The Baakens River Valley is a treasure chest of “ecosystem services” and developmental opportunities in Nelsona Mandela Bay, but is also often neglected.
Weekend Post explores the enormous value and significance of the Baakens River Valley as we walk the distance of the river and map our finding.
Join us on a journey of the Baakens like you’ve never seen it before.
The trigger for the Great Baakens Expedition was the province’s ruling on the proposed N2 North Housing Development.
In October, the Eastern Cape Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (Dedeat) vetoed the contested metro-driven project, which was geared around the construction of 2 949 houses in the Baakens River’s upper catchment. Some community facilities were to have been integrated into the development and a small suite of premises for business and light industry.
One of the problems identified by Dedeat was the threat of urban sprawl – ill-planned development away from the metro’s core, putting pressure on supply of services, and throwing up issues like access to jobs and public transport.
Another was that at least six housing projects representing hundreds of thousands of houses had received approval but had not yet been built.
These dormant existing projects should rather be activated, and densification of existing residential areas should also be considered, the department said.
But the biggest problem was the intended site: a 225ha section of land situated across the highway from Baywest and abutting Rowallan Park.
Dedeat said the site was the last open section of land in the upper Baakens and it was vital that it should remain so to offset existing development, notably Baywest, and to protect the integrity of the Baakens River.
According to the refusal notice, one of the site’s key ecosystem services – free services that would otherwise have to be funded with taxpayers’ money – was regulation of rainfall flow into the Baakens.
Rainfall seeped through fractured rock and soil bound by fynbos, ensuring a steady but never torrential flow, countering floods and droughts.
“The risk of affecting this very carefully balanced system through the addition of hard surfaces, increasing the volume and speed of overland flow, as well as the risk of pollution from the development, especially in this sensitive upper catchment, is not acceptable,” the notice said.
The department said the catchment “sponge” was vital to the metro because of the contribution of a healthy Baakens to sustaining biodiversity, which underpinned recreation, tourism, property values, clean air provision and climate control.
The N2 North site includes eight rare or threatened plant species, including a honeybush tea variety and two succulents which grow on distinctive rocky outcrops, a key feature of the area.
When the department approved the Baywest project five years ago, one of the conditions was that the developer had to alter its plans to build around the main rocky outcrop on that site.
The developer appealed against this but the then economic development and environment MEC Mcebisi Jonas rejected the appeal. In March 2012, however, he did an about-turn and upheld the appeal.
According to Weekend Post’s interview at the time with the national Department of Environmental Affairs, this alteration of an appeal ruling was illegal. However, the outcrop was levelled, marking the end of a fierce campaign against Baywest by eco-watchdogs, and the mall was built as planned.
Organisations like the Baakens Valley Preservation Trust, Baakens Valley Action and the Wildlife and Environment Society subsequently raised their concern about the N2 North project and voiced their jubilation when it was vetoed.
The department said in its ruling in this regard that the rocky outcrops, some of which occurred on the N2 North site, were an essential component of the biodiversity in the area.
It said the N2 North project was severely at odds with its recent approval of a bridge over the Baakens at 3rd Avenue, Newton Park, and other initiatives to rehabilitate the river mouth.
“The importance of the Baakens to the city must be at the forefront of any planning, and rehabilitation along its entire course should be a priority for the [metro].”
With that ruling in mind Weekend Post decided to traverse the Baakens from source to mouth to get a first-hand understanding of the river, its problems, its treasures and the potential for rehabilitation and realising its full value.
Half the fun was finding the river.
We took the beautiful map supplied by the metro’s GIS department and filled in all the tributaries that had disappeared over the years.
Built over by development and/ or choked by alien invasive vegetation, they had retreated into the murk and very few people, we realised, knew where they were anymore.
But riverman Arnold Slabbert did and we found them, walked and finally cycled them all, drawing them in as we went: the Greenbushes tributary, the Baywest tributary, the Kunene Park loop, Kunene Park to Linga Longa, the Lorraine tributary, the lower Sunridge, Sherwood, Charlo and lower Sunridge tributaries.
And then William Moffett to the sea.
The Baakens River Valley lets the metro breathe.
It’s a “green lung” that, through its plants and trees, absorbs carbon dioxide and generates oxygen, alleviating urban smog and countering climate change.
That’s just one of a treasure chest of “ecosystem services” spread across multiple levels that the metro and ratepayers would otherwise have to fund, Dr Paul Martin, the former director of the parks department in the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, explained.
“Other cities either never had a green lung or have destroyed theirs and are trying too late to recreate one. We’ve got two in the Baakens and the Swartkops river valleys. They’re both under huge pressure but they’re still there and we need to appreciate them, restore them and use them properly.”
Besides the smog reduction and climate change mitigation ecosystem services, the Baakens Valley also served as a natural drainage point for stormwater, Martin said.
While providing a tranquil home for a myriad plants and animals, it hosted a wide range of recreational activities from birdwatching to hiking and mountain biking which were also opportunities for tourism. Picnics and religious and celebratory events could all fit comfortably into the embrace of the Baakens Valley.
“It underpins property value and drives sustainable development. What the Mandela Bay Development Agency is facilitating in the lower Baakens in terms of new restaurants etc, would have no value without the river.
“It’s also an outdoor environmental education classroom for schoolchildren that can be used in a formal or informal way.”
River estuaries provide an important nursery in the growth cycle of marine fishes and once the natural flow of the Baakens had been improved it could also fulfil this role.
While the water of the Baakens was not harvested for drinking, the flow of the river, filtered by reedbeds, recharged groundwater, Martin said.
“This process is important to balance the upswing in private boreholes and the metro’s plans in this regard.”
If the development of the Baakens was not halted and protection measures were not introduced, it would end up like the lower Papenkuils River, surviving only as a stormwater canal, having lost all its other ecosystem service value, Martin said.
“So we should not be developing these areas and the decision by the Eastern Cape department of economic development, environment and tourism not to allow the N2 North Housing Project to go ahead in the catchment of the Baakens was a good one.
“It’s a vital sponge up there that feeds a river which brings value to the whole metro.”
Problems in the Baakens include:
- Sewage pollution;
- No proper clean-up after sewerage repair;
- Stolen sewerage manhole lids;
- Invasive alien vegetation;
- Dumping of rubbish:
a) Driven in by bakkie;
b) Thrown over walls;
c) Refuse bags dragged in my vagrants;
b) Development of the river catchment;
c) Illegal or poorly designed construction in the watercourse;
d) No rehabilitation after municipal work;
e) Water extraction.
Efforts to fix up the valley should start by bringing in people who want to use the area in a sustainable way for activities like walking, cycling, bird-watching, trail-running or for ceremonies or picnics.
That’s the view of veteran Baakens Valley Preservation Trust member Steff Schenk, who said improving and expanding the existing trail should be top of the agenda.
“We should prioritise re-establishing the Guinea Fowl Trail. It used to run from Rowallan Park to the harbour but is now overgrown and barely usable in many parts above William Moffett.”
“While fixing up the main trail we could at the same time expand it up the different tributaries as a route not only for locals but also tourists.”
While eco-estates were increasingly in demand by those who could afford them, the Baakens River Valley was the city’s own eco-estate, and it should be protected and upgraded for all, he said.
“People thinking about visiting it at the moment feel threatened. We need to make it more accessible and then we can get onto the other problems.”
Interesting facts about the Baakens
- The Baakens Valley was formed during repeated incisions over millennia, according to geologist Marc Goedhart, who explained that valleys were incised as sea level dropped.
- The earliest visitors to Algoa Bay were bands of nomadic Khoisan people from the Damasqua and Gonaqua clans. Many of the names they have left behind reflect their association with the Baakens and what is today Lake Farm. For instance, Kragga Kamma means “sweet water” and Kabega means “abundance of reeds” or in another translation, “abundance of red clay”.
- In 1818 Baakens River Farm was granted to John Berry and then passed to John Parkin. Today it includes the suburbs of Newton Park, Sunridge Park, Fernglen and Fairview”.
- The mouth of the Baakens formed a stunning lagoon which was used for various recreational activity, including boating. Then, in 1864, a fundamental step was taken when the municipality narrowed the channel of the river near the mouth.
- The expanse of the lagoon was further curtailed in the 1880s when rock excavated to construct parts of what was then Main Street (now Govan Mbeki Avenue) was dumped on its northern rim, with the permission of the town council.
- On November 1908, disaster struck. On that day of The Great Flood, there was a cloudburst over Hunter’s Retreat and the Baakens came down in a torrent, causing severe damage.
- In 1913, ratepayers accepted a scheme to widen and improve the channels of the river and to build a new bridge to provide a proper outlet in case of future flooding.
- Explaining the development of the some of the other suburbs along the Baakens, historian Margaret Harradine told Weekend Post the municipal area of Port Elizabeth had remained quite small until about 1918. Then chunks of land, bit by bit, were added.
- Lorraine came in 1938 after a private sale, for instance, Kabega emerged in 1957 as a municipal housing scheme and Essexvale was a private sale after WW2. Parsons Vlei was originally a glebe given to the Anglican Church.
- In 1932, the city council decided to set aside the Baakens River Valley and the Barnes’ Quarry area (opposite Shri Subramanier Aulayam Hindu Temple in Upper Valley Road) as a nature reserve. The Walmer Municipality agreed to add portions of land. The eradication of exotic prickly pear was begun and fences were erected to keep cattle out. This was the beginning of Settlers Park, which was named officially on February 28 1952.