The West Coast Fossil Park at Langebaanweg showcases the fascinating array of extinct animals which inhabited the West Coast area some 5 million years ago, when the area had a more sub-tropical climate with lush riverine forests, swamps and open grasslands. These animals included African bears, sabre-tooth cats, short-necked giraffes, and hunting hyenas. The old mining area containing these fossils has been declared a National Heritage Site and is an important local educational and research resource.
Importantly, a growing understanding of climatic changes, sea level fluctuations and changing ocean currents in the region in the geological past gives us a better understanding of possible future biological changes in this region associated with climate change.
Archaeological evidence suggests that human habitation of the Berg River area goes back to the nomadic San hunter-gatherers. They left valuable rock paintings across this part of the Western Cape. Around 2000 years ago, the Khoikhoi pastoralists moved into the area with their cattle and sheep. From the time of first European settlement, increasingly hostile relationships with the colonists eventually resulted in the disappearance of the San and the fatal decline of the Khoikhoi culture.
The first known European encounter of the Berg River was made by Bailiff Abraham Gabbema in 1657. Dutch Governor Jan van Riebeeck sent Gabbema to trade with the Khoikhoi for meat to feed the settlement back at the Cape and Gabbema named the river the ‘Groot Berg Rivier’. Following the discovery of this navigable river, many of van Riebeeck’s men followed its winding course as a way northward.
Though explored in the 1650s, the catchment area was not developed until the late 1680s, during Governor Simon van der Stel’s term. Up until then, settlement was only within the Cape Peninsula. Governor van der Stel visited the area and due to the Berg River’s fertility and beauty, he established the first European Settlements at Paarl and the Drakenstein valley in 1687. Thereafter, Wellington, Franschhoek and Tulbagh were established and settled primarily with farmers from Europe (notably France) who brought with them crops (wine grapes) and skills that laid the foundations for much of the current agricultural economy. For a long time, the area further north was of interest only for the defence of the Cape Colony, and to supply explorers and hunters travelling northwards towards Namaqualand.
Towns further north developed in the 19th and 20th centuries with the emergence first of stock farming, followed by wheat farming and in some areas fruit, wine and indigenous ‘rooibos’ tea. Relatively stable and favourable climatic and market conditions from the 1930’s to the end-century resulted in strong agricultural growth but this has come under pressure in recent years.
Saldanha Bay’s history is strongly associated with early European exploration and the development of Table Bay (Cape Town). It was named after António de Saldanha, the Portuguese captain of a ship which visited the Cape in 1503. The Bay has a good natural deep harbour which is well sheltered from storms, but early attempts to develop the harbour were aborted due to the inhospitable and unproductive land and lack of fresh water.
For a long time, Saldanha Bay was of interest only to whalers and fishermen. Modern-day Saldanha was founded on a lucrative fishing industry, and more recently developed further around the iron ore brought here via the 800km-long Sishen-Saldanha railway line. The port has developed into a modern harbour with a deepwater jetty to facilitate the export of iron ore and steel. Nearby, beautiful Langebaan Lagoon is the centre of a growing ecotourism industry and has become popular as a retirement destination for the well-heeled classes.
The Berg River is arguably the most important feature of this landscape and this resource has been heavily developed since the mid-19th century. Early water management schemes included diversions and weirs and engineering interventions at the river mouth. Then, in the 1950’s, the Wemmershoek Dam (58 million m3) was built and the development of Voëlvlei, a seasonal wetland, as a storage scheme was begun. The capacity of the Voëlvlei Dam was increased in 1971 (158 million m3) and a few years later the Misverstand Dam was developed to supply various West Coast urban settlements. From the early 1980s’, the Riviersonderend-Berg-Eerste River Government Water Scheme gradually started to supplement the Berg River catchment. This is an inter-basin water transfer scheme between the Theewaterskloof Dam (Breede River basin) and the Upper Berg River, using tunnels. Finally, the Berg River Dam and Supplement Scheme was completed in 2007, adding 127 million m3 to the total supply capacity. Further development of the water resource will rely heavily on groundwater, water re-use and desalinisation.
In 1950, the scientists Harrison and Elsworth started a three-year detailed limnological and chemical study of the Berg River. They monitored the biota and conditions of life in what was then still a relatively unpolluted river. The study was the first of its kind in South Africa and provided a good basis for subsequent research on river biology and pollution. Today, much of the research effort focuses on pollution and what impacts this may have on riverine ecosystems and users of the water.