A river runs through it

The little red bridge over the river.

As the Dutch galleons arrived at the Cape one after the other, following those of Jan van Riebeeck, a settlement of people of European descent became established. As it goes with settlements, expansion quickly followed.

The first expeditions took an eastward direction, into a fertile valley that soon became known as the Hottentots-Holland. One of the features in this area, nestled in a far corner of Baaij Falso, was the picturesque inlet that Robert Jacob Gordon charted, and later would be named after him. Yes, you guessed it: Gordon’s Bay.

The intrepid explorers seeking opportunity for enterprise and land for farming found small streams draining the steep slopes of the mountains overlooking Gordon’s Bay.

They also found a sizeable river that originates at an elevation of about 1 200 metres. As the slopes flatten towards the sea, the river widens and cuts a furrow in the shales, schists and siltstones that form the lower reaches of the valley.

There the furrow becomes wide and deep in the unconsolidated sediments that come to rest against the beach.

The year is now 2019, and I was walking that very stretch of beach. Behind me, on the other side of Beach Road, lay the BP filling station. I recalled that in the early days, some of the rivers running into False Bay were numbered instead of named, the first being called Eerste, the second Tweede, and probably this stream mouth where I was at, might have been referred to as Derde, before it came to be known as the Sir Lowry’s Pass River.

With a mean annual rainfall of 900 mm for this river’s catchment, with most of it falling during the winter months of June to August, it proved in Van Riebeeck’s time to be a pristine natural habitat for many animals and birds, as well as reptiles and insects.

Even large creatures like lions and elephants frequented its banks, drinking and wallowing without a care in the world except when their senses led them to feed, flee or fight.

Their powers of self-preservation did not keep them safe for long. With the inevitable encroachment of humans, ever seeking to increase their domain, this valley habitat suffered tragically in the course of time.

Today the Sir Lowry’s Pass River is but a shadow of its erstwhile self.

Many dozens of houses flank the river, their occupants more often than not unknowing of the river’s name, and also of the degradation that time and settlement has wrought on its course down to the sea.

For the residents of Gordon’s Bay it is “our” river, but how are we faring as its custodians and guardians?

Let us look at our river in its present state, this time starting from the mouth, which is found just south of the bridge. The lower reaches are in a sad state, a cesspool of debris and filth.

Between Spar Supermarket and Dennehof Avenue it is still only a grassy, elongated depression, with the aptly named Riverside Road running alongside it. Features that occur here are a wooden pedestrian bridge and a drift.

A little bit further on, a minor, unnamed tributary branches off to the right.

From Dennehof Avenue up to the end of Anchorage Park the furrow is impressive, but now it only serves to remind one that a lot of water, now absent, must have gone into its formation.

The absence of water can easily be explained, as a coffer dam diverts the existing flow into a huge man-made channel, which leads to Gustrouw Beach, lately named Caiman Beach, a block further up from the Pick * Pay supermarket.

Following the river from Anchorage Park upstream – which term has become a misnomer, seeing that there’s hardly any water except in wintertime – one eventually arrives at the Sir Lowry’s Pass Village, and finds our river branching yet again.

A tributary of the river is now a channel running between informal dwellings, its concrete course littered with garbage. This is a far cry from the pristine banks described earlier.

After the point at which the tributary leads into it, we come to a low bridge close to the railway crossing.

From there one is able to follow the river past smallholdings, until eventually we arrive at its point of origin high up against the slopes of Hans se Kop (Moordenaarskop).

How can we reclaim what has been lost to progress? Not too many towns in South Africa can boast that they have this type of natural attraction.

Gordon’s Bay as a seaside destination for holidaymakers already has a number of features that consistently attract visitors.

And Sir Lowry’s Pass Village, Gordon’s Bay’s companion star, enjoys an even closer bond with this river, as it shares its name in part.

These two villages have this fine attribute that can, with the necessary care, further enhance their appeal.

We may then justify the title of this article – which is also the title of the 1976 autobiographical novel by Norman MacLean (which was turned into a beautirul film) – and say with pride: “A river runs through it.”