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2013
Day 04

Franschhoek to Cape Town

Day 4 saw the Journey of Water reach its destination: Cape Town. As the team celebrated its achievement and pledged to keep in touch (it was like the last day of summer camp), I think each walker felt a mixture of satisfaction and surprise - yes, we really did it.

In fact, the day’s walk was full of surprises. The students of Dagbreek Primary School were very surprised to learn that their water doesn’t come from a tap. 5FM DJ Jamie Saint and comedian Siv Ngesi, along with WWF’s “Pandambassadors,” characters from Takalani Sesame and the city of Cape Town’s very funky water drop, Manzi, told their rapt audience that water comes from nature. The children learned that they must save water and never litter, because trash pollutes our water sources.

“Our next surprise came from Athlone Wastewater Treatment Plant, where we learned that our “waste” water is incredibly valuable.”

Our next surprise came from Athlone Wastewater Treatment Plant, where we learned that our “waste” water is incredibly valuable. This is water that comes from a sewage treatment plant, like Zandvliet, which we visited on Day 3. Now the water is called “effluent,” and it goes through another round of clean up before it is released into a river or distributed for irrigation.

Here’s where it gets interesting. This water is nutrient-rich with things like nitrogen and phosphate. These nutrients are fertilisers, which are useful on land, but not in our waterways, where they encourage the growth of weeds and algae that can choke rivers. So, the more that can be recycled to water farms, sports fields, city parks and golf courses, the better. It’s a win-win, because these users pay a fraction of what they would pay for potable water (and there’s no reason to irrigate a golf course with drinking water).

Currently, the Athlone plant has 39 end-users and is looking for more. Making the most of this resource can reduce the need for future large infrastructure projects, such as desalination plants, which keeps the price of water down for all users. Saving water means saving money - no surprise there.

“...flamingos on the Black River. Dale Wright of Birdlife International says he gets calls from people who have seen the flocks from the highway, asking if the birds are meant to be here.”

Next surprise of the day: flamingos on the Black River. Dale Wright of Birdlife International says he gets calls from people who have seen the flocks from the highway, asking if the birds are meant to be here. The answer is yes - these migratory birds will travel from South Africa to Botswana, Namibia and all the way to Kenya. Since the city of Cape Town cleared the Black River of invasive plants, the long-legged pink beauties find the habitat welcoming, and may become a regular site.

Wright says that even with some pollution in the river, a variety of birds can survive quite well in urban environments. “It’s not only in high mountains and inaccessible nature reserves, but right here in the city that we need space for our biodiversity,” he says.

Then we learned from University of Cape Town Professor Jenny Day that the Black River hasn’t always flowed year round. It used to slow to a trickle or seep into the Cape Flats sand altogether during the dry season. But with the city’s growth and increased water use, we have actually created a perennial river with our wastewater (surprise!). Now the task is to make this unnatural system behave more like a natural river in order to reduce the health hazards posed by excess bacteria.

Finally, our journey took us underground to tour the tunnels underneath the Castle of Good Hope. Some parts of these underground canals and rivers date back to 1652, when they supplied the Company Gardens and the passing ships with fresh water. Surprising fact: the city of Cape Town exists because it had the best water source. Saldanha was a better port, but had no sustainable water source. No water, no city.

“Surprising fact: the city of Cape Town exists because it had the best water source. Saldanha was a better port, but had no sustainable water source. No water, no city.”

Each day on the Journey of Water has brought eye-opening experiences. On this fourth and final day, as we walked into and under the heart of the city that most of the team knows so well, we continued to be surprised by how water flows through our daily lives and, indeed, our history. It shapes our landscapes and shapes us as people by affecting our health and well-being. I think it’s safe to say that those who have taken the Journey of Water will look at water differently from now on.