Tuesday, November 3, 2015 - 16:41

This is one of those stories we love to publish. A hidden piece of heritage revealed by passionate activists on the ground. Thank you to William Gaul for sending it through. We hope you enjoy  it as much as we have. [Originall Published 13 June 2015]

In the absence of any "official" name, I have chosen to refer to the waterfall as the "Melpark Waterfall" - although, again, "Melpark" is not a name officially recognised by the City of Johannesburg, but has long been used by residents along Rustenburg Road between the bends in that road; to the east, the road is known as Kew Road, and after the bends in the north-west, the suburb becomes Emmarentia where the road intersects with Barry Hertzhog Avenue. Rustenburg Road continues about two kilometres to the north-west where Barry Hertzhog ends in Victory Park. Apparently, the name "Rustenburg Road" existed even before the proclamation of Johannesburg, and was the main road across the Highveld to the town of Rustenburg, presumably from Heidelberg. It should be pointed out that the waterfall in question is often confused with the artificial falls created by the CoJ about 25 years ago in what is known as the "Aloe Park", falling between Hillcrest Road in Parkview and Barry Hertzhog Avenue, due to the relative proximity of the two falls.

The Melpark Waterfall occurs about a kilometre downstream of the confluence of three perennial north-flowing streams which together form the Braamfontein Spruit. These streams are the stream which rises in the grounds of the Barnato Park School in Berea (originally the residence of Barney Barnato); the so-called "Gasworks Spruit", which rises in the Braamfontein cemetery and flows along a course which includes the site of the Johannesburg Gas Works (now Egoli Gas) and then into the Frank Brown Park; and the so-called Country Club spruit, which is said to rise in the grounds of the Country Club, Johannesburg, but which I believe rises somewhere on Brixton Ridge. The three streams converge in Parktown - more specifically at a place once known as Sans Souci - which was the place where the Zulu Amawasha and a few Indian Dhobis plied their trade as laundrymen.

 

Egoli Gas Site from Above (The Heritage Portal)

 

It cannot be emphasised enough that the term "storm water drain" is a complete misnomer when applied to these streams; not only is it a misnomer, but the term also seems to lend to officials the belief that they can do as they please with these precious perennial water-courses. The streams have already been canalised in many places, and even the falls in question now flow into an ugly concrete basin, constructed when Barry Hertzhog Avenue was being built. Sight should not be lost of the fact that this stream is one of the headwaters of the Limpopo River: the Braamfontein Spruit flows into the Jukskei River, which, via the Hartebeestpoort Dam, in turn flows into the Crocodile and then into the Limpopo. It is interesting to note that this fact is commemorated in the name of the small Angilcan Chapel near the Brenthurst Clinic in Parktown, which stands on the stream rising at Barnato Park School, and which is called "St Mary's-on-the-Limpopo".

 

Basin prior to entering the tunnel on way to Parkview Golf course (William Gaul)

 

It should also be noted that this is one of the, if not the only, remaining natural waterfalls in Johannesburg, Further downstream, in Craighall Park, there are some rapids and broken, low falls, and there was at one time a waterfall just off Louis Botha Avenue in Orange Grove, where the Hotel once stood - but nothing else could be regarded as a "waterfall". As the only natural  waterfall within the City of Johannesburg, this site must be protected and nurtured at all costs.

 

Altered water course with consequent damage to the embankment (William Gaul)

 

According to a report by Mrs Flo Bird of the then Parktown & Westcliff Heritage Trust (now the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation), even long before the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand - perhaps even before the very well-documented Iron Age settlements on Melville Koppies a few hundred metres to the north-west of the waterfall - people must have been attracted to this site. It has therefore been a very special place for aeons - identified as such by the African Shaman, Credo Mutwa - and should continue to be so.

Much of the history of the site in question is based on memory and oral history. As one who was born in a house in Rustenburg Road, I grew up in close proximity to the falls, where my brothers and I enjoyed many boyhood hours, playing in the weir above the falls, and in the pool below the falls.

 

Viewback over weir to facings at exit of tunnel under Carlow road (William Gaul)

 

To the immediate south of the weir, where the Chamber of Mines built its laboratory (now the CSIR), lay a nursery, whose proprietor, a Mr Pienaar, built the weir to ensure an adequate supply of water to irrigate his plants. It was he who shored up the southern bank of the weir, immediately below his property, with discarded tram-lines - and these were in place until very recently, when they were removed, presumably as scrap metal by thieves. Fortuitously, I photographed the rails in situ a few months before they were stolen - these photographs are available. They were identified as tram rails rather than railway lines by the longitudinal groove cut into them, which was necessary to accommodate the flange of the tram wheel - trams of course ran along macadamised streets, and the rails were sunk so as to be level with the road surface.

My mother visited this nursery quite regularly, taking with her my brothers, cousin and myself. In this way, we were introduced to the falls, which later became one of our haunts in the neighbourhood. At that time, the Rand Steam Laundries, situated up-stream in Richmond, used the Braamfontein Spruit as a drain, pumping the laundry's effluent into the stream - which meant that the water that we played in was not very clean - until a highveld thunder storm had flushed the soapy water down through the Parkview Golf course and into the Jukskei River. Despite the pollution, however, I remember clearly catching tadpoles in the rock pools above the falls - so the water was not completely contaminated. At present, however, sewage spills from Hillbrow and lower downstream appear to have polluted the water with E. coli bacteria, among other contaminants.

Immediately to the west of the site, on Rustenburg Road, is a promontory (the extreme eastern shoulder of the Melville Koppies), which is known as "Oom Paul se Kop". On a rock surface overlooking the road and the waterfall site is a portrait of the republican President, which has always been, and continues to be, refreshed (by persons unknown) of the 10 October, which was Kruger's birthday. The portrait is framed by a beautiful specimen of "stamvrug" (Engelrophytum magaliesmontanum). The open field just to the south of the promontory is said to have been an outspan, used by Kruger on his infrequent sorties into the town of Johannesburg. Indeed, until recently, this area, extending across the Braamfontein spruit, was (and may still be) indicated on the municipal cadastral plan as an "outspan". This was an idyllic place in which travellers into the town from the west and north-west would have rested and watered their animals. It is submitted that the juxtaposition of the promontory, the outspan and the waterfall, raise the heritage value of the site considerably.

Between Melville and Parkview/Westcliff, the stream has been canalised - but this stretch of canal is constructed of beautifully hammer-dressed stone - possibly a product of the programme to up-lift poor whites during the depression. This, together with the rock facing on the tunnel emerging into the weir, should be preserved. The Author is aware that when certain work was being undertaken at the southern end of the rock-faced canal, a quantity of the dressed stone was removed for use in the construction of the new Science block at St John's College. No further depredations to this heritage structure should be permitted.

Mrs Bird refers to an 1897 photograph, published in The Queen's Record Reign, captioned "Waterfall near Johannesburg". She states that in the foreground of the photograph are the large wheels of a spider or similar conveyance, with a group of people enjoying a picnic on the rocks. As the author has not seen this photograph, it is not possible to say whether the falls shown in the photograph are the falls in question. However, the fact is that water resources (Sans Souci, Langlaagte, Orange Grove, Craighall Park) were all much sought after by residents in early Johannesburg as respite from the harsh, dry and dusty conditions of the town - and it is very likely that this was one such resource.

 

The Once Famous Craighall Lake

 

It should be recorded that, due to lack of control by municipal authorities, a squatter camp grew up on the site a few years ago. Frequent reports of drowning as inhabitants fell into the pool below the falls, or into the weir, preceded a conflagration in which the whole camp was destroyed. The author is not aware of any loss of life, but such loss could well have occurred, since escape from the site would have been very difficult due to the terrain. There are indications that the site is once again being developed into an informal settlement or squatter camp. This should be avoided at all costs.

In conclusion: this site, which has nurtured people and animals over the centuries, must be acknowledged as an important aspect of Johannesburg's heritage, and treated as such

WJ Gaul 2015

Disclaimer: Any views expressed by individuals and organisations are their own and do not in any way represent the views of The Heritage Portal.

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