Helen Zille kayaks down the Berg River to inspect the 110% Green Campaign project

4 Oct 2014 - 15:06

Rene Schieritz and Kevin Winter
Environmental and Geographical Science, UCT

On Sunday morning (28 September 2014), the Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, accompanied by an entourage of officials involved in the 110% Green Campaign, arrived on Grensplaas on the Berg River to a warm reception by canoeists and local officials. The premier was kitted out in a tracksuit ready to paddle down the Berg River! The trip formed part of a two-day excursion to showcase recent initiatives taking place along the Berg River, one of the Province’s most valuable waterways.

Francis Steyn, from the Western Cape Agricultural Department, introduced the premier to some of the challenges and possibilities on the Berg River – a river in which parts are ecological degraded which continues to receive poor water quality from multiple sources. Francis described the current initiative to restore the river health – sustainably and profitably – by combating alien invasion and in getting better access to the river and its resources. He used the words: “…we just want to make a place where we can go skinny-dip”, meaning that the water quality would be safe for full body contact (or at least that is what we assumed!).

The premier was not overly enthusiastic about the idea of skinny dipping, but she listened attentively to Mr. Eric Farringer from the Paarl Canoe Club, as he described the progress being made by the Berg River Canoe Club development programme. South African canoeists are amongst the best in the world, and initiatives of the club are building an exceptionally talented group of young canoeists.

Paddlers were eager to get into the water, and soon all ages took to the water. Premier Zille, seated in the centre of a 3-seater Kayak, was accompanied by the experience of Berg River old timers. Other officials paired with experienced paddlers in the tricky two-seater K2’s, and set off down the river.

The 6km paddle route began amidst a corridor of riverine red gum (Eucalyptus) trees. The first 3km showed all the evidence of these degraded river banks with limited biodiversity and absence of bird life. Tangled root systems of red gum trees aligned the banks in this first section and at certain stretches these roots trapped a small batch of floating plastic objects that might otherwise have found their way into the ocean. The vegetation is out of place along the Berg River. The last 3kms of the journey showed just what could be done. Over the last four years the corridor of Eucalyptus trees had been removed thanks to funding from the Western Cape government and private investments. Here the riparian zone is slowly being restored to showcase a corridor of rich biodiversity. The presence of bird life and indigenous plant growth suggests that this project is on the right track.
The trip ended on Bothmasig farm with the finish line being marked by a serious rapid formed by a weir spanning across the river. Premier Zille, undeterred by challenge, led the fray and successfully shot the obstacle along with her two compatriots. There is surely another lesson and an analogy that the Premier can use in her next speech or newsletter! A number of old hands were not quite as successive in riding the final weir, but enjoyed a refreshing dip nonetheless.

What an amazing river. It’s a gift. How could we be so stupid as to ignore the value of this natural asset?

See photographs of the day: