One senses the gods were in fine fettle when they decided to carve out the river that millennia later would be christened “Liesbeek” by Jan van Riebeeck, that now infamous merchant of monikers.
Flowing and babbling away under the gaze of ancient willows and oaks, by all rights the Liesbeek should not have withstood “progress”, or the kind uncompromising urbanisation that tends to follow migratory peoples around.
In most other cityscapes, such spectacular natural phenomena have been wholly consumed by man’s quest to dominate his environs with bigger and better buildings, temples to commerce and industry and the endless pursuit of technological evolution.
Yet this little river has stood firm, somehow playing to the sensibilities of Capetonians who have retained their child-like bent for a fairytale forest in their daily midst. Unfortunately, all is not well in paradise.
Much has been written and said about the deteriorating state of the 9km Liesbeek Trail, which runs from the Boschenheuvel Arboretum in Bishopscourt to near The River Club in Observatory. Discarded rubbish and the marked presence of human occupation have blighted the otherwise pristine stretch of river, with attacks on pedestrians and joggers an increasingly common occurrence.
However, a tour undertaken by the Tatler showed it is not all doom and gloom for the trail, which has every potential of returning to its former glory. Rather than dismissing the walk as a no-go area, a better summation is that there is a “tale of two Liesbeeks”.
It is not hard to see why the Boschenheuvel Arboretum precinct is so coveted by dog walkers and trail runners. Against the backdrop of densely forested mountain, the area is nature’s kingdom, particularly in autumn with the falling leaves creating a feathery bed for the squirrels on which to frolic and tease one another playfully.
Mornings present a particularly ethereal hue, and the temptation to lean against one of the thousand-year oaks with a good book is overwhelming.
But this is only the beginning of the trail. From here it is into Bishopscourt proper, and the enchanting Upper Liebeek River Garden which more than a decade ago was rehabilitated by the residents of Bishopscourt Village.
It is an extraordinary setting, giving an impression of fauna and flora as it was originally intended, yet tastefully bound by manmade paths and viewing decks. Children could be seen arriving for a birthday party in the lower reaches of the garden, and one could not help but envy them the experience in such environs.
At its northern point, this section is broken by Newlands’ Paradise Road before it continues through Paradise Park on the other side. Here, too, the waters were clear and free flowing, and the opportunity to rest and take in the birdsong and nature’s perfumes was not one to be slighted.
Emerging into Newlands presents the chance to marvel at some of the suburb’s quaint dwellings before taking up the trail again once passing through the Dean Street subway near the rugby stadium.
However, this is where the “other” Liesbeek rears its head. Suddenly the stream was sullied by several empty beer and cooldrink cans, and plastic packets clung stubbornly to the trees on either side of the river.
Homeless people also began to emerge from the brush, leaving their blankets and belongings in their wake. The river itself was no longer able to boast the unspoilt waters as before, instead topped in places with a chemical-like froth.
Naturally, there are deep concerns about where the homeless can be housed. It is very easy to think only of the river’s ecological future, but given its location in the heart of suburbia, it stands to reason that the destitute would want to be near to one of the few sources of water available to them, while also within reach of an economic hub.
The area behind the Rondebosch shopping precinct is particularly troublesome, where a small community of squatters has established itself near the railway line, to the extent that pedestrians and joggers are forced to take a detour back into Main Road before rejoining the trail again in Rosebank.
The river is at its widest in Mowbray, but again homeless people could be seen bathing and washing clothes in the water.
It should be emphasised that every effort is being made to keep the river clean, and while the discrepancy between the upper and lower Liesbeek was noticeable, monthly clean-ups are now taking place along the various sections.
“We have a whole bunch of groups who are now cleaning up the river,” Sybrand Strauss, a member of Friends of the Liesbeek said.
“What you find is that the vagrants tend to arrive in summer, but when winter comes and it’s colder, they do tend to move away. We did have a gap when we did not do clean-ups, but as soon as we started them again we noticed that the vagrants disappeared.”
Mr Strauss said the key was for people to make use of these spaces as much as possible.
Friends of the Liesbeek committee member, Kari Cousins, acknowledged that the area between Newlands and Rosebank had been a problem for communities cleaning up the river.
“This has been a neglected area, and we are trying to get people who live in that community to help us with clean-ups,” she said.
“It is not only vagrants that are the problem however. Because it is a business area with a lot of fast food outlets, you unfortunately find people dumping polystyrene containers in the river. But we are trying some new initiatives, and looking at getting schools involved. For example, we have an idea to drop a Coke can in the river to see where it gets caught up, so we can focus on cleaning up that area.
“We also want people to start telling us more about their own experiences on the river, so we can pinpoint which areas to focus on.”