The River Meander Exhibit

The River Meander traces the journey of a pristine river, from its mouth, to its origin high up in the mountains.  Over the years this exhibit has matured into one of our most inspiring exhibits and now boasts a ten-year-old milkwood forest; a breeding colony of African penguins from which we release juveniles into the wild; rockhopper penguins; African black oystercatchers and a wide selection of freshwater fish, indigenous and alien, to our Western Cape rivers. A bird hide, overlooking the rockhopper rookery, offers people a place to sit and relax in this peaceful riverine environment.

George, the African penguin, on sandy beach. Photograph by Helen Lockhart George, the African penguin, on sandy beach. Photograph by Helen Lockhart

The story of a river

Rocky shoreline and sandy beach

We begin our journey on a rocky shoreline where the river flows into the sea. A great variety of animals and plants, such as mussels, limpets, anemones, sea urchins and seaweeds, live on and amongst the rocks . Look carefully below the waterline and you may see West Coast rock lobster.

The rocky shoreline leads onto a sandy beach. Sand is made up of shells and rocks which have been ground up and deposited by waves. Wave action is the key factor influencing all sandy beaches.

Lower river reaches

Floating plants live in the deep, slow waters of lower river reaches. South Africa has no indigenous floating plants, but a number of alien species such as water hyacinth, Kariba weed and waterfern have invaded our rivers.

Water hyacinth is a particular problem in certain rivers and wetlands around Cape Town and the dense mats these plants form must be cleared regularly to  prevent flooding. This is an expensive and ongoing operation and the machines used to clear the plants also destroy the natural shape of  the river bed. Not only do these plants cause flooding, they also swallow up precious water and choke habitats for fish and other aquatic animals. They cause further damage by preventing sunlight from filtering through the water surface and provide ideal habitats for mosquitoes and even bilharzia-carrying snails. 

How do aliens invade our rivers and wetlands?

  • Some species were brought into South Africa for garden ponds and fish tanks, but have made their way into our rivers.   

  • Birds and boats carry pieces of plants from one body of water to another, spreading aliens into new rivers and streams. 

  • Fertilisers as well as large quantities of untreated sewage effluent that run into our rivers promote the rapid growth of alien species. In fact, given enough nutrients, water hyacinth can double its weight in one day!

What can I do to stop the invasion?

  • Think carefully before buying plants for your pond or fish tank – find out first if they are invasive aliens and if so, avoid them.    

  • Check your boats, fishing rods and nets before you use them and clean off any plant residue, or seeds.  

  • If you recognise an alien plant in a river, or a wetland, try to remove it.   

  • Plant indigenous species in your own garden – they’re more water-wise than aliens and require less fertilising.

Photograph by Helen Lockhart Photograph by Helen Lockhart

Middle river reaches

The middle reaches of a river often have deep pools, gentle currents and warmer waters than the lower or upper reaches. These middle reaches are home to a great habitat diversity and many different kinds of animals can be found here; these tend to grow faster and reach larger sizes than anywhere else along the river. Algae grow well on rocks in the river bed and form the basis of a rich and varied food chain. Insects thrive here as well, grazing on small pieces of plants washed downstream from the upper reaches.

Alien enemies!

Alien fish, brought into South Africa from other parts of the world, are natural enemies of the local, indigenous fish in our rivers for many reasons. They compete with indigenous fish for food and they eat indigenous fish, their eggs and their young. They destroy the nesting sites of indigenous fish and have parasites and diseases, which are unhealthy for indigenous fish.

The fish that you see in this exhibit are all indigenous fish found only in our Western Cape rivers and nowhere else in the world. Some of these migrate upstream to breed and their survival is threatened by the construction of dams, which obstruct migration routes. Dams also change both the natural flood and temperature cycles in the river, both of which serve as natural cues for breeding and migration.

Upper river reaches 

A river begins in the mountains. Here, in its upper reaches, mountain stream currents are fast, cold and clear of silt. Only small numbers of plants and animals can survive in these shaded, low-nutrient waters. These animals feed mainly on rotting leaves, which have fallen into the river from vegetation along its banks. As a result of the fast-flowing water and limited food sources, only a few species of indigenous fish live in the mountain streams of the Western Cape. Alien rainbow trout and brown trout have been introduced into the region over the years and have made for excellent fly-fishing opportunities, but their introduction is in turn responsible for the declining numbers of two of our own indigenous species in mountain streams – the Berg River redfin minnow and Breede River redfin minnow.

Freshwater fishes of the Western Cape

Western Cape rivers were once home to a great number of indigenous fishes until alien (exotic) species were introduced, mainly for sport fishing. Unfortunately the early angling enthusiasts of the Western Cape did not realise the angling potential of the indigenous species. They were familiar with the fish in Europe and North America and thought that they would enrich our rivers if they imported species such as bass, carp and trout. Sadly these aliens are now a major threat to the survival our local species.

Not only do alien fish eat our indigenous fish, but they also compete with them for food and bring disease and parasites.

Eighteen indigenous species of freshwater fish are found in the Western Cape, of which 13 are unique (endemic) to the river systems of this region.  All 13 species are threatened with extinction.

It is very important that we look after our indigenous fishes and protect them from extinction. Not only do indigenous fishes help to maintain the delicate balance of our rivers, they also add to the valuable biodiversity of the region.

Eleven species of indigenous fishes can be seen in the River Meander Exhibit. These include two species of rock catfish, fiery redfins, Clanwilliam redfins, Cape galaxias, whitefish, Clanwilliam yellowfish, sawfins, Cape kurper and moggel. We also house some alien species including common carp, sharptooth catfish and bass.

Photograph by Helen Lockhart Photograph by Helen Lockhart

Fynbos - the world’s smallest and richest floral kingdom

The Cape Floral Kingdom is the smallest and richest of the six recognised floral kingdoms in the world. It has the highest known density of plant species – 1 300 different types of plants per 10 000km²! In comparison, the South American rain forests have a concentration of only 400 plants per 10 000km.

Fynbos is the main type of vegetation found in the Cape Floral Kingdom. Famous fynbos plants include South Africa’s national flower, the King protea (Protea cynaroides), the red disa (Disa uniflora – the symbol of the Western Cape), and pelargoniums – commonly known as geraniums and which are popular garden plants. Famous beverages such as Rooibos and honeybush as well as the herbal remedy Buchu come from fynbos plants.

Fynbos is characterised by tough, evergreen shrubs with leathery leaves. These plants grow in a Mediterranean climate (long, dry and very hot summers) and have adapted to the dry, windy conditions and nutrient-poor soils of the Cape, thriving mostly in mountainous areas. Many fynbos plants contain high levels of acidic, indigestible tannins in their leaves; dead fynbos plants and leaves lying in mountain streams can turn the water tea-coloured and acidic.

Fynbos on fire

Unlike other vegetation types, fynbos needs fire to reproduce and has developed special adaptations. Some fynbos plants store their seeds in fire-proof cones, others bear fruit, which tempt ants to bury the seeds, and some re-sprout after a  fire from bulbs, boles or stems. The heat of the flames acts as a signal for the plants to release their seeds from protected cones or to start sprouting underground. Without fire, fynbos would not have its high plant diversity.

However: just as too infrequent fires result in fynbos slowly dying off, too frequent fires kill the plants before they can seed. Ideally, fynbos needs moderately hot fires during summer, at intervals of 12 to 15 years apart, in order to reproduce. Intensely hot fires that occur too frequently and in the wrong season can have disastrous results and often happen when people light illegal fires or throw burning cigarette butts out of car windows.

Other threats to fynbos include:

  • Invasion of alien plants, such as Port Jackson and Australian wattle.   

  • Urban expansion including the development of housing estates andgolf courses.   

  • Agriculture including wine estates and commercial forestry plantations.   

  • Commercial and illegal collecting of plants for the flower industry and for medicinal purposes.

What you can do

  • Never light illegal fires or throw burning cigarette butts out of car windows. 

  • Save water by planting fynbos or other indigenous plants in your own garden.   

  • Join a hack group and help remove alien vegetation. 

  • Do not pick plants when walking.