Linking mountain to sea

The trail of the princess follows the path of birds, linking the Cape Flats to Table Mountain.

An ancient Khoisan tale about the tragic fate of a princess chief has taken on new life with plans to use two rivers in the Constantia Valley to weave divided communities together with recreational trails running all the way from her rocky dominion of legend to the sea.

The project, estimated to cost R30m, is called Source to Sea corridor project. If it’s successful, it could be rolled out elsewhere in greater Cape Town.

The vision, according to mayoral committee member for energy, environmental and spatial planning, Johan van der Merwe, is to not only heal the river systems, but also create pathways through the greenery where people can run, walk, cycle…. all the way to the beach… or to work.

Both rivers rise from several tributaries on the east-facing slopes of the Table Mountain chain, flowing into the Diep River and Prinskasteel/Keysers River before meandering through the Constantia Valley and into Zandvlei and then False Bay.

This weekend, the City of Cape Town will hold an open day where the public can view the plans and comment on them.

The project started as a dream in November 2004, when John Green, James Forsyth and Mandy Noffke discussed the possibility of creating a riverine corridor connecting the mountain to the sea linking Prinsesskasteel (Elephant’s Eye) to Princess Vlei and Zandvlei. But the roots of the story go back even further to when the Khoisan lived here.

Back in 2008, Mr Green, who is president of the Kirstenhof-based Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA), took me on a walk through Tokai plantation.

“This is the only place on the peninsula where the Cape Flats can access the Table Mountain park directly,” he told me at the time.

He also told the fascinating story of a princess who, according to legend, ruled from her stronghold at Elephant’s Eye, but was later captured by sailors from a passing ship and killed.

Brett Myrdal, who was TMNP park manager at that time, also shared Mr Green’s vision, and he held a meeting several years ago with the City of Cape Town to discuss it. However it dropped off the priority list when he left. But the dream didn’t die and many continued to work behind the scenes to make it a reality.

Gavin Lawson of Zandvlei Trust is among them and is excited that this “unique model project” is taking off.

“It’s vital and is all about catchment from the mountains surrounding the valley. And it’s people-focussed, from squatter camps to the affluent,” said Mr Lawson.

Ms Noffke has been working on the project for more than a decade through Wessa.

“By working in small areas in their backyards, friends groups connected with each other and other organisations, such as Working for Wetlands, to build pockets of rehabilitated riverine corridors. Their expertise and input through studies funded by WWF’s Table Mountain Fund, and later the City of Cape Town’s Green Job Unit, helped to galvanise these efforts and build the bigger vision,” said Ms Noffke.

Last week, Stephen Granger, manager of the City’s major programmes and projects, said the two rivers were chosen because much of the upper sections were in good condition. They then flow through high-, middle- and low-income areas connecting residents, businesses, schools, sports clubs and faith institutions.

He said the project is a joint initiative between the City of Cape Town, Wessa, SANParks and ICLEI Africa (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives).

Inspiration comes from Cape Town’s partnership with Munich which revitalised its River Isar over the past 15 years. It was an important challenge for Munich which faces the prospect of much heavier rains in the future because of climate change. Rainstorms in the Alps in1999, 2005 and 2013 caused major floods and destruction in southern Germany.

Sarah Chippendale, of the City’s environmental resource management department, who grew up in Constantia, said spin-offs from the project included: job creation; the creation of public open space; building climate resilience: and public participation through river wardens.

Councillor Liz Brunette in whose ward much of the Diep River passes said she attended a two-day workshop at Zandvlei 18 months ago, organised by ICLEI.

“It’s big, exciting. It will connect Zandvlei to the mountains, people can run, walk, ride from the mountains to the beach where they can swim and it will show people what the valley has to offer,” said Ms Brunette.

Dr John Winter, who has championed the annual Peninsula Paddle since 2010, said the Source to Sea concept “fits in with the Peninsula Paddle ethos” of raising awareness about social and environmental threats to Cape Town’s rivers.

Table Mountain National Park spokeswoman Tarcia Hendricks said the SANParks honorary rangers would take part in the Source to Sea open dayat Le Sueur Meadow on the Alphen Trail, on Saturday November 5, from 9am to noon.

Visit for more information about the project.

Legend of a princess

According to Jose Burman’s book, Safe to the Sea, the origin of the princess is shrouded in the mists of legend, kept alive by tales told by Khoisan herders and generations of slaves.

The story goes that a tribe of Khoisan once lived in the Constantia valley, and their chief was a woman – a “princess”.

Her stronghold was a huge cave on the Constantiaberg – now known as the Elephant’s Eye.

While bathing in the vlei, she was captured by a band of Portuguese sailors from a passing ship and killed.

Princess Vlei was initially named Diep River Vlei by Jan van Riebeeck. However, according to legend, it was later renamed after the princess.

Many people in the community surrounding the vlei still believe that anyone going into the water will die, thereby keeping the legend of the princess alive.

John Green says it is the only wetland in the Western Cape with a legend.

In 2008, R3 million was granted by the City of Cape Town to give Princess Vlei a facelift (“Princess Vlei facelift helps fulfil a vision”, Bulletin September 11, 2008).