RIVER MUSIC: Clear water tumbles over a weir. Pictures: Tim Rolston
RIVER MUSIC: Clear water tumbles over a weir. Pictures: Tim Rolston
GATHERER: A squirrel collects acorns for winter.
GATHERER: A squirrel collects acorns for winter.
VERDANT GREEN: A green field in the heart of the suburbs.
VERDANT GREEN: A green field in the heart of the suburbs.

They say it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and perhaps that was the lesson of the past week. Troubles with my lower back have seen me warned off extreme scrambling for a while and into physiotherapy.

But I was also told exercise in moderation was good, and as I had a visit to the physio in Claremont, Cape Town, I wondered whether there might be a walk I could do on my way there.

I have crossed the Liesbeek River numerous times in my life, driven past it and even alongside it but never actually explored it. I feel a bit foolish even admitting that, except I am sure it goes for many of us. So I decided to look into the possibilities.

A little bit of research and I had my exercise planned: a stroll from the Boschenheuvel Arboretum on Winchester Avenue down the length of the river to Claremont and back.

The Liesbeek River has quite a place in the history of the area. The stream was apparently the first to be named by Jan Van Riebeeck and it occupies the oldest urbanised river valley in the country.

In fact the river and the Albion Spring next to it provided drinking water to residential properties in Rondebosch and adjacent suburbs up to the 1890s, when it became too polluted. Sadly the history of the river has been one of slow decline. In pre-colonial times the Liesbeeck, in combination with the flows of the Black, Salt and Diep rivers, gave rise to marshlands around what is now Paarden Eiland.

According to my research these marshes supported Cape buffalo, zebra and even elephant. Although charged with the responsibility of supplying passing ships, Jan van Riebeeck was unable to garner sufficient traded goods and as a result in 1657 he allocated plots alongside the Liesbeeck to farmers, the first “free burghers” of the Dutch East India Company.

Continued agriculture and development alongside the river led to the demise of the quagga and the Cape lion.

The indigenous Khoikhoi were left with little option but to work on the farms, and became almost entirely dependent upon the colony for their livelihoods, their pastoral lifestyle upset by changes in land management and access to the river.

Destruction of the riverine environment continued with time. Today much of it has been canalised and flow rates are greatly reduced, particularly in the summer, in part due to the use of the water to irrigate gardens.

The river valley became choked with alien vegetation and had become a haven for vagrants as well as a natural collection point for the rubbish of burgeoning urbanisation. However, a trickle remains year round and it was the gentle tinkling of these remnants of the river’s flow that accompanied me on my walk.

Today several reaches have been rehabilitated, not least a section abutting Bishopscourt that has seen a massive effort by concerned residents who, since 2004, have been removing aliens, cleaning up the river, stabilising the banks and planting dozens of indigenous plants and trees.

My stroll started under the leafy shade of numerous oak trees, the ground scattered with the rapidly reddening leaves of autumn, and I was delighted to see squirrels rustling busily among the leaf litter in search of acorns for their winter larders. I do so love to see squirrels; they move like no other animal, all rush and stop, as though they only have an on and off switch and overly active braking systems.

The stream here is little more than a ditch but still the water runs remarkably clear. The worn paths of the arboretum then gave way to paved walkways alongside the stream, and glorious butterflies flitted in the sunshine, dodging children playing in the stream and waving butterfly nets enthusiastically. Here and there one has to skirt property boundaries but for the most part I was able to keep the river in sight.

Nearing Claremont I entered the section rehabilitated by the Bishopscourt Village Liesbeeck Project. What a delight. Not 100m from a busy intersection I found myself in tranquil surrounds, all verdant growth and remarkable quiet. The trees seemed to block out the traffic noise and what little penetrated was jumbled by the splatter of water over the pebbles of the river bed to provide a sense of remarkable solitude.

From here on downstream the river is again mostly canalised but it has been kept remarkably free of rubbish and, right in the heart of Claremont, squirrels still busied themselves among the oaks. There was some more skirting of suburban roads where access to the river banks was blocked by housing. Close to my destination I passed Josephine Mill, which has now been fully restored but its history dates back to the early 1800s when it used the flow of the Liesbeeck River to provide stone ground flour.

Today the building boasts a restaurant and museum.

The river walk continues downstream but I had reached my destination, quite delighted with my new discovery – real tranquillity in an urban setting and a walk you are strongly recommended to take. Perhaps another time I shall venture further towards the sea, but this upper section really was an unexpected delight and I am sure one many of us have missed. - Sunday Argus