Why are there five dams on top of Table Mountain?
The idea of a dam on top of a mountain seems to defy logic, doesn’t it? Well, one only has to explore the upper reaches of Table Mountain to discover that it’s entirely possible. Our Mother City’s magnificent mount has five dams dotted across its tabletop, the first of which was built way back in 1890.
The five dams on Table Mountain were built as part of a larger water supply project for Cape Town. At the time, the city was growing rapidly, and its existing water sources were not sufficient to meet the needs of its expanding population. To address this problem, the city government decided to build a series of dams and reservoirs in the mountains surrounding Cape Town.
Table Mountain was chosen as the site for five of these dams. The dams were named after the five men who were instrumental in their construction: Hely-Hutchinson, De Villiers, Woodhead, Alexandria, and Victoria.
This Is How It All Unfolded…
Right up until the 1880’s, Cape Town depended on a single mountain stream to provide water for the entire city. When drought struck and the town’s planners realised the need for a new water source, hydraulic engineers decided to build a tunnel through the Twelve Apostles to capture the water of the Disa River, a perennial mountain stream that originated on top of the mountain. This water would be transported to the city centre’s Molteno Reservoir via a large duct running along what is known today as ‘the pipe track’.
During construction of the massive pipe, however, the city’s water demands grew steadily and it became clear to engineers that even this additional water supply would not suffice.
The dams were constructed using a combination of concrete and stone, and were designed to hold a total of 22 million gallons of water. They were filled by a network of pipelines and aqueducts that brought water from the nearby streams and rivers. The water was then pumped to the city below, where it was distributed to homes, businesses, and industries.
Enter Woodhead Reservoir, Table Mountain’s first ever dam. And boy did it cause a scene. Construction efforts to build the 252m-long, 44-metre high dam wall involved porters lumbering building materials up Kasteelpoort Ravine by hand (if you’ve walked up Kasteelpoort before you will appreciate the enormity of this feat), until such point that a small, steam-driven cable car was built to aid the process. From the top of the cable car, materials were transported by locomotive to the dam site 2km away and the upper station of the cable car soon mushroomed into a small town with a bank, general dealer and post office – certainly not the tabletop scene we know today!
Despite all the huffing, puffing and eventual completion of Woodhead Dam in 1897, the Mother City’s growing thirst demanded further quenching, and within a year the plan to build Table Mountain’s second reservoir, Hely-Hutchinson, was hatched. The dam was completed in 1904 with a 582m-long wall and a water surface area covering around 16 hectares. It still stands today and is known for the unusual white, sandy beach on its Eastern shore – a pleasant surprise for happy hikers reaching the summit via Skeleton Gorge.
Three, Four, Five…
Even big Hely-Hutchinson was not to be the last. During all the construction happening on the one side of the mountain, the city’s Southern Suburbs had taken matters into their own hands and the municipality of Wynberg had been fashioning their own three tabletop reservoirs, tapping into a tributary of the Disa River. The Victoria, Alexandra and De Villiers reservoirs were finished between 1904 and 1907 and can be found close to Table Mountain’s wonderful, self-catering hideaway, the Overseers Cottage.
Over the years, the dams on Table Mountain have played a critical role in the water supply for Cape Town. They have provided a reliable source of fresh water, even during times of drought and water scarcity. They have also been a key part of the city’s infrastructure, supporting its growth and development.
Today, the dams on Table Mountain are still in use, although their role has changed somewhat. They are now used primarily for recreational purposes, such as hiking, picnicking, and bird-watching. They also serve as important landmarks and symbols of Cape Town’s history and identity.
In recent years, the dams on Table Mountain have also become a focus of environmental concern. The mountain’s unique ecosystem is home to many rare and endangered species of plants and animals, and there is a growing movement to protect and preserve this ecosystem. Some environmentalists have raised concerns about the impact of the dams on the mountain’s natural water flow and biodiversity, and there have been calls to reduce their size or remove them entirely.
Despite these concerns, the dams on Table Mountain remain an important part of Cape Town’s history and identity. They are a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of the people who built them, and a reminder of the critical role that water has played in the city’s growth and development. Whether you’re a tourist or a local, a visit to these historic dams is a must-see experience that will deepen your appreciation for the natural and cultural heritage of Cape Town.