The Elsieskraal has been the source of pleasure and pain for those living in Pinelands.
Jose Burman in his book Safe to the Sea writes “The Elsieskraal is a river of history, intimately connected with the Development of the early Cape, from its source where it supplied the lifeblood of the pioneer farms to its mouth where it joins the Black River – one time frontier against the hottentots [sic]. In past days it was a river to remember wreaking havoc with its winter floods. But man has tamed the Elsieskraal River and today it has become another forgotten waterway.’’ The source of the Elsieskraal is in the north-eastern slopes of the Tygerberg on the farm Maastricht where there are three springs. The river flows on through the farms of Bloemendal and Aldegedacht before being joined by a tributary from Kanonbeg and flowing past an old coal mine. It continues its way through the suburbs of Bellville, Parow, Elsiesriver, Goodwood and Thornton before arriving in Pinelands where it meets the Black River. It was described as having sandy banks 3.6m high and a width of 6m with an expanse of pine and wattle trees on either side.
The origin of the name of the river has several theories. Early maps show the spelling as the Elsje River. Therefore, the most probable story is related to Governor Simon van der Stel’s Deputy Governor, Andries de Man who married Elsje van Zuurwaarde in 1689. Andries oversaw the buildings at the Maasticht which had been granted to Hendrick Seegers. Andries named the stream running through the farm after his wife, Elsje. In 1693 Andries was granted the Table Valley property now known as Welgemeend. When Andries died in 1696, Elsje became the owner of the farm de Tijgerbergen which now called Altydgedacht. It was on this farm that Napoleon’s secretary Count de las Cases was imprisoned in 1817, after being banished from St. Helena where Napoleon was held captive.
In 1803 the river was key to a proposal to transporting coal in barges which had been discovered on the banks of the river in the Bellville area. However, the coal seam was not thick enough to be profitable.
The earliest recorded heavy flooding of the river was reported in the Cape Argus in July 1862. In 1935, the Pinelands Town Engineer took steps to minimise the flood damage. In 1941 the Government appointed a commission which proposed that the river be canalised. As an interim measure the course of the river in the Links Drive area was diverted to minimise the flooding.
The heavy rains in 1944 resulted in extensive flood damage along the banks of the Elsieskraal. A second proposal was drawn up in 1946 to canalise the river. Although the scheme was scrapped in 1948, it was reviewed and modified in 1954. The plans were rejected by the Cape Town City Council three years later despite more heavy rains in that year flooding 40 Pinelands house with up to 1m of water and a lake of water 1.6kms forming along Forest Drive.
Finally, work on canalisation was underway in 1978. Most of the bird and animal life disappeared from its banks. Three thousand trees were planted, and pathways constructed. Pump stations were installed to irrigate the grassed areas.
At the time it was reported that the river would run at full stream once every 30 years. Yet the canalisation caused the river to increase speed and flood regularly. However, the flooding was contained by the banks of the river. The river however still remained treacherous when in full flood.
Over the years, after heavy rains the bodies of those who drowned up stream have been retrieved at the confluence of the Black River. In the 1980’s the Pinelands Municipality placed chains on the sides of the canal that can be used by anyone falling in the canal. At least one life was saved when a resident jumped into the swollen river to save a dog that had fallen in. Less fortunate were the young Pinelands boy in 1979 and the Thornton Grade 2 pupil in 2012 who were swept away by the fast-flowing, swollen river.
Today the banks of the river are still used by residents for leisure and the recently formed Friends of the Elsieskraal have been doing sterling job in returning the area to its former glory.