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How to take this walk along the Liesbeek river

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This is a story about a river in Cape Town, South Africa: its colonial past and its Anthropocene future. It takes shapes as a 9 km–long walking conversation between photographer Dirk-Jan Visser and myself, historian Christian Ernsten, both from the Netherlands, and South African archaeologist Nick Shepherd.

As a kind of fourth companion, and historical interlocuter, we walk with Peter Kolb (1675–1726), the first known scientific explorer of the Cape of Good Hope – or, more precisely, with his writing. As such, we walk and read the Cape across time. Travel writing about the Cape of Good Hope is in many ways exemplary. As a result of scientific travel and the desire for inland colonial expansion to the Cape, it became a place where shifting relations between locals and newcomers played out with particular dramatic force.17

During the first decennia of the 17th century, Kolb mapped and described the Cape landscape, its rivers, and its people. While walking and reading his work, we confront the question: What would constitute a decolonial reading of Cape Town’s river landscape?

The literature on the Cape of Good Hope is a particularly fruitful one for studying the discursive shifts in travel writing.

Mary Louise Pratt

Day Zero is Cape Town’s
“Anthropocene Moment”

Nick Shepherd

We have “not seen anything like this since Jan van Riebeeck came ashore in April 1652 and took advantage of the bountiful streams and springs flowing off Table Mountain to plant gardens, fields and vineyards which provisioned the Dutch East India Company’s passing ships”

The Independent

We [as coloured people]26 don’t have places to say ‘I lived there’, ‘this is our culture’ – we don’t have that. I want to go back, and tell my daughter, my grand-children: ‘this is the river they played in, they used to do this in this area’. Something to look back at and share …”

Former Protea Village resident

The source of the Salt River [is] on the summit of the ta- ble hill. In its course it receives several rivulets, and waters several fine estates, gardens and vineyards […]. Its water is as clear as crystal, and is esteem[e]d very wholesome.

Peter Kolb

In its isolation from the great world, walled in by oceans and an unexplored northern wilderness, the colony of the Cape of Good Hope was indeed a kind of garden.

J.M. Coetzee

This part is mountainous and stony, yet very fertile, producing everything, that is of the growth of the Cape countries, in great plenty. The air is serene and healthful, and the waters plentiful and good.

Peter Kolb

Between those gardens [of Newlands and Rondenosch] stand[s] Lonwen’s famous brew-house, erected by Jacob Lonwen […]. The brew-house is plentifully supplied with water from the Springs on the Table Hill; which likewise water all the circumjacent fields.

Peter Kolb

The historical evidence is cohesive enough to confirm that the [Two River Urban Park] forms part of the first frontier between the Dutch colonists and the Peninsula Khoi Khoi.

The Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin In- digenous Traditional Council High Commissioner, Tauriq Jenkins

High up on the rocky hill where they had planted the cross I sat watching the brown egg coming slowly towards the land until […]. It was still early dawn when I had gone up the hill with my goatskin bag filled with gifts for Heitsi-Eibib: a calabash of honey, an ostrich egg brought all the way from Camdebo, sour milk, goat fat, a small bag of buchu. Let those treacherous strangers do what they wish, I thought, I would rededicate this place to Heitsi-Eibib in the proper way.

Character in Andre Brink’s The first life of Adamastor