The Liesbeek River Trail is a great 4,5km suburban walk tracing the Liesbeek River from Kirstenbosch to Josephine’s Mill in Newlands. It takes about an hour to walk, but if guided with information along the way, one can expect about 2 – 2,5 hours. We park our cars either outside the entrance to Kirstenbosch or down Winchester Drive at the Boschenheuvel Arboretum.
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Kirstenbosch started as a farm in 1795 and was selected to become a botanical garden under Henry Harold Welsh Pearson in 1913. Today, it is one of the top 7 botanical gardens of the world, showing off the Cape Floral Kingdom which is a World Heritage Site.
Our walk takes us across Rhodes Drive to the 3 Stone Cottages built in 1913 for the first gardeners of Kirstenbosch. Today they are rented out and once a month there is a craft and nursery market on the grounds.
Opposite the stone cottages is the Church of the Good Shepherd. This beautiful stone church was designed by Sophie Gray, the wife of the first Anglican Bishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray. The church was built in 1864 on Protea Farm, which today is the suburb of Bishops Court. This area has an interesting history, involving the original Khoi Khoi inhabitants, to its inception as a farm under Jan van Riebeeck, the first Dutch Commander at the Cape of Good Hope, through colonial days and the eventual forced removals under Apartheid, to the land settlements of today.
At the Boschenheuvel Arboretum, we meet the Liesbeeck River that has its source from two streams in Kirstenbosch, the Newlands and Protea streams, which 9km downstream joins the Black River and has its mouth at Paarden Island. Jan van Riebeek gave 20 x 1-acre farms along this river to ‘free burgers’ so as to encourage the growing of fresh farm produce at the Cape.
One can see many indigenous plants in the arboretum, a living tree museum, from Yellowwoods, Stinkwoods, Wild Almonds, Wild Peach, Turkey Berry, Pelargoniums, Wild Garlic, Wild Rosemary and Sage, Sour Figs, Wild Dagga, Arum Lilies and Watsonias. There are also alien vegetation types, such as Oaks, Poplars, Pines, Port Jackson, Cherry Pie, Water Lettuce and Water Hyacinth, which are strictly controlled.
Like all Cape rivers, the Liesbeeck has brown water due to the tannins from the fynbos vegetation along its banks. The river is home to many frogs – Table Mountain Ghost Frog, Micro Frog and Cape River Frog and fish, such as Cape Galaxia, Carp, Catfish, Trout and Shrimps.
At the Boschenheuvel Arboretum pond, one can spot some ducks, geese, birds and the many pond insects. This is a great place for children to explore as well as dogs, but it is suggested that the dogs remain on a lead.
The trail continues past elegant homes before crossing Kirstenbosch Drive. We join the river again along a neat paved pathway laced with many flowering plants. This tranquil setting manages to blend the beautiful homes along the water course with the natural environment along the banks of the river.
The banks of the river are mostly natural with the occasional weir and bank reinforcements. There are many lush plants mixed together with abundance of tree ferns.
Near the end of the Bishops Court Village is The Upper Liesbeeck River Garden which is maintained by local residents, the City Council and various Estate Agents. This is a wonderful place for a stop to catch one’s breath, enjoy the sounds of nature and the bubbling brook.
There are ample spots on both sides of the river to explore, have a picnic or just to sit, reflect and recharge. Leaving the River Garden, we continue with the trail over Edinburgh Drive to Paradise Park.
‘Paradijs’ was where Lady Anne Barnard and her husband Andrew Barnard, who was Colonial Secretary at the Cape, had a stone cottage as a weekend getaway. Their main house, erected in 1798 is today, part of the Vineyard Hotel. The Barnards were only at the Cape for 5 years and very much in love, hence the name ‘Paradijs’ given to their land.
Paradise Park has many play areas for children that blend into the natural surroundings.
The Liesbeeck River is canalized from here on to almost its mouth. As more farms sprung up along the river, a lot of natural vegetation was cleared which caused immense winter flooding along the Liesbeeck and Black Rivers. In 1941 the Black River was canalized and the Liesbeeck in 1943.
In the canalization process, many weirs were needed as well as bank reinforcements. Although the look and vegetation of the natural river is altered, the green belt is maintained, allowing one to feel that you are surrounded by nature and cut off from the urbanization close by.
This 1,5km part of the walk takes you through Newlands past the Vineyard Hotel. In 1700 this land was given to Willem Adriaan van der Stel and he called it ‘De Niewe Land’. This area has housed many Cape Governors and South Africa’s presidential residence is located at Groote Schuur. Newlands is also known as the home of SA rugby and cricket.
We continuing along the narrow lanes and cottages, through the old ‘Irish Town’ which used to house Irish labourers who were imported to the Cape to work on the construction of Ohlsson’s Brewery. The Barrister Hotel, now a wonderful restaurant, still bears the red lion, a sign that the hotel sold the brewery’s beer.
On Main Street, we pass South African College Schools, fondly known as SACS. This school started in 1814, originally in Long Street, Cape Town. In 1874, it was separated into a junior boys’ school and a senior boys’ college. The college became the University of Cape Town in 1918 and SACS Boys School moved to its current location on the Montebello Farm in 1955. SACS is one of four schools in the world that has its own Rhodes Scholar each year.
Ambling along Sans Souci Road, we meet the Liesbeeck River again and walk between the river and the Newlands Public Swimming Pool. This is an Olympic size swimming pool, with a diving pool and a kiddie’s pool for toddlers.
In the early years of the Cape settlement, the river was the only source of water for those who farmed the area. Washing, bathing, grazing cattle and sheep, all was done along the banks. In 1837, the residents complained that the river water was no longer fit for drinking and so the Albion Spring was used to bottle fresh drinking water. This spring was also used by the Ohlsson’s Brewery and the Schweppes cooldrink factory. It continues to be used today by many locals who gather the pure, natural water in their 5 – 25 litre containers.
We cross Main Road over the stone bridge, at the end of Dean Street, designed by Louis Thibault, a French architect who arrived at the Cape, settling here in 1785. We pass the brewery and follow the Liesbeeck River to Josephine’s Mill. The mill was built in 1940, became derelict in 1963 and restored in 1988. It is the only water mill in Cape Town used to make stone ground flour.
This is where the tour ends and one can either stop a while at the restaurant for a cup of coffee and breakfast or a sweet treat, before taking an Uber back to your cars or to enjoy the 4,5km walk back.
Other extras that can be included in this tour is a Newlands Brewery Tour for those who want to see how beer is made.
Or for the children, we can discuss river ecology and the life cycle of the frog. There will be an opportunity to catch a tadpole, study its adaptations and part of the life cycle before releasing it back into the river again.
Contact Julie@allafricatours.net for more information about this guided walk.