Looking back at the early days of Rietvlei

Honorary life members of the Milnerton Aquatic Club for the year 1996

Pat Downing, long-time member of Friends of Rietvlei and the Milnerton Aquatic Club shared some memories of the bygone years of Rietvlei, how it came into being and some key events that have made it the attraction it is today.

Ms Downing recalls a time, back in the 1960s when Rietvlei was considered a suitable location for a second harbour.

“This at the time was seen as a strategic development for the country, as maritime trade was booming,” said Ms Downing. But by the end of the decade that plan was shelved.

In 1968 the land bordering the area called Rietvlei was owned by Peter Pentz Properties and later became Flamingo Vlei.

A “very narrow” gravel road wound its way between the dense Port Jackson trees, from Boy de Goede Circle, into what was known as Pentz Drive, which curved all the way around to Blaauwberg Road – where Pick * Pay is today.

“Where Rietvlei Park is today, opposite the police station in Pentz Drive, at that time, on the corner was an estate agent, Uytenbogardt, and a shop that sold anything and everything.”

In 1973 a Dutch company, HAM, were contracted for a project in the docks to dredge Rietvlei. Before the dredging could start, however, they had to clear a large area of bush, measuring one and a half kilometres by half a kilometre.

“The dredging started removing cubic metres of soil from the bottom of Rietvlei during May 1973, when seawater was pumped into the area, and the resulting slurry was pumped back to the harbour through giant pipelines that had been laid, to Cape Town harbour and used as filler in the construction of the Ben Schoeman dock. At times, there were unforeseen difficulties and on one occasion exceptionally low tides nullified the work of the dredger and its pumps. ”

She said the dredging was completed in 1974 and left an excavation of some 70ha with an average depth of 9m.

The excavated holes – south vlei and north vlei — became deep-water lakes, especially the north vlei.

“With such a lake, which many called a ‘dam’, on our doorstep, any man with a boat took the opportunity to go boating on the vlei. Although there were fences that bordered sections of the vlei, this was for safety reasons — to keep animals and people out. However the fences did nothing to keep boaters out. Boating people launched their boats in the south vlei from Otto du Plessis Drive illegally”.

To overcome this problem, a group of boat owners got together and, under the banner of the Rietvlei Development Committee, approached the various authorities that were concerned about their “illegal” boating activities.

In June 1976, the Rietvlei Development Committee of 13 people attended a meeting with the mayor and town clerk to discuss aquatic sport and the ecological situation.

At the next meeting, on June 17 1976, it was suggested that the committee be named The Rietvlei Aquatic Club Steering Committee. It was also suggested that the club approach Milnerton Estates, which owned most of the surrounding land, to ask them to adopt the club conservation laws and apply them to the entire Rietvlei area.

“Advisory reports were drawn up on sailing, power boating, angling and, of course, conservation, that proposed rules, most of which became by-laws, and changed the club’s name to Milnerton Aquatic Club (MAC),” said Ms Downing.

In the early 1970s, the developers of the Golden Acre in the city centre dumped all the rubble from the building site on the land belonging to Milnerton Estates, bordering Rietvlei.

“On January 4 1990, Richard Zuba, the MAC groundsman, was asked to dig a hole to plant a pole at the gate entrance to the club area. He came calling me and said, ‘Look what I’ve found.’ It was a stone with writing on it.”

The stone turned out to be a postal stone dating back to 1542. Ms Downing said the South Africa Cultural History Museum suggested the stone had come from the Golden Acre excavation.

A cast of the postal stone was presented to the club in August 1990 by Mike Wilson of the museum.

The Tourism office on the beachfront also had a cast of the stone on display. MAC gave its cast to Koos Retief Nature Conservation to be displayed in their building.

Ms Downing recalls in MACs early days how three portable toilets were positioned along the Otto du Plessis edge of the vlei.

“Every Sunday morning, I took a walk around Rietvlei and doctored the toilets with chemicals. One particular Sunday, I came face to face with a Cape Cobra occupying a loo – well, the bucket of chemicals went south while I went north at a high rate of knots. My shouts and frantic signals only brought waves of greetings from those afloat,” she said.

Due to the absence of fences between farmlands and residential properties, cattle grazed freely along the banks of the Diep River and in the Rietvlei area, which meant that anyone boating over the weekend had to dodge “cow pats” when launching their boats.

Ms Downing also remembers the four pelicans that would visit the clubhouse and wait for her.

“A lady named Janet in the fish department of the Pick * Pay in Milnerton got permission to give me the off-cuts of fish, which I used to feed to the four pelicans,” she said.

“I can remember times when members suntanned in the buff on the ‘island’, the Wednesday afternoon ‘fun’ in the showers, the high jinks on the old bridge, the nightly swims, the ducking and diving, the all fall downs’, the club love affairs, plus all the tears and laughter which will always remain my secret. When at the club and you see me smile awhile, some of you will know why,” she said.