Flood time on the river

March 2018

March is flood month, I was told. As a newbie to life by the river I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I found out over the weekend.

It’s water creeping up the paving even as you watch; water splashing high over huge spiky stumps trapped on the weir; water rushing under the bridges so close you could reach out and touch it; water spreading over the lowlands, turning pastures into lakes.

It’s a family marooned on their porch surrounded by murky washes; a barge floating downstream; a white plastic chair bobbing at the Henley River Retirement Village …

It’s a watery wonderland of trees and bushes reflected in still waters broken only by ducks and waterbirds exploring new habitats.

It’s people in Daleside sheltering in tents while water sloshes knee-high in the proudly kept homes I visited only a couple of weeks ago.

It’s a couple of idiots wading out into fast water in swimming costumes; a speedboat well above the flood line securely fastened just in case.

It’s water flowing into gardens in Regatta and Oxford roads, swamping swimming pools and floating garbage bins.

It’s calls in the night, the constant crackling of the Community Policing Forum (CPF) radio. It’s night visits to the bridge and the weir to see the water rising, a fire engine going past, banner tape and road closed signs (a thankful gasp that we bought on the “right” side of the river).

It’s the bridge of Saloojees, the turbulence of water rushing through – nothing could survive in that maelstrom.

It’s a vigil in the dark, guarding the bridge, watching for rising waters, pedestrians crossing, cars rushing past too fast; an open boot, coke and sandwiches for all sectors.

It’s bakkies and 4x4s motoring through the water over the bridge, ignoring those who had to remove shoes and socks and wade. Would it have been so difficult to lower the tailgate and take a couple of passengers?

It’s the smell of dank river water, an earthy smell from the squishy mud and the greenish rotting smell of wet vegetation.

It’s the calm voice of Hotel One on the radio, Marcel Esterhuysen rising to every occasion, the reassuring and obvious competence of the low-number Hotels in their CPF caps and Henley Watch badges manning the bridges in luminous jackets – been there, done that, seen this before, we’ll be fine.

Volunteers all.

This one was almost as bad as the 2010 floods, the old-timers told me. Although I had no immediate interest in Henley on Klip at the time, I remember the flood pictures in the newspapers. That, I hear, was caused by debris piling up against the foot bridge over the weir and blocking the flow.

Five years or so later the bridge was removed. According to the Henley Herald of November 2014, a new bridge was envisaged, but rising costs put it out of reach. Some residents have told me about the popular two bridges walk – from the Rebstein bridge along one bank, cross at the Kidson weir and meander back along the other. Presumably there was somewhere for coffee or breakfast afterwards.

Once, apparently, the river was crystal clear and flowed in the usual trickle down a small gorge, but in 1904 the weir was built to provide a lagoon for boating, bathing and regattas. After all, the village was named after Henley on Thames, that famous boating spot.

Those were the days when special trains ran from Johannesburg bringing folk out from Johannesburg to play by the river for the day. There was golf and even fox hunting (without the fox).

There was a ferry over the river then, and a drift where the Slangfontein bridge (Saloojees) now stands – it was opened in 1926. The Rebstein bridge was opened in 1961. A Mr Rebstein fought for it to be built. He was German, judging by the German eagles on the railings.

I was told that every resident of Henley on Klip is guaranteed access to the river, but most are now fenced off to protect the wetlands. It was a grave disappointment when I first arrived here. I came to a river, I expected to see the river and walk beside it; if possible, float on it. All I know so far is the weir and the access road past the library, soggy overgrown land (now a lake for waterbirds) by the Henley Watch hut and the Makery (when it’s open).

I owe some of these facts to Koos van Eck’s history of Henley, “A River runs through” (I finally got hold of a copy). It’s interesting, if not complete. A stroll through the maze at Fraser Park is also enlightening as you wind through the inhabitants of Henley from the early Boers to recent years, past the Lions and Rotarians, the bowlers and patrollers, and the woman with 30 cats. Small towns – they have their own flavour.

I grew up in one, but it didn’t have a river running through it.

Flipping through the book, I spotted references to several floods. In 1918 the weir washed away when dams broke up river. The year 1954 was apparently a particularly bad one. Others were in 1978, 1984 and another bad one in 2000. Then too, the volunteers turned out in force.

Buy into Henley on Klip and an occasional flood is part of the contract.

See more on http://www.henley-on-klip.co.za