How I Built a Waterfall

How I Built a Waterfall

I get my worst ideas on a Sunday afternoon. Like when I had a brain fart to buy an e-bike to take on the 40km commute to work. I won’t elaborate, but it turned out to be a pretty bad idea.

On another idle Sunday afternoon I was scrolling through Pinterest and saw these birds bathing in a stream, and it immediately grabbed my imagination to create a waterfall and stream in our backyard.

Similar to my e-bike experience, a moment of inspired imagination turned into a week of pain, sweat, and F-bombs.

Here’s the story of how I built a waterfall in our backyard.


The Viljoen waterfall started out with a sterile 30 square meter area in our backyard which I first used for vegetables and herbs. 

It worked well to keep my son from playing in the toilet, but he now had a newfound hobby of destroying herbs and vegetables. I’m not sure whether it was my inability to keep the herbs alive or my Sunday night bird bath inspiration, but, after 2 seasons, I started to plan Backyard 2.0.

This time around, I decided to ask my parents for some advice, in particular on how I should approach building a waterfall. With decades of gardening experience, I trusted them. 

My mom, kind at heart, encouraged me to take on the challenge. My dad, a farmer, who has worked harder than few people I’ve met before, was a bit more frank and suggested I rather buy one from the nursery. 

I took my dad’s advice and bought a lame waterfall. End of story.

Of course not! 

I’m young and foolish, so I decided to rather build one myself. I had a couple of rocks from the farm lying around. What could be hard about stacking a couple of them into a waterfall, right?

With some help from our toddler, Arlo, and his friend, Monkey, Backyard 2.0 kicked off by clearing the area and moving some earth towards the top to create the fall and stream. 

Once I had moved enough earth to the top, I started to stack the rocks to form the waterfall. My first iteration clearly showed that I had no clue what I was doing. After hours of swearing, stacking and re-stacking 30kg rocks, I realised that the fall was going in no particular direction, just like the water falling from the top. 

At this point, I was seriously reconsidering my dad’s advice to buy a waterfall from the nursery.

My 2nd iteration looked like I dug up a fossilised reptile, but at least the water didn’t flood the planes anymore.

It was only after some help from my wife that a 3rd iteration started to look more promising.

I continued to swear, stack, and re-stack the whole thing a half dozen times. Finally! Water was falling forward, and it actually looked like a waterfall.

I was excited to start shaping the stream. The blue liner was quite an eyesore, so I made sure I had enough pebbles and boulders to cover the full length. 

However, after I covered the liner and switched the waterfall on again, I realised the pump I installed at the bottom of the stream, simply wasn’t strong enough to create a big enough stream to flow over the pebbles. I could hardly see the water.

I was so used to re-doing things, that removing all the pebbles again to first line out the stream with cement wasn’t even a slog anymore. This enabled me to use a fraction of the pebbles and actually see the water flow.

I followed through by placing some plants and cleaning up the area. It started to look like it had the potential to inspire activity, but needed some time to settle in. 

1 year later…

Since I finished the project, dragonflies have started to roam around, bees collect their daily water, a choir of frogs moved in, and my sons regularly use the waterfall as a jungle gym. 

Yes, it inspired activity, but it did more than that; it created life that would not have existed before.

Here are some before and after photos of the Viljoen Backyard.

Oh, and remember the video of birds bathing? I think the Viljoen waterfall ended up living up to that inspiration…

• • •