[…] when your head yearns for the pillow’s rest
the Eerste River grows louder and full
and in your heart, the stones roll rounder still
DJ Opperman. Grondstowwe by die siklus van seisoene II Winter (own translation)
The round, white river stones of Stellenbosch’s Eerste River remind us of how the world used to look here, how wild and untamed it was when the mountain waters rushed down the valleys in die rainy winter months.
When the Eerste River still flowed much stronger it flooded the riverbanks nearly every winter. With the centuries the river looked for new courses, forming islands, islands like the one on which Simon van der Stel and his search party stayed over in 1679.
The Eerste River was the ‘lifeblood’ of the growing Stellenbosch, but was also a threat.
The riverbed back then was more shallow than now, and buildings much closer to the water level – specifically at the old drostdy ground where the theological seminary stands today. Hennie Vos, an archaeologist at the Stellenbosch Museum, made excavations here and discovered the foundations of the old settlers were nearly 2 meter deeper than our own
It was to protect the drostdy complex (the home of the landdrost and managerial center of the village), that a committee was appointed to manage the flow of the Eerste River. (This committee was called the ‘heemraad’. The word ‘Heem’ probably stems from the same word than ‘home’, and means something like ‘home council’). Where the river split in two to form the island the main flow was the closer of the two, and water flooded past the drostdy. Large clearing efforts were undertaken after each winter, and the community asked to provide workers and tools to help fix the flood’s damage.
The Boland winters are wet and cold. I imagine how the community struggled to dry their clothes, and how the icy winter wind, and an absence of electricity, made flooding a huge crisis. In 1731 a wall is built at the uppermost point of the island, seemingly offering some resistance against the worst flooding in the following 30 years.
But the floods of 1768 reaches a crisis level – the bridge is swept away and everywhere the river floods its banks. The local authorities decides to cover some parts of the river at the island, forcing the water towards the left (in the direction of Welgevallen) in stead of towards the right in the direction of the town. Goewerneur Ryk Tulbagh, who had heard of the emergency, calls a special meeting and appoints two professionals, Melck and Hoffman, to oversee the Stellenbosch river project. Bends in the river are straightened, and sand and stones removed from the middle. It takes a team of builders (many of them prisoners) three months to finish the project.
But the temperamental river has the last say once more as it floods its banks that very same winter, looking for its original ‘doortogt’ (Dutch for ‘thoroughfare’). Stellenbosch’s island must be done away with for good, and in 1769 one branch of the river is covered up completely. Here the story of the island ends.
And this is how we know the Eerste River of today, a calmer version of a once stormy river.
But for those who are willing to listen, the white stones tell a different, older story.