Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Baakens River, its Tributaries and Environs

From very young, F.A. Longworth started to explore the Baakens Valley. From these explorations, Anthony would develop an abiding interest in the Baakens and for that reason it probably defined him. Longworth would come to love everything about the Baakens during the 1920s and 30s. It was only in the twilight of his life that under his wife’s incessant urgings would he put pen to paper not only about the Baakens River but also the whole town of Walmer, the centre of his universe.

This descriptive essay is extracted from his book simply entitled Walmer.

Main picture: Baakens Valley looking towards Target Kloof

Very few of the latter-day residents of Port Elizabeth can claim to know every inch of the Baakens and its tributaries from First Avenue Walmer to the Kragga Kamma Road. While not life-changing, Longworth’s description of the valley adds yet more texture to an absurdly pathetic tiny stream elevated to the status of river by the early settlers. The valley is yet another environmental gem and vital green lung for the city which deserves to be saved for our offspring and descendants.

Despite its short length being only 23 kilometres long and being no more than a minnow of a stream let alone a river. Nevertheless it plays an inordinate role in the shape and design of the city as it cleaves the town into two. The inconvenience caused is more than offset by the fact that the river provides 500 hectares of public open space. As the city expands, its residents will come to value this fact inordinately. With this resource falling under the Parks and Recreation Department of the Metro, pressure whould be applied on them to ensure that it is not developed into a suburb and that is safe for residents to hike along its banks.

The blog below strictly follows the four-page essay produced by Longworth.

My wanderings in the “Valley” started at an early age. About 1917, “us kids” were taken down to see my uncle’s timber which he was seasoning in a deep pool of water. I think he was testing the effects of water on African hardwoods including the now valuable stinkwood. From the dip in Church Road, we followed the bed of “Tin Pan Alley” to where the Klein Kabega River and Tin Pan Alley join the Baakens River. The pool was deep and lay immediately below a very steep white rock krans. This part of the valley was always known as and referred to as “Burchell’s Farm”. To me, my Walmer forebears and my contemporaries, this area will always be remembered as “Burchell ‘s Farm” particularly for reason of the name being associated with nature and the eminent South African naturalist. Sure, Percy Dodds acquired the property, and it became his farm – Dodd’s Farm – its rise to fame was only after the Second World War when the farm was used to promote a particular political party. To us, “Burchell’s Farm” is still more appropriate.

Video by Robert Brown

In later years when I was again mobile, I spent hours exploring the valley. From our home in Eleventh Avenue, it was en route to the Grey School and the Port Elizabeth Golf Club – from both I traipsed backwards and forwards. The western part of Mill Park did not exist, nor did any of the western suburbs. Later, I found my wanderings through the valley took me westwards. I was a mere male, and she was very charming and sweet. Her name was Stella Londt.

The Londt family lived on a farm on Cape Road called “Rondebosch”. Roughly, it was bounded by Cape Road, Kragga Kamma Road and the Baakens River. Today it is called “Sunridge Park”, and the family home is an old age home left as a memorial to Stella, who was killed in a motor accident in England.

Mr. and Mrs. Londt gave hospitality to many young persons of that time. The tennis courts were available, and Stella and I rode horseback all over the farm. They promoted golf amongst the youth at the Port Elizabeth Golf Club and sponsored competitions and the more skilled. Amongst others, I won a prize of £10 for coming down to a scratch handicap. After I had failed matric, this money was used for special tutorage when I received a “sup” [supplementary exam]. I passed matric. To the generosity and public spirit of Mr. and Mrs Londt, I owe my professional career. As a beneficiary, I was not alone.

My route from my home to “Rondebosch” was across the Walmer Golf Course, through the Klein Kabega River, across the flats (now Walmer Downs and Overbaakens) through the Baakens River Valley up to Mr. Londt’s almond tree plantation. It was always a long hike, but worth it for the freedom and the welcome. Mr. Londt was also interested in aviation, so we spent many weekends at the Fairview Aerodrome in First Avenue, Newton Park. My route through the Valley then was due north.

I had many friends in the valley – the cows, the goats, the buck, the hares, the birds, the tortoises and the leguaan. Residents of Walmer were permitted to keep animals, subject to certain health conditions. Cows, goats, horses and donkeys were the most popular. Grazing was readily available on the commonage – the green belt which surrounded the town. Dairies were established on the perimeter of the town adjacent to the commonage. Jones’ dairy was on the site where we now live and Poulter’s dairy was in Short Road near Fourteenth Avenue. On the small holdings of Fairview (now Overbaakens) were mostly goats and donkeys. Because of the water, the valley became the popular rendezvous, and the environs were patterned with animal tracks – both domestic and wild. I followed these tracks often in my wanderings. Horse carts, donkey carts and goat carts were a common means of transport in the town.

Map of the Baakens River and its main tributary, the Klein Kabega River

Buck and leguaan in the garden were quite a common sight and as for the hares, they thrived on Mom’s vegetable and other seedlings. Tortoises were plentiful. We collected them as children, but as adults encouraged them to go next door. On one occasion, I collected about thirty tortoises and painted their backs green. We transported them to Marine Drive, about 5 kms. east of Schoenmakerskop. In two-two’s, there were no tortoises to be seen – they disappeared into the vegetation. About three years later, we had green backed tortoises in the garden.

One quiet, cold and wet winter’s evening, we were sitting in the lounge. In Peter’s bedroom next door, we heard noises. Burglars!! The external door onto the stoep was open. We planned our attack. Simultaneously, Peter entered his room from the stoep, and I entered from the inside door turning on the light switch. There we caught them – red handed – all twelve of them. There was no resistance. In the rain, they had come from the valley to seek shelter. Soaked and stinking boer goats!!  We enticed them into the cow shed for the nightand in the morning herded them back to the valley.  The weather had cleared but there were now thirteen goats.  Who said thirteen was an unlucky number?  They were only kidding.

Into Peter’s bedroom came the flies. Wet goat seemed to attract them. Peter and I each armed with a bath towel flicked at flies for hours.  We bagged a two litre can full.

Some years later we were removing an old pine tree. During the excavations in sand, we found the stone head of a hammer, perfectly shaped and holed for the handle. The hammer head is now in the Port Elizabeth Museum. With the dune sand still being removed south of the railway line, it is evident that some years back, Strandlopers must have lived between the dunes and the Baakens River Valley. Other man shaped stones have been found from time to time.

In recent years, whilst terracing at our back entrance, I found an oval yellow enamelled steel plate disc with “P.E.M. 1916 TWO WHEELS” in black enamelled letters. This must have been the licence plate for Mrs Jones’ milk chariot.

During the June school holidays in 1928, I stayed on a farm between Jansenville and Pearston. The farm called “Wellfound” belonged to the Biggs family and was managed then by the late Llewellyn Biggs (who eventually became owner). It was my first experience of this type of farm, and Llewellyn was very kind and patient with this townie. Amongst his kindnesses was to present me with a setting of guinea fowl eggs. Back home, I carefully put them under a broody hen and in due course, we had guinea fowl chicks in the garden. I was elated – I was almost a Karoo farmer. As the chicks grew up, Mom’s garden was scratched to bits. Mom was very patient and tolerant. Tactfully, she suggested it was in the guinea fowls’ interests to be released into the Baakens River Va11ey. It was unnatural for them to be fenced up in Mom’s garden.  It saddened me but I agreed.

Now, never ever, in my wanderings in the valley had I encountered guinea fowl. My guinea fowl were the pioneers of the valley and its environs. As the years went by, I could hear them and occasionally saw them. They survived the greed of the poachers and migrated up the valley in the direction of William Moffat Freeway. Much later, they migrated down the valley towards Essexvale. The guinea fowl now in Settlers Park are mine. and the guinea fowl trail is a happy memory now beyond my physical reach.

My wandering in the valley seldom took me to that part between the drift at Target Kloof and the mouth. The Walmer side between Fifth and First Avenues had little appeal.

Above: Golf Villa Dairy in Walmer, on land bordered by Church and Short roads between 13th Avenue and 14th Avenue

However, about 1947, I was appointed by the Cape Provincial Administration to value all immovable property in Ward 2, Port Elizabeth, for municipal rating purposes. The area was bounded by the Baakens River in the south. the sea in the east, Target Kloof Road and Upper Dickens Street in the west, and Cape Road, Parliament Street, Donkin Street and Rodney Street in the north. This work necessitated my personally visiting, measuring and valuing all land and buildings in this area. Although very arduous, this was a most interesting task as the area was virtually the Port Elizabeth of yesteryear and included the harbour.

The southern boundary, being the Baakens River escarpment, took me to Essexvale, Ha11ack Road, Park Drive, Jutland and Brickmakers Kloof, all overlooking the valley. It also included Cuyler Crescent, Military Road, Baakens Street and around and down to Produce Street – all in the precincts of the Baakens River where Port Elizabeth was born. From the records, I learnt a lot about the old buildings and the old firms and families that had occupied them. One day a subject for another book by another author?

Above: Map of the Klein Kabega River, the longest tributary of the Baakens River

With the passing of time, my interest in and my love for the Baakens River Valley has never waned.I have not forgotten how in my youth I would sit on a rock in the valley dreaming for hours of the future of the Baakens River Valley. and its tributaries, the Klein Kabega River, and the Kabega River.

I dreamt how one day these valleys could be the playground for our environmentalists, our nature lovers and our country loving youth.

I dreamt that as urbanization developed westwards, they would have the va11eys of the Kabega River and Baakens River on their doorsteps. I dreamt that these/valleys would provide the lungs for the high-density mass housing that was to follow. However, I did not overlook the wonders of the sea or our wonderful sandy beaches and rocky coastline, but we are not all beach combers.

About 1950, when I was a town councillor, I tried to persuade the Walmer Council to declare as an open space in perpetuity that part of the Baakens and Klein Kabega river valleys which lay within the Walmer Municipal boundary. This would have included the commonage adjacent to the two rivers.

I was unsuccessful.

Baakens River just off Circular Drive

I think the councillors thought it was too vast an area for an open space. Had it been a mere picnic spot like Burchell’s Farm, I think they would have approved.

Strangely. it was my lifelong bowling friend, Robert Searle who, on this occasion, was my chief opponent.

. Some years later, when I had retired from active municipal affairs, Robert made a similar request which resulted in an area of commonage abutting the Baakens River and the Klein Kabega River – off Seventeenth Avenue – being declared the “Robert Searle Park”. Not so strange or was it just a wrong bias.

It was only in 1963 that once again the future of the Baakens River and environs came into the public eye. It was the birth of the “Baakens River Freeway” controversy.

Errol Stroud reminiscences on the Baakens

I spent 15 + years of my youth growing up in the Baakens valley. Back in the late 70’s we built a raft using 6 × 45-gallon drums strapped to an old iron gate that Pelican Pools had tossed out. We had to row it across to get to the other side.

The river then was teeming with carp, tilapia, freshwater eel and further upstream, in Settlers Park, bass. In the pool in front of the ” bus sheds” in this photo myself and my friends would camp overnight (yes it was safe then) and fish for grunter and steenbras on the pushing tide. Upstream we caught carp which were always safely release.  The building of the stone breakers upstream reduced the water to a trickle and in a short time no more fish were to be found. The river became smaller and smaller until the little concrete sluice was built to contain the water during flooding leaving a dead river with no tidal flow from the harbour which in turn stopped saltwater fish from coming into the Baakens River. Even the huge schools of mullet were no longer to be seen.

Today I could easily step across the small sluice that was once this beautiful, unhindered river. The Baakens River cannot and will never again bring joy to today’s generation. It is dead.

I’m so glad my father never lived long enough to watch it die. He loved the Baakens. I hope the money made by the few businesses of the day was worth stealing this delightful piece of paradise. The river was killed so that these businesses could gain wealth and not be affected when the river burst its banks after heavy rain. All that remains are the memories of a few old men and woman who were around to see it in all its splendor. My kids will never know the joy of playing on its banks or fishing in its clear, clean waters.

The once beautiful river is dead.


Walmer by F.A. Longworth (1998, QS Publications, Port Elizabeth)

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