bureaucracy in getting all the necessary statutory approvals for this project, which will involve the co-operation of half-a-dozen-plus government departments.
“I like to preserve old things, but they must be of practical use as well. Being on a working farm – that’s a real joy for me,” Brink explains.
That’s why he has turned for help to a consulting team headed by Cape Town lawyer Clarissa Molteno that includes environmental, aquatic, hydrological, heritage and engineering specialists.
Brink’s family has owned the equally historic and now beautifully restored farm, Groot Phesantekraal, since 1897. It was granted by VOC governor Simon van der Stel to first owner Captain Olof Berg in 1698. Brink acquired Vissershok in February and says he was very unhappy to see how the 680ha farm, with its rich history, was deteriorating.
Vissershok was initially a VOC trading post, and a big walled yard constructed in 1683 – large sections of it are still intact, although repaired in many places – was probably a cattle kraal. The first wheat to be grown in South Africa was sown on this farm, and the farmhouse, substantially altered but retaining features of its original T-shape Cape Dutch design, dates from 1768.
There’s a real restoration challenge in the walled farmyard because the northern and western sections were built on a bank of the Diep River that has been severely impacted over the centuries and is now prone to major flooding.
One of Brink’s first actions after buying the farm was to remove hundreds of tons of silt that had piled up over the farmyard. It was several metres deep in places and covered much of the historic wall and also an old graveyard.
The Diep River system has its own fascinating history. Originally, its lower lagoon section at Milnerton joined up with the Liesbeek River and Black River along the alignment of the present-day Zoar vlei, with its mouth some three kilometres south of its present position.
As its name implies, it was a substantial river with a channel too deep for guns and cavalry to cross, and fishing boats and small sailing ships – possibly barges – are believed to have navigated as far as Vissershok, collecting and delivering cargo that would have included wheat and cattle. One of the previous owners told Brink that during the late 1960s he’d seen the mast of an old ship sticking out of the floodplain at the farm, but since then this area has silted up completely – “So we’re not sure that it’s still there,” he says.
Abuse of the river started as early as 1690, when its banks were cultivated, and the removal of riparian vegetation combined with poor land management resulted in extensive erosion and the silting up of the river, its wetlands and the lagoon. It’s a problem that has continued until today, and silting around Vissershok is so severe that no-one is sure where the original watercourse is.
Other problems include severe invasive alien bush encroachment into the catchment upstream.
“We want to put the river back into its original course and I’d like to open it up so that it can run through here again,” says Brink. “It’s such a beautiful spot to be in, I want people to be able to use it and admire the views, and I want the whole farm restored so that people can enjoy this heritage. The question is, what is the right phase to start with?
“I want advice on that.
“So I’ve asked Clarissa for a kind of road map of how we can get to where we want to be at the end of the day. And I don’t want to step on any (legal) toes,” he adds.
Molteno, a former legal adviser in the provincial department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning with extensive experience of environmental requirements, says Brink’s proposal “triggers just about everything you can imagine” and will involve obtaining approvals from the provincial Environmental Affairs department, CapeNature, Heritage Western Cape, the City of Cape Town, and the national departments of Water Affairs, Agriculture and Mineral Resources.
Her team has been negotiating with all these authorities to undertake a single planning and assessment process.
“Our team is working on a cutting-edge, legally integrated process to reduce the costs and red tape to save our rivers and heritage,” she says.
It’s a process that has never been tried before. “So we have to come up with a concept document for this because there’s no precedent. This is why we’re trying to make sure that we get it right.”
It could create a blueprint for handling similar large projects that involve significant heritage and environmental considerations, she suggests.
The authorities, particularly Heritage Western Cape and CapeNature, are excited by the proposal, and Premier Helen Zille’s office has expressed in-principle support.
Realistically, it’s still going to take substantial time to turn Brink’s dream into a reality – but then Vissershok has been around for nearly 350 years already, so it will be worth taking a few more to get it right. - Sunday Argus