The Baakens: up close and personal

Guy Rogers tracking the Baakens

The Great Baakens Expedition was a mission 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. Reporter GUY ROGERS was joined by a diverse entourage of experts at different points as they lifted a little-known lid

It doesn’t look like much – but it’s an important spot. The most northwesterly tributary of the Baakens River begins in Greenbushes, opposite the Algoa Steel factory, in a scraggy embrace of alien wattle.

Long ago the little wetland which today marks its genesis was likely much bigger, straddling the ground where Cape Road now runs, with some of its water draining north into Parson’s Vlei and down the Chatty River.

Today it drains southeast into the Baakens alone, first between the Hunter’s Retreat homes, then on, with Rowallan Park on its left.

We were guided on this first leg of our Great Baakens Expedition – and subsequently the whole journey – by Wildline and Urban Raptor founder Arnold Slabbert, who used to be an environmental law enforcement officer with the Western District Council.

Arnold has an inexhaustible memory bank of animals rescued and eco-criminals pursued at points up and down the length of the river, and probably knows its twists and turns better than anyone alive.

We were also accompanied that day by NMU botanists Dr Nelia Garner, who is also a member of the Baakens Valley Preservation Trust, and Adriaan Grobler, who is also a member of the Custodians for Rare and Endangered Wildflowers.

It felt quite surreal. Dropped off at the factory by Alison Cawood of Wildline – who subsequently performed this invaluable task a number of times, refusing any offer of payment for fuel – we walked across the road and into the bush, where we found it – the Baakens River.

In fact, of course, it’s just a stream at this point. Choked with aliens and rubbish and hardly flowing, it seems barely alive.

Periodically on the track alongside the watercourse we came across piles of garbage or rubble, obviously dumped.

Litter lay beneath the drain outlets, spewed out with the stormwater. Periodically, the stench of sewage marked an obvious spill. The stream looked toxic and there was zero sign of any life in the water.

The city sewer runs the whole length of the river, the route selected by early town planners because it ensures optimum gravity flow. The downside is that whenever pipes rupture, the effluent goes into the river. Likewise when they block or flood because of injections of stormwater, the manholes pop – and the sewerage flows into the river.

About 1.5km along, we discovered a berm built across the watercourse with the long-ago aim apparently to retard flood waters. A pipe ran through the berm but it was positioned too high, with the consequence that the water, reduced by drought, came to a standstill at the bank.

Despite the grim state of the stream, we came upon two tortoises, first an ungulate and then a leopard. Between the aliens there were patches of indigenous plants like sea fig – which the tortoises eat – arum lilies and grass aloes.

According to my map, a sub-tributary was supposed to come in from the west to join the stream we were on opposite Carlisle Road, but it had dried up and we saw no sign of it.

Having run out of time, we left the stream at Baywest Boulevard and tramped up over the fynbos-covered N2 North site, back to our cars.

The next day, on leg two, Arnold and I and Lohan Geel walked the next Baakens tributary that runs west-east parallel to the N2, sandwiched between the highway and Baywest.

One of the conditions when the mall was built was that the developer should protect this part of the catchment and it looked much better than what we had seen the day before. The fynbos was intact, reedbeds were clearly filtering the flow and we saw a big river crab in a hole and a few frogs.

An employee of a landscaper contracted by Baywest was on site, removing alien long-leaf wattle.

But there were several other aliens visible, including highly invasive Scotch thistle which seemed to be getting no attention, and the stormwater drains handling water spilling off the mall’s hard surfaces lacked any carbon filter.

Barrier material was stretched across the stream in places to trap plastic and other debris, but these devices were so badly torn they were clearly not doing their job.

Great Baakens Expedition guide Arnold Slabbert above one of the Baywest retention dam
Picture: Guy Rogers

The retention dams also seemed to be problematic, with accumulated water exiting from a single pipe at their lower end forming a narrow ditch instead of fanning out across the ground the way it did before the development.

Having passed under the boulevard, however, the stream spread into shallow meanders and the whole area became appropriately soggy. Burrows of field mice and vlei rats wound through the grass, and snipe and plovers darted around.

The third leg of our expedition took us on a loop further down the same tributary, between Baywest Boulevard and Kunene Park and then back along the river below Hanna Road. Early on I was able to get a good look at a rocky outcrop, a key feature of the area that hosts rare succulents and which was the centre of a furore when Baywest was built.

We walked back on the upper section of the loop along a high, broad ridge which Slabbert explained was created from excess fill during the construction of the boulevard.

The Baakens Valley used to be wide and shallow, filled with reedbeds, and the artificial elevation highlighted the present state of the river. It ran far below us through a ditch jam-packed with aliens: long-leaved and black wattle, syringa, lantana, Brazilian pepper and inkberry.

Baywest environmental experts were not available to answer questions at the time of going to print.

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