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Water Heroes of the vegetable kind – and an impressive tower

The second day of the Journey of Water explored the engineered infrastructure that carries water to our homes and taps, serving as a sobering reminder of how dependent we are on the natural systems upstream that provide us with the bounty of freshwater, writes Andrea Weiss.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
Our Water Heroes take to the water in the Journey of Water.

We had climbed up seven flights and a dizzying 100 steel steps to the top of what we calculated was an 11-storey tower, except half of it was buried deep inside the wall of the Theewaterskloof Dam.

A scramble up one final ladder before we popped out onto a platform overlooking the dam. What a view!

Unlike a year ago, at the height of the Day Zero drought, the Theewaterskloof Dam is now almost 40% full. Back then it teetered at a terrifying 10% and Capetonians were frantically saving up water supplies in fear of running out.

This, our final excursion on the second day of the Journey of Water was a closer look at the engineered infrastructure that carries water to our homes and taps and also a sobering reminder of how dependent we are on the natural systems upstream that provide us with the bounty of freshwater.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
Our Water Heroes tour the inner workings of the Theewaterskloof Dam.
An early morning paddle

Our day started out on a light note.

All night thunder had rumbled overhead but by morning the weather had cleared, giving us a view of the mountains beyond. With paddling on the agenda, it was a short hike across farmland to an access point on the Riviersonderend for a splish and a splash between the palmiet-lined banks. By the time we reached the put-out point for the canoes some of us were wetter than others from a bit of horsing around on the water.

The river paddle gave us the chance to get close to a plant Water Hero – the indigenous palmiet which lines the banks. As we had heard yesterday, palmiet plays a vital role in the river ecology, cleansing the water, slowing floods and acting as a giant sponge to store and release water during dry spells.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
Our Water Heroes Pearl Thusi and Quintin Smith navigate the palmiet waters in a canoe.
Vegetables on the menu

By contrast, alien invasive vegetation sucks up water – on a hot day an alien invasive tree can suck up 200 litres a day. This we learnt at nearby Uitkyk farm where we met Philip Ross, a champion of the Restoring Riviersonderend project and board member of the Zonderend Water Users’ Association, and his son Chad.

Their pack shed had cases full of crisp, fresh produce from the farm – broccoli, cauliflower, celery and at least three types of kale – a reminder of the agriculture that also depends on healthy rivers. Ross talked about his own journey of water, learning about the value of palmiet and the impact of the recent drought as well as his journey to more sustainable farming practices.

Soon after we sampled the fruit of his labour in the form of a delicious lunch set out by his wife Shelley in the garden overlooking the river – butternut salad, cabbage and chicken salad, potatoes fresh out of the ground.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
Chad Saaiman tries his hand at stripping kale.
Getting our hands dirty

In the meanwhile, down by the river, members of the WWF team were using nets to gather samples to conduct a mini South African Scoring System (SASS). The SASS involves taking a sample of river water to count the “goggas” in it, which are an indicator of river health.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
Our Water Heroes learn how to determine water quality.
A visit to a palmiet island

Our penultimate stop of the day was another take on palmiet – this time a visit to a thick, almost impenetrable wetland with a path cut through it to an “island”. Here, in the middle of the palmiet thicket, a team was clearing black wattle trees to prevent these from spreading their seeds further downstream.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
Our walkers explore a palmiet thicket.
Looking to the next adventure

This year’s Journey of Water is going in reverse. Previously we have travelled from catchment to tap – but this year we have been going from degraded rivers and disturbed farmland upstream to the Theewaterskloof Dam and beyond into the high mountains.

There is a reason for this – tomorrow’s adventure involves an exhilarating zipline tour through the peaks and valleys of the Hottentots-Holland Nature Reserve.

Yes, water doesn’t come from a tap, and tomorrow we’ll see why.

Andrea Weiss Photo
Andrea Weiss, Media Manager

Andrea is a former journalist and travel editor and now a media manager with WWF who wants to save the planet. Don’t we all?

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