Microbiologist remembers vlei of paradise

A map of Zandvlei from the youth of Dr Gerry Norris
The Marina da Gama waterway was a paradise in Dr Gerry Norris’s youth.

Microbiologist Dr Gerry Norris has a living memory of a wildly different Zandvlei to the current one.

He was also a member of the very first Save Zandvlei Action Committee in the early 1960s.

As a child – born in Fish Hoek and growing up in St James – he was enchanted by the clear waters and thriving aquatic life. By the age of 7 he was rowing and sailing the waters with his dad.

He describes it as glorious days on pristine, beautifully maintained waters and green edges.

“The water was so clear and clean that one could see the floor bed and the holes made by prawns in the sand. One could also see shoals of fish swimming. Sometimes fish would jump into boats causing temporary alarm as they thrashed around. It was a challenge getting them out of the yachts and returning them to the vlei waters; particularly while racing,” he said.

As a young adult, Dr Norris became highly active in yacht racing and went on to become provincial champion in all three of the Western, Eastern, and Orange Free State championships.

He became a South African dinghy champion twice and represented South Africa in world championships, on three continents.

“The championships in the United States and Australia when we managed to compete – notwithstanding boycotts against South Africa at the time – remains the most vivid in memory,” he said.

Then, at the age of 24, Dr Norris became the Imperial Yacht Club’s youngest ever commodore.

He successfully led a group of flag officers and general committee members approximately twice his own age, for about three years, before handing over the mantle.

In his early 30s, he opted to pursue his scientific studies with the same devotion he had given the waters of Zandvlei.

Today, as a microbiologist with decades of experience, he fears for the waters of his childhood paradise.

He says that unless massive change happens, no future generations will know the wonder of the waters that he and his generation did.

He has worked in 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific Basin as well as in Europe and the United States where he lived and worked, twice.

He continued studying both full- and part-time during his active working life at a total of six universities internationally and taught at two more in recent years; with microbiology and related fields being his passion.

He is concerned about reports of E.coli being found in the waters.

“When discovered in water systems, particularly those of our beaches, vleis and dams this can signal a very serious call for alarm. The reason for this is that the presence of E coli in our water is a very strong indicator that it has been recently contaminated with and by faecal matter – be it animal or human. The higher the load (number) of bacteria in the water – the greater the need concern,” he said.

He said the major concern is what other micro-organisms might at the same time also be present in the water.

“Pathogens (disease causing organisms) carried in the digestive tract come in several shapes and forms: these include mainly bacteria, parasites and viruses. Thus, if E.coli is present in the water there is every chance that there may be other dangerous organisms including pathogens present as well. This could represent a problem for anyone drinking or coming in contact with the contaminated water,” he said.

Dr Norris remembers the dredging project undertaken in the mid-1950s when the council reclaimed the waters of Zandvlei from the white beach sand that had suffocated it during past decades, he said.

Countless tons of sand were removed during ensuing years from the bed and sides of Zandvlei – transforming it into what he called “a boaters and fisher persons aqua paradise”.

Three basins resulted during the process.

One became the home of the now rejuvenated Imperial Yacht Club, another the Zandvlei Marina, restaurant and tearoom.

The third, closer to Muizenberg, was intended to be a model yacht and scale-boat playground.

“Those early visionaries and councils deserve huge credit for their initiatives and hard work. Generations of Capetonians benefited from their vision, enterprise, leadership and old-fashioned hard work,” Dr Norris said.

Over the years, population and pollution increased and only some years later did the weeds become a problem, choking up the vlei to the point that sailing was almost impossible.

Dr Norris became part of the first Save Zandvlei Action Committee, a group formed to be the voice for the vlei.

The concerns for this committee were that not only was the vlei being choked and becoming un-navigable, but the oxygen was being depleted by the fast multiplying weed mass. Fish were dying in countless numbers, he said.

“Several meetings took place and after some time Council put their weight behind the initiative to save Zandvlei, again,” he said.

A strong floating weed cutter was purchased and the cutting team worked many long days to rid the vlei of the huge mass of aquatic growth. Front end loaders were called in to clear the weed, loading it onto ten-ton trucks for disposal.

“The time seems to have come again for Council to save the vlei yet again. From biohazards this time – and severe pollution. The question is, do they have ecological and political will now, to save the vlei; for the third time. If not, this will be a major ecological disaster; of massive proportions,” he said.