Karkloof River

We are delighted that the Karkloof Conservancy  will be walking the Karkloof River over the next few days. It has always been our intention to inspire others to explore the rivers they live beside and to take ownership of the health of their rivers.

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Penny, Preven and Pandora say wholeheartedly,  “We hope that you enjoy walking your river as much as we have enjoyed all our river walks. We wish you all the best and look forward to reading all about your adventures.”

An exciting journey lies ahead for the Karkloof Conservancy – walking the full extent of the Karkloof River from Catchment to Confluence – which includes 64 km over 6 days.

This epic journey is an initiative of the landowners (farmers and foresters) who would like to know the current state of their river stretches in order to see where they can improve the quality for downstream users.

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Well done to all landowners, sponsors and partners for making this happen!

 

 

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Window Shopping, Weeds and the Worst Destruction Ever

Penny starts the days tale:

After the horrors we encountered on the Rietspruit recently, I really did not think we could come across riparian zone destruction as bad for a while.  However, Symmonds Stream certainly rose to the challenge!  In a way, the destruction is worse.  What makes it particularly so, is that it is in full view of a main road and well-frequented shops! But I’m getting ahead of myself, so back to the beginning.

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The day dawned overcast and drizzling as we headed off to the start of the shortest stream that we have walked yet. Preven and I (Penny) were accompanied by our camera crew Sphiwe and Nombuso and we delighted to have our invisible, but always constant and to some, mysterious, other member of the Mayday Team – Nikki Brighton – join us. During our walks Nikki patiently awaits our evening email containing the days blog and photos, at times working until late at night to edit and ensure that the blog is posted on time. We have had her pop by on some walks for a quick ‘visit’, but today was the first time that she has joined us for an entire day. She even ate our standard River Walk packed lunch!

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In the middle of the residential area of Howick, the Symmonds Stream runs parallel to the main road for just over two  kilometres, before joining the uMngeni River close to the Howick Falls. Due to my work with DUCT, I’ve watched from the side lines as a small voluntary group of local residents have lovingly embraced the mammoth task of revitalising the Symmonds Stream. Mammoth understates the enormous task that has been underway for the past few years.

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Local long time residents remember this area where they grew up as being a gentle stream surrounded by mist-belt grasslands –  a far cry from the alien infested and at times, sewage infested, stream that is the Symmonds Stream today.

The stream begins in a slight depression in the hillside besides the Currys Post Road near Eagle Ridge.

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The ground  is invisible beneath a blanket of jasmine creeper interspersed with various other invasive garden escapes.

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All of which lie beneath a remnant group of enormous Blue Gum Trees – their companions were felled some years ago during the early attempts at clearing the invasives from Symmonds Stream.

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Whilst wading through the undergrowth, we came across Kate Brown, a member of the Friends of Symmonds Stream group. Kate walked some of the way with us today. As the green vista on the ground varied only in the composition of invasive species,  we realised what a mammoth task lies ahead in attempting to clear these invasive plants.

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A pleasant surprise was the small wetland area of reeds with masses of activity from Red Bishop and Thick Billed Weaver birds displaying on their nests.

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Preven continues:

We found what turned out to be the only pile of rubbish along the stream

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and amongst the rubbish Nombuso found a mini blue donkey from Shrek which she kept as the mascot for this walk.

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Houses overlook this shallow river which winds its way spilling iron oxide minerals from the wetland. Elephant ears jutted out from the sides of the river bank listening intently to what these river walkers were saying. Our conversation would not have interested them however, as we did not speak about sunlight or rain. Our subject was mostly about how people keep preferring manicured lawns to indigenous bush! It boggles the mind really. The path winds with the river and along the way we find a beautiful picnic spot created with logs for sitting and a little tree stump as a table. It is beautiful and overrun and obviously not being used, but it warms the heart to know it is there, possibly reserved for faeries and gnomes. Perhaps they will come at twilight?

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We wandered along and came across a property where the owner has merrily built two terraces by bulldozing the ground and shoving this pile of soil and dead branches into the buffer zone of the stream. Buffer zones should ideally stretch for 32m from each bank,  providing protection to the river by keeping the integrity of its ecosystem intact – thus creating healthy rivers. We found this golden rule broken many, many times over all along this river and on others.

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Along the river bank we saw porcupine quills and Kate told us stories of this delightful inhabitant of the river that is sometimes seen roaming along the banks.We were sad to hear, that a Bushbuck had been hit by a speeding car in this area recently.  Alien trees on the bank were cryptically marked in fluorescent yellow – looking like condemned men on death row that have the executioners mark on them awaiting the day they will culled.

We see the signs of the Symmonds Stream Conservancy along this river and it heartening to observe that it can be a recreational area.   Clearly people do use it for getting to know their river and their neighbourhood. A tunnel under the road brings the river to the other side. Here we find the banks denuded due to vegetation cut back in order to control seeding invasive annuals – revealing the brown earth underneath and a steady flowing river.

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We decided that this was the spot to do our Mini SASS.  It was the first spot with a little flowing water in sufficient quantity that we were able to get to.

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However we were surprised to find that we could not find any of our invertebrate friends. The only critters to be found here was the diving water boatmen and a scuttling crab. After almost ten minutes of searching with not even a Planeria in sight we reluctantly took the score and added up the two species and got a dismal score of 5.5.   Not surprising considering the amount of sediment and silt that caked the rocks and choked the river.

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Downstream of Gush Avenue we were thrilled to walk though indigenous grassland – the last remnant patch in Howick, an indicator of how this area used to look. p1610079

Penny tells me that this is the rare mist-belt grasslands. “Oh” I exclaim quite confused, “then how do you actually spell it?”  “What?” she responds.

“Well if its miss spelt, why don’t they spell it correctly instead of continuously saying its mis spelt.”  Penny’s bemused look made me realise that I was missing something here and it wasn’t the spelling.

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Backjacks flourish on the edges of the grassland and we bemoan this state of affairs.

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Then Nikki points out that actually this little weed is nutritious free food used for making tea and or cooked with other imfino for a delicious lunch. “Perhaps we should think about our aggressive strategy against these plants,” she says,  “they do provide us with mineral rich nourishment and are a particularly good source of vitamin A”  It was interesting to hear another angle on this issue and greedily, I plucked a handful of leaves and started chewing …. and then proceeded to spit it out!  Yeah, well maybe with a little salt and pepper it might go down better?

Penny finds a lonely oak tree on the edge of the grassland and, being a descendant of a family whose clan badge was an oak leaf, we decide to greet the ancestral tree.

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Following another reed bed,

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the pathway spreads out and becomes quite wide, with  immaculately manicured  lawns replacing the indigenous vegetation on the river banks – a misguided attempt at making nature neat and tidy which can compromise the natural functions of a river.

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The gravel road becomes its companion and the occasional car rolls past on this quiet scene. We take our second meth blue sample here and continue towards the Karkloof Road crossing. We find an old Hindu cemetery and a lovely spot next to the river where we decide to have lunch.

The rain slowly drizzles as we eat our sandwiches. After lunch we try to see if we can find any more invertebrates in the river amongst the rocks, but they were all hiding or absent and we had to turn away again in defeat.

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Reflecting on the immediate area we see how much work has been done in this downstream section of Symmonds Stream over the last few years by the Friends of Symmonds Lane. The thick forest of invasive plants have been eradicated and we will post a blog in the near future detailing the enormous efforts to revitalise this stream by a handful of committed people.

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Almost at Karkloof Road, Symmonds Stream crosses Mare Street where we have a first for a river walk – window shopping!  A couple of old buildings alongside the road have been revamped and one is an art gallery.  Penny and I peer in through the closed window at the works on display.

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Penny continues:  Crossing under the Karkloof Road the stream emerges from the culvert where one bank is ‘under construction’.

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Due to the fact that the bank had been irrevocably changed decades ago, the current construction is on the provisio that the bank be rehabilitated post construction. Hopefully this will be a fitting rejuvenation for a place that has been mis-treated for decades. In years gone by this was the site to dispose of old cars, washing machines, fridges and old engines! The bank was filled and levelled, and recently, there was even a small dam constructed on the stream with an earth wall big enough to drive over!  That only lasted about a year before it was washed away – to silt up the pool and river further down.

Being so close to (if not actually part of) the Natural Heritage Site that makes up 40 hectares of the gorge area around the Howick Falls, we hope that the rehabilitation will do the site justice.

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The banks have, unfortunately, been planted with ivy, which will smother any remnants of indigenous plants and eventually invade the water course.

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Heading downstream we swung way from the water to avoid the ever steepening stream bed. We had realised, while inspecting the river bank building site, that there seemed to be waterfall ahead. Our tricky descent has already been described by Nikki and I was relieved to arrive at the falls.

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I have since found out that 13 years ago the plunge pool  was much wider, had a partially rocky bottom and a silt beach. Today any rocks and stones are covered in a thick layer of silt,

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the current beach of rubble was once water in the pool

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and the stream below the pool bares evidence of the detritus of ‘civilization’  – whether dumped over the edge or washed down by storm waters.

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We left the Symmonds Stream to descend into the uMngeni River valley and returned home with much to mull over.

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The stream is currently dismally unhealthy, possibly as a result of the drought combined with other factors which we will still look into. On the good side, problems with surcharging manholes that were so prevalent in past years have decreased, with the hard work and input of local residents and the authorities.

We will soon post a blog on the results of the Mini SASS health tests carries out during the Symmonds Stream walk.

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Secret of Symmonds Stream

Once upon a time Symmonds Stream rose in the grassland and trundled along merrily for a couple of kilometres, before tumbling over forest clad cliffs into the uMngeni River gorge.

Nowadays, this little river emerges at the base of thirsty gum trees, fights its way through suburbs, invasive plants and sewage spills on its way to join the uMngeni. Despite the valiant, voluntary efforts of the Friends of Symmonds Stream to protect and preserve as much as they are able, the stream is a shadow of its former self.

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However, memories of Symmonds Stream abound amongst older Howickians and the Forgotten Falls have taken on an almost mythical status.   We had heard tales of a path, known in pioneering days, as Lover’s Lane, and set off to find the waterfall.

We caught glimpses of what may have been a path at some stage, but mostly the steep banks were cloaked in Wandering Jew. Drawn by the sound of rushing water, we simply followed our ears.

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Holding onto forest trees, we edged down the slope – on our bottoms mostly. The pervading fragrance was lemony Clausena anisata – most likely caused by our hands grabbing at branches!

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It was not long before the elusive falls were visible through the trees. A thrilling sight.

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In days gone by, the falling water would have eroded a deep pool at the base and must have been absolutely beautiful.  Sadly, now the pool was mostly filled with silt, builder’s rubble and rubbish that had washed down the stream and over the falls. Illustrating clearly the eco-system destruction caused by careless up stream users.

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After the obligatory MiniSASS and evaluation of the river condition (which was pretty dire), we simply reveled in the positive energy that one always finds besides waterfalls. Admiring the shapes of the rocks, the tiny plants clinging to the cliff and speculating about the humans who must have visited this place before.

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We had hopes of heading downstream to the confluence with the uMngeni, but the steepness and slippery rocks suggested that it would not be a sensible thing to do.

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Scrambling back up the slope, we spotted a small buck through the trees.  We stood quietly as she gazed at us before moving off.

Soon we were back at the top in the hustle and bustle of Howick, thrilled to have discovered this treasure. A secret relic of the regal past of Symmonds Stream.

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Clear as Mud

Rietspruit Mini SASS / River Health results

One needs to keep in mind the difference between water quality and river health. Water quality is defined as “to describe the physical, chemical, biological and aesthetic properties of water that determines its fitness for a variety of uses and for the protection of the health and integrity of aquatic systems” (SA Water Quality Guidelines)

River health on the other hand, comprises a far broader range taking in the entire ecological system of the river and interconnected land; of not only the water, but also the physical river (river bed and river banks) as well as flora and fauna communities in the river and occurring on the banks.

During the walk, all impacts were recorded and photographed, and regular Mini SASS, Methylene Blue and Turbidity tests were undertaken. Mini SASS is a general indicator of river health, Meth Blue indicates levels of bacteria & oxygen (the higher the level of bacteria the lower the amount of oxygen in the water) and turbidity indicates levels of suspended solids in the water.

Mini SASS is a very simple and enjoyable way of determining the health of the river, and the results give an overall picture of river health that is often missed by laboratory tests, for the pure and simple reason that a lab test, if taken say a week after a chemical contamination, may not reveal any chemicals whilst the Mini SASS gives an overall picture of the rivers health at any time. With Mini SASS, aquatic insects are caught, identified and classed according to tolerance levels of pollution and a simple scoring method results in an accurate picture of river health.

Mini SASS scores are broken down as follows:

  • Under 5.3 = Seriously / critically modified, very poor condition
  • 5.3 – 5.6  = Largely modified / poor condition
  • 5.7 – 6.1  = Moderately modified / fair condition
  • 6.2 – 7.2  = Largely Natural / few modification GOOD condition
  • +7.2         = Unmodified / Natural condition

Our Rietspruit walk included the main river plus three tributaries however apart from one Mini SASS test on the most eastern tributary, all the remaining tests were carried out on the main stream.  As Mini SASS can only be done where the river is accessible, has flowing water and pools and riffles (areas comprising rock and fast running water), there were long stretches on the Rietspruit where natural conditions were not conducive to Mini SASS. Added to these were areas either completely encroached by vegetation and inaccessible due to log jams, wattle sapling thickets and drainage ditches.

Mini SASS # 1: Upper reaches of Rietspruit +- 1.5km from source

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upstream dam

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View from dam wall across logs towards test site. Note indigenous grassland

 

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Log jam from felled Eucalyptus

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Upper end of test site looking upstream

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test site – upstream end

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downstream of test site

  • Surrounding land use: Timber and veld cattle grazing camps
  • Banks & buffer: Steeply sloping vegetated with indigenous grasses
  • Beyond buffer: Indigenous grassland
  • Upstream negative impacts: Timber plantations, invasive vegetation, dam, Euclyptus logs and branches in stream bed
  • Site negative impacts: 2 young Eucalyptus trees
  • Siltation: None
  • Turbidity: Clear

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Mini SASS Score:  5.6 Largely modified – Poor condition

The water was crystal clear, the river bank buffers and beyond were undisturbed beyond two small Eucalypts. We thus attribute the low score to the impacts immediately upstream of the site. The log jam would not be difficult to clear – it would make a good supply of firewood – and the young Eucalypts can be easily removed. Once indigenous vegetation has recovered after the removal of the dead Eucalypts, there is no reason why the river should not improve to at least Fair condition (Moderately modified)

Mini SASS # 2 : Upper reaches of Rietspruit +- 2km from source

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vegetation at upper end of site

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vegetation at site

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test site

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erosion – cattle damage

  • Surrounding land use: Timber and veld grazing cattle camps
  • Banks & buffer: Steeply sloping vegetated with indigenous grasses and bush
  • Beyond buffer: Indigenous grassland & bush \ timber
  • Upstream negative impacts: None noted
  • Site negative impact: Light bank erosion and light layer of silt on river bed from cattle accessing river
  • Siltation: Excess silt on river bed
  • Turbidity: Clear

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Mini SASS Score: 7 Good, largely natural, few modifications.

The water was crystal clear, although there was some silt on the river bed itself. The river bank buffers and beyond were undisturbed apart from one Bug Weed. The score of 7, (Good) is an improvement on the previous score of 5.6 (Poor condition). This is due to a lack of negative impacts on site plus a farther distance downstream from the impacts mentioned at Mini SASS site 1.

Mini SASS # 3: N3 highway crossing Rietspruit +-13.4km from source

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upstream of site

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looking upstream through tunnel to picture above

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test site

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downstream section immediately adjacent to test site

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silt on rocks and bed at test site

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algae on rocks at test site

  • Surrounding land use: Intense agriculture and N3 highway bridge and road
  • Banks & buffer: Mainly concrete, comprising overhead highway bridge which forms a tunnel for the river to flow through. Some indigenous aquatic plants
  • Beyond buffer: Highway, road
  • Upstream negative impacts: Agricultural lands, wetland drainage ditches, weir,  highway bridge over river
  • Site negative impacts: Lack of sunlight, invasive Canna plants on bank, rocks covered in algae, Water Cress in water compacted bank immediately downstream from site
  • Siltation: Heavy silt load on river bed and stones
  • Turbidity: Slightly turbid

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Methylene Blue: test indicated elevated levels of bacteria which may originate from slurry irrigation or cattle accessing the river.

Mini SASS Score:  4.8 Seriously / critically modified Very poor condition

The low score is not surprising considering the location of the site. The presence of Water Cress and algae are an indicator of elevated nutrient levels in the river which correlate with the Methylene Blue results indicating elevated bacteria. Other impacts range from the draining of the original wetland some 100 years ago resulting in a deep incised river channel, to the intense agricultural practices and the construction of the highway in more recent decades, as well as water extraction by means of a tanker causing river bank compaction and oil and diesel contamination of the water.

Mini SASS # 4: 5km North of N3 highway +-18.5km from source

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large dam immediately upstream of test site

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dam spillway

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causeway at upper border of test site

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test site

  • Surrounding land use: Dairy farm
  • Banks & buffer: Trampled by cattle and stream bed scoured by dam overflows
  • Beyond buffer: Overgrown kikuyu pastures
  • Upstream negative impacts: large earth walled dam and road crossing
  • Site negative impacts: erosion, bank trampling by cattle
  • Siltation: Heavy silt load on river bed and rocks
  • Turbidity: Clear

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Methylene Blue test indicated slightly elevated levels of bacteria which we attribute to the cattle that access the river at the test site for drinking purposes.

Mini SASS Score:  4.5 Seriously / critically modified Very poor condition

The major causes of the low score comprise the dam and road and the trampling of the banks and river bed by cattle. Interestingly, although the dam shows signs of eutrophication, and the Meth Blue indicated elevated nutrient levels, the usual indicators of such a nutrient overload (aquatic plants such as Water Cress) were not in evidence downstream of the wall. Presumably the excess nutrients in the dam are being processed by the reed beds and other flourishing aquatic invasives that occur therein.

Mini SASS # 5: +- 16km from source

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view upstream of site

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view over site facing downstream

  • Surrounding land use: Natural grassland and bush – not being actively farmed
  • Banks & buffer: Natural grassland and bush with some annual invasives (Thistle and Clover)
  • Beyond buffer: Natural grassland and bush with signs of past overgrazing
  • Upstream negative impacts: Uncontrolled wattle groves in buffer, bank erosion, Unnatural flows from Umgeni Water pipeline, heavy bramble infestation 200 metres upstream
  • Site negative impacts: None visible
  • Siltation: Medium to heavy on river bed and submerged rocks
  • Turbidity : Clear

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Methylene Blue: test indicated slightly elevated levels of bacteria.

Mini SASS Score:  5.9 Moderately modified / Fair condition

The low score was initially surprising as the area seems almost pristine, with little invasive vegetation, no obvious contaminant in the water, nor visible sources of contamination. On closer investigation we note’d the following:

  • The Umgeni pipeline tunnel sometimes overflows into a small tributary of the the Rietspruit approximately 300 metres upstream of the test site – on our first visit on day 3 (16 December 2016) it was overflowing increasing the river’s flow. On our return on day 4 (18 December 2016), there was no tunnel “overflow” and the river flow was much lower. These erratic, unseasonal flows are unnatural and problematic.
  • There are excessive turbidity levels in the river: some close to the site likely caused by erosion from the Umgeni tunnel “overflows”as well as excess turbidity at each of the first three waterfall plunge pools (two upstream and one downstream of the pipeline tributary and Mini SASS site) plus elevated silt levels on at least 50% of river rocks between the large upstream dam and the mini sass site. As we are in a drought and there has been little rain, the amount of silt could be from a lack of scouring by a flooding river.
  • Bacterial levels of unknown origin were slightly elevated
  • There are areas close to the site that have been overgrazed in the past and are choked with invasive annual weeds.
  • Just upstream of the test site, one river bank buffer is entirely inundated for approximately 200 metres by dense Bramble

As one of the landowners we interviewed had previously done mini SASS test which had scored higher: in the category Largely Natural / Good condition, we surmise that the major impact is due to the drought and the resultant silt levels.

Mini SASS # 6: Eastern tributary near Hilton

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dam upstream of test site

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road bridge at test site

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upper end of test site

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lower end of test site looking downstream

  • Surrounding land use: Timber plantations
  • Banks & buffer: Natural grassland
  • Beyond buffer: Natural grassland
  • Upstream negative impacts: Earth wall dam, dirt road, bridge
  • Site negative impacts: None visible
  • Siltation: on river bed and submerged rocks
  • Turbidity: Slightly turbid

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Mini SASS Score:  5.7  Moderately modified / Fair condition

The earth walled dam, dirt road and bridge immediately upstream of the site are the likely causes of the low score, as the area has in the past been rehabilitated via removal of all timber to a line well past the buffer zone, resulting in natural grasslands surrounding the stream

Conclusion

This was another upside down back to front river that proved that there are no definitives regarding beautiful healthy areas and impacted areas along rivers. Four of the rivers we have walked have gone from good to bad: beautiful, lightly impacted (if at all) at the source, with degradation and damage accumulating proportionately the farther downstream they go. The uMngeni, Lions, Dargle and Indezi all begin life in beautiful surrounds of either wetlands or grasslands, some followed by beautiful indigenous forests prior to the start of the impact and degradation –agricultural in the case of the Lions, Dargle and Indezi and a mix of urban, agriculture, rural and industrial in the case of the uMngeni . All four end tragically impacted and trashed.

Images of Dargle and Lions Rivers

Images Indezi and uMngeni Rivers

Then the Merrivale, Aller and Rietspruit do the exact opposite – they all start in conditions that are far from satisfactory:  the Merrivale and Aller in small holdings and residential areas followed by industry and the Rietspruit in timber planted ex-grasslands followed by agriculture: who would have realised that the Cedara Flats were once a vast wetland, drained over 100 years ago?

Images of Mpofana and Aller Rivers

Now I finally understand why the river is called the Rietspruit!

But here is the thing: the last three all end spectacularly  –  not only spectacular scenery, but with spectacular unexpectedness: improved, healthier river banks and water courses plus either less contaminated water (Merrivale and Rietspruit) or water where the potential to eliminate the contamination source is completely achievable (Aller) a3. The last few kilometres of the Aller run through an undeveloped, beautiful valley in the heart of Durban. A2 During the last few kilometres of both the Merrivale and Rietspruit the rivers drop dramatically into the deep valley of the uMngeni River downstream of the Howick Falls.  M2 Possibly due to the sudden change in altitude, invasive riverbank vegetation seems to stop, and the waters flow down over waterfalls and steeply sided thickly vegetated wild places where there is little to no negative human impact.

The lessons are two fold:

Rivers can and do heal, if given the opportunity

These wild untamed valleys we have witnessed need to be treasured and protected as if gold – they are a remnant of the wild places that are so rapidly disappearing; they are soul food, for the fortunate people who get to see them as well as mother earth. And they ensure that the water that joins the uMngeni river is cleaner than it could have been – a dilution for the dirty water in the main river, and a constant reminder to us of what can be.

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Once we have collated all the data from the walk, we will post the information on the blog. This will include details of indigenous Fauna and Flora and invasive plants identified, and a detailed list of impacts recorded  along the Rietspruit. Our findings and recommendations will be posted at a later stage.

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The Gift

Rietspruit Day Four – 28 December 2016

Pandora writes:

Penny’s Whats App message came as a special Gift the day after Christmas.  “We are going back to explore the last section of the Rietspruit on Thursday. Are you in?”   A really bad chest had prevented me from joining the team on the walk the week before.  I jumped at the chance to be out walking rivers with the team again.  I sent a message back “I’m in!”

Six of us set out on this post-Christmas expedition.

Penny,

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Preven,

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and his wife, Zim, who was walking with us for the first time,

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Our camera man Siphiwe

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and his assistant Nomusa

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and myself.

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Penny had done a recce with her friend Laura the previous day to find the ‘vanishing waterfall’

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and the best spot to park the vehicles to access this part of the Rietspruit Valley.

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We met Siphiwe on the Cedara College Road and made our way past St Joseph’s dam and onto a rough dirt track.  The day had dawned overcast, but clear.  “I always told my students – never believe the weatherman!” Preven says of his UKZN geography teaching days.  We’d been concerned about having to abort the walk or walk in the forecast rain.

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The sun broke out over our ‘totem’ mountain, Inhlosane and we watched in awe as an ethereal light bathed this sentinel, that has stood watch over all our Midlands riverwalks.

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We arrived at the elusive Umgeni Water Reservoir.  Gosh it was BIG!  I wondered how many people it would fit around its diameter.  Certainly more than six!

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We made our way from the causeway just above the large concrete slab housing the Umgeni water pipeline, into the cascading river.  Then it was time for our river blessing,

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before setting off along the riverbed down towards the gorge.

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Penny explained why she had decided to come and explore this section of the river further. “At the end of day three of the Rietspruit, we sat at the cliffs overlooking the uMngeni valley.  I remember this valley from when I worked at Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve several years ago.  You can see two waterfalls from that side of the gorge but the only waterfall we had seen properly on this walk was where the big Combretum was. I felt like the walk was unfinished, incomplete in some way, like stopping a project halfway through.  The vegetation had been so thick, the terrain seemingly inaccessible and although you could see where some of the waterfall ledges are from above, they just disappeared from sight.  The time was short on day three, so that’s where we left it.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about those waterfalls – about either leaving them be if it was impossible to get down, or if there was an existing path, coming back to find a way to explore them.  A call to one of the landowners who is passionate about this valley and its river, Dave Larson, opened the way for this exploratory walk to find the falls.  I also felt we needed to do some further miniSASS tests below the reservoir”

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After some slipping and sliding and quite a bit of wading

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we came to a lovely cascade where the weaver birds were having a riotous time and where we stopped to do the miniSASS test.  We were excited to find a host of aquatic invertebrates, although one or two low scorers brought our score down to a river in a fair condition. But the signs were good ones and reason to celebrate a river that brought hope back into our Riverwalk work!

Crossing at this point to a pathway on river left, we made our way to where the river dropped invisibly into a narrow gorge below.

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This is where Dave’s local knowledge about accessing the waterfall, led us to a steep pathway down to the bottom of the cliff.

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There a little pool was surrounded by huge cliffs and a second pool led back to the point where we’d lost sight of the waterfall.  From this vantage point, two beautiful cascades were framed in a cavern scene.

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It was time for lunch and that, for me, meant time to swim. I swam across the pool and climbed up into the long cavern to the upper pool and swam to the end to sit under the waterfall.  Here a brilliant shaft of sunlight pierced the crack in the caverns ceiling, and reflected light off the cascading showers of water droplets.  This effect formed a shimmering Christmas angel amidst little rainbows of light!

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Prev joined me under the waterfall while Penny took photos from the other end of the pool.  I was glad of the time to just sit and reflect over a busy year, to look ahead to what 2017 would bring, and then to just be present, under the waterfall, at one with the river in this ancient place, at this Christmas time, and with these people, my awesome Riverwalk friends.

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This is the gift that this walk unfolded for me…a magical, marvellous and mysterious gift.   Much later when we reviewed Penny’s photo’s, the symbolic significance of a huge rock owl drew us together in contemplation. How wise nature is, the river, the rocks, trees and wildlife – from the tiniest aquatic creatures cleansing this river, to the majestic fish eagle that had flown over the River-walkers earlier in the walk.

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We called these falls, Angel Owl Falls.  This was truly a special, sacred place. This experience was a Gift to remember.  Later I asked Zim what she felt about her very first river walk….what gift did it bring her?

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“Wow it was very amazing, I really enjoyed it… I never thought that for my first time river-walking would be like this. It was very impressive.” Zim said with excitement.  “Actually I saw the meaning of why we have to take care of the rivers and save them.  None of us can think what a natural river actually has to be like… for me the deepest part of the walk was as you were reading that poem for us … many of us don’t understand the reason why we have to protect the rivers… now I know.

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When I was young, my mother used to say that the new generation has to have something to hold onto, but there is no one to tell the new generation about nature and why we need to protect it.  River-walking is not about enjoying the experience or just recreational walking, it’s about walking to protect the river.  When Preven used to go on walks I would worry about things like – what if he gets hurt and all.  Now I realise that you don’t have to worry about that.” (read on to see what really did happen to Prev on this walk!)

“I realise now that it’s not about the superficial things,” Zim continued.  “It’s about the teaching that you go there for. What I saw is so free and cool, it opened my mind about river-walking.”  I’d love to come more.  As for the Gift – what can I say, that I felt powerful, protected… When we went back to the last waterfall, not Angel Owl Falls, the other one where we were sitting not talking too much I saw something. I can’t even explain it.

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You know like when something is in the flow and you can’t explain it, it was so deep.  I saw the things that we are not thinking about – that God is protecting the river. I saw that the power of God was there in that place”.  Zim smiled.

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I ask Prev to take up the story… to tell us his experience of the Gift – that is – this walk down the Rietpruit. He smiles.  If you look ever so closely it’s a new smile, warm, generous.  Always the jester, but this new smile speaks of gratitude, goodness and mercy.  It speaks of knowing exactly where ‘that place’ is where one finds oneself ‘in the gap’.

“Well I think my gift to the river was that of my tooth…” Prev laughs his usual laugh, but if you could listen ever so carefully, there was a new sound, like a whispered whistle in the wind.  But this story must wait.

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“On day three, after getting sight of the reservoir and thinking we’d be there in no time at all, we never actually got to it. So coming back and going up to it was great.  Walking to (where we had been incorrectly told) that the reservoir overflow joins the Rietspruit and getting straight into the water was very cool.

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It was a nice initiation for Zim, a nice testing ground. Part of the Gift was to share this with my wife – the beauty of it all.”

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It was wonderful to linger at the waterfall and then getting to the top of the gorge and sitting on that ledge, just drinking in the beauty of that tapestry of nature, moving and pulsing with life.

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Sitting with Zim overlooking the gorge.

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I loved the encounter with Dave Larson and Timothy. I felt uplifted to see such a vibrant young boy – this is how I want my son, Tao, to be like in nature.

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We spoke with the Larsons for over half an hour. So by the end of the walk I felt complete, with a sense of peace, and part of the beauty of the place. That for me was the Gift that the river gave me today.” Prev ended.

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“What about your Gift to the river?” I reminded Prev about the story he left hanging.

“I was really tired and fell asleep at the rock by the disappearing waterfall. On the way back I was happy to walk, hop, skip and jump but the rocks were wet from the rain and I wasn’t concentrating.  I slipped on the rock and fell, tasting blood and clutching my missing tooth.  Zim came in as the miraculous medic she is (actually everyone came forward to help) but I felt sorry to cut my tooth short – and the walk short.” Prev laughed.  “I can’t believe how blessed and lucky we are to do this work.  That is the Gift for me. How really fortunate I am to be engaged in this work.”

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Siphiwe and his sound assistant, Nomuso,  joined us to film the day.  Like Zim, Nomuso is also a first time river-walker. Here is her account of today’s walk. “I love and support the initiative of walking rivers. Our rivers are our lives and their health depends on how we treat them.

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I have walked Rietspruit which was quite a good river with five beautiful waterfalls but what shocked me is that where the stream goes through houses, the condition gets poorer.  From the source the river condition is pristine , meaning that wild animals do better than us.”

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Siphiwe added, “It was great to meet the River-walkers again. I think the River Walk organizers must invite decision makers and community members to walk, so that maybe these new insights can improve the river condition downstream.  Walking the Rietspruit River was a good experience for me, even though I was working behind the camera.

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Looking at the impacts, you can see how cruel we are to Mother Nature.  My message is: Thumbs up to the River-walkers even if you lose a tooth!  Never give up even if its hard going!

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Penny talks about her Gift –  “One of the reasons I walk rivers is that I’ve been hoping to find what we found today, a river that is loved and that is responding to that love,  a river that is still in beautiful condition. For me today’s Gift is finding that river, meeting some of the landowners that are looking after it, and knowing that its future is entrusted into their care. The Gift today, is also my team…

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I remember sitting on a bank at Albert Falls waiting for our support crew to arrive with the canoe, to ferry us across and saying, “I would take this team to the moon with me…” I hope that through this work I can reciprocate all the gifts that I’ve received through walking rivers, by giving back and being a voice for the river.   I am also thinking of Angel Owl Falls, and my gratitude for being able to be there today, but I have also a deep sense of sadness that so many people will never experience anything like that.” Penny concluded.

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And so, in closing this story of The Gift, it is my turn to take hold of the talking stick and to share my experiences with young people in 2017.

To take the story of the Rietspruit as it journeys from the hillsides of Cedara, past St Josephs dam and on, to tumble down one, two, three, four, five, six waterfalls, before meeting with the uMngeni.  To share the wisdom inherent in Angel Owl falls, in the folds and creases of ancient rock, in the sparkling stillness of pools, the rushing of rapids and disappearing falls, in the forested gorge, the riverside canopy, the grassland glades, in the flowers, in the insects that live on land and water and in so doing are able to clean rivers, in the rich loamy soils and the sands, in the wind, sun and rain, and in the wildlife and birds.  Above all it’s time to take the wisdom of the river to young people to teach them to love the land and to live and work together to leave a living legacy.  This is my Gift back to the River.

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Penny’s last word:

Prev, Penz and I originally knew about only two waterfalls on the Rietspruit, but the discovery of additional beautiful falls plus numerous cascades was thrilling.

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We have now seen three of these falls. Our debate raged on that night last night as to how we could access them – from the confluence? From the top? From the hillside, walk in the river itself? River left? River right?

Then it dawned on me in the middle of the night – we are not explorers on a mission to conquer un-chartered territory. If there is no path to access these places, then we leave them un-accessed: there are pitifully few places around here so close to urbanisation where Earth and her residents are left in peace, with only the echos of the bird song, the rushing waters and the rustling leaves as the days music. I will not and could not intrude on this – leave Mother Earth in peace here, leave the sanctity of this wild area in peace, beautiful, sacred, untouched and respected…The memory of sitting on the edge of the cliff  looking out over the wild, untamed green mantle, with the sound of the river rushing over the falls is quite enough. We leave the rest be, with gratitude and love.

The DUCT Mayday for Rivers Team would like to take this opportunity to thank N3TC for the funding that has made the Rietspruit walk possible. Without their funding, not only the Rietspruit, but also all the other walks except the uMngeni and Aller would not have been undertaken, and none of the post walk rejuvenation work and umpteen positive spin-offs would have happened. Thank you for your continued support.

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Rub-a-dub-dub 5 Walkers in a Tub

Rietspruit Day Three – 16 December 2016

Preven was still eating breakfast as we left home at our usual time of 05h45 and headed out to the next section.

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The day dawned overcast and cool, and stayed that way! What a pleasure. Starting with a Mini SASS at the St Joseph’s Dam, scoring a horrible 4.5 (very poor condition), we set off to the greeting call of a Fish Eagle.  See the map on our recce post. Day three in pale blue.  

 

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The left bank of the dam is surrounded by near impenetrable wattle, bug weed, bramble and other invasive plants. The surface of the water is barely visible under a smothering of duck weed and the invasive water poppy (Hydrocleys nymphoides)

Preven takes up the day’s story:

A pump station enclosed in a wire cage is at the river’s edge, it’s one of the two pump stations we have seen on this walk, making the Rietspruit the river with the fewest pump houses yet.

p1600167 We wander through marvelous fields of wildflowers that flank the rivers edge. We also encounter the easiest fence we have ever had to tackle!

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The river banks are still choked with aliens from privet to bramble, bugweed and wattle. The aliens have a firm hold of the left bank and one cannot see the wood for the trees, or in this case the indigenous from the invasives. Cattle trampling where the animals come to drink has damaged the river banks and infuses nutrients into the water making them breeding grounds for Planaria and true flies.

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Here, hidden between the trees,  we find a rickety old boat abandoned or ‘beached’ by floods and decide to take the obligatory rub-a-dub- dub-five river-walkers-in-a-tub group photo. The boat to nowhere would not budge no matter how much we rowed.

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We continue down the river and encounter old stone walls and the river meandering along its lovely path. We also spot a type of Haemanthus which we were not able to identify. Could any of you gentle readers help us with this one?

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Due to the constant log jams and sometimes large pools that are in the river’s path,  we have no alternative but to climb the steep sides of the river banks to pass these obstacles. We were quite high in altitude and the constant up and down started to make my ears ring. I also got stung by a bug on my forearm and had to cool the entire length of my arm in the river for relief.

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We get to the first major waterfall, the water cascades down the rocks below. Penny figures that this is not the waterfall that can be seen from Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve and is wondering which one this is? Little do we realise that this is but the first of a series of waterfalls that grow in height and splendour, and that will take our breath away.

This waterfall is guarded by an old granddaddy River Bush Willow (Combretum erythrophyllum) whose arms branch out in benediction over this sacred place.

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At the bottom of this waterfall the water cascades into sparkling curtains and, even though it is not a sunny day,  we get under them to be showered with the cool spray of the Rietspruit.

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We continue in the riverbed, it being easier than attempting to walk along the overcrowded banks choked with invasives.

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We encounter the middens of otter and water mongoose – remnants of their supper of crab – and found the stool of a predator – possibly jackal. Then, leaving the river, we start climbing higher and higher into the hills as the river cascades down into the valley below.

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We cannot walk in the riverbed now as it cuts its way through sheer rock faces and plunges into pools.

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The river is getting wilder. I am astonished at its beauty and how it keeps getting better and better. The Umgeni Water Reservoir looms into the distance. On our maps we felt that we were near this reservoir  – a landmark indicating that we were near our journey’s end, but the river obviously had other plans for us. It took  us 2 and a half hours just to cover 1km!  The reservoir which we thought we were near to at 10h00 in the morning only came into view 12h22!

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The river had greatly increased in volume at this stage, its waters thundering past us and roaring into crevasses and plunge pools.

The Umgeni Water pipeline that carries water from Midmar to the large reservoir crossed the river encased in a huge concrete slab built across the rocks. A small ‘furrow’ channels the waters of the Rietspruit past the edge of the concrete block, canalising the river next to its concrete path (in times of good rain the concrete slab must become a waterfall!). Here I stopped to take a breath and play a flute solo.

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At the pool we stopped for lunch, then continued to wade in the water. It gets quite high and we have all completely soaked pants – a river walker’s badge of honour.

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The ground gets higher and higher and we find a path that leads to the last three waterfalls.

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The first is one rushed down into a deep pool in a semi cave.bdsc_4182-50

We wander around and find ourselves at the end of our journey, the wide, wild open gorge before us and the two massive waterfalls rushing down into the valley.

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We have reached the end because from here the only way towards the confluence is down into the valley – a drop of nearly 100 metres.

We have successfully navigated the course of the Rietspruit and our signature photo at journey’s end is taken.

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We sit in silence for a few minutes and then say goodbye to mama river and her wild open valley and head back to the top of the hill (a longer than expected journey of winding pathways to the top) where we hop into Doug’s vehicle and begin the journey back home.

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Bulldozers, Mud and Heartache

Rietspruit Day Two – 15 December 2016

Penny writes:

I’m still reeling with shock, horror and disbelief. Disbelief primarily. Disbelief that in 2016 the construction of a housing development can cause so much environmental damage. Disbelief at the apparent lack of thought process, at the apparent lack of correct planning, at the lack of compliance to our environmental laws, at the clear lack of understanding as to how our natural water systems work, at the lack of respect for water courses, wetlands and Earth in general, as well as lack of care for the people who will one day live here… But I’m getting ahead of myself!

After our arrival at Cedara at 06h00, Doug drove us up to another small tributary arm of the Rietspruit  where a new low cost housing development is currently under construction. From our arrival there it was downhill all the way. Literally. Figuratively. A tiny hollow in the grassy slope is squeezed be.ween the outside edge of a plantation and the original village.  See map on our recce blog. Day two in yellow. 

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The drainage line that runs out of this hollow has been partially obliterated by terracing of land so that the toe of the slope all but obliterates one bank of the stream.

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The other thing the mountain of bulldozed soil has buried was a forest of Bugweed, so often seen choking our midlands water courses.

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Then there was the road under construction – running straight down the hillside! We are hoping that some storm water drainage plans will be made.

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At the foot of the hill slope, this steep road T-junctions with another road, and crosses a sewage line marked by sewage manholes – all of which are placed smack bang in the water course. It was so easy to see the route of the water course – just follow the scar left by the earthworks burying of the sewer pipeline and the protruding sewer manholes.

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Looking back up the watercourse, now filled with piles of dumped branches, it seems hard to believe that no-one else can see it.  Its called a water course / drainage line because water can flow here. Yes it is now dry. But what happens when all the pine trees on the hill slopes uphill are felled and the ground water rises and streams begin to flow again?

Add climate change predictions: increased storm events and increased storm ferocity – where will that water flow? Will it flood homes? Gouge out the now destroyed fragile water course bed? Expose the sewage pipes? Who will control the forests of bugweed, bramble and other invasives that will flourish on the disturbed land? Will there be organised refuse removal or, to add insult to injury, will the water course become the local dumping site as has happened in so many other places where there is no refuse removal? What a sad legacy for the downstream occupants.

It gets even better – two small wetlands have also been destroyed – areas that could have slowed the speed of any rushing water.

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The mottles in the soil are evidence that this was a wetland.

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It almost looks as though a ditch that has been dug through the area is an attempt to drain out the water!

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To add more insult to an ever increasing injury, a deep sewer manhole (sans lid) enabled us to see that there was water running along the system – we wondered where that came from. Then a construction worker climbed into the manhole. On re-emerging, Penz went and spoke to him – to be told that they are having a problem with water getting into the system!

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He explained to Penz that they put subsoil below the pipes to absorb the water and the pipes are plastic so they are not permeable. When Penz suggested that when the pine trees are felled and the water table rises, the problem will worsen, his response was “they are up there, and this is down here”. When Penz, unable to bottle it, burst out laughing, he got very impatient and told her she didn’t know what she was talking about.

This illustrates the need for proper environmental education of all involved in the development of human settlements.

At the lower end of the sewer line (just up from a large earth dam) we came across another surcharging manhole, this one surcharging muddy water. The houses aren’t even built, the sewers aren’t even connected, we have just gone through two summers of drought and there are already surcharges from too much ground water entering the system.

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Our team was halted by an extremely unhappy and unfriendly resident who oozed antagonism. He was so focussed on his pre-conceived ideas that he would listen to no one. First Sphiwe, then Preven, tried to reason with him to no avail – he was convinced that our sole purpose of being at the construction site was to stop the construction. His priority was purely that homes be supplied to the local people, no matter that rivers of sewage may run, or that perhaps flooding may occur.

The one thing that all this highlighted for us was just how strategically important the large, earth walled dam will become when all this construction is completed. The dam is all that will protect the lower reaches of the Rietspruit from sewage contamination originating from surcharging manholes.  The reed beds are already there, at both ends of the dam. Lets hope that they are sufficient to protect the lower reaches of the Rietspruit that borders a dairy farm, bisects Cedara and eventually joins the uMngeni River.

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Determined not to become any more depressed, nor to become the target for any angry Comrades (whom Penz had heard our aggressive interviewee summonsing by phone) we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and turning our backs on this disaster zone we headed for the next “arm” of the Rietspruit. See the map on our recce blog.

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Our shattered nerves were soothed by a visually soothing green valley of mistbelt grassland bisected by a small wandering stream and wetlands dotted with Arum lilies and tree ferns, and timber set well back from the buffer zone.  This area is a good example of a rehabilitated riparian zone – apparently in prior years the timber was planted almost to the stream banks.

p1590951  A Mini SASS test conducted just downstream of an earth walled dam resulted in a score of 5.7: Fair condition. Not surprising, considering we were just downstream of a dam, plantations and an area of offices and buildings.

p1590943 This small tributary eventually joined up at the aforementioned dam with the tributary we started on this morning. In the lower reaches, below the soon to become strategically important dam, the river has once again been historically canalised and its waters are hidden between reeds, bull rushes and flowering invasive elderberry bushes. The air abounds with the calls of sakabula, weaver and red bishop birds.

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Temperatures were beginning to soar as Doug drove us up to the fourth and last tributary arm of the Rietspruit. Passing en route a pretty, pastoral scene of the dam where yesterday we ate our lunch.

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Starting again in the far hills and meandering down through timber plantations, the western arm of the Rietspruit looked, from a distance, as though it would be a reasonable walk.

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However our illusion was shattered when we repeatedly hit either extremely steep or thickly vegetated banks that were almost impassable.

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The alternate of walking in the water was non-existent due to masses of log jams caused by wattle falling into the river – and the wattle saplings and bug weed on the banks were so densely spaced that we could not squeeze through them.

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After vainly criss-crossing the stream and hacking and stumbling on the banks we realised that staying in sight of the water was not going to happen, and so after a wobbly fence crossing,

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we made our way to the farm road on the outer edge of the wattles.

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Every now and then when we were able we would access a spot to have a look at the river.

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In sweltering heat (around 36 degrees!) with no shade, not even from the tiniest bush, we slogged on,

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passing a silted up gauging weir now home to reeds and a mass of weaver and red bishop birds.

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It was obvious that decades ago this was the point where the stream had arrived at what is today known as the Cedara Flats. The place where the water’s flow would have slowed as it hit the plain that was the start of a vast wetland. Today the river is canalised – evidence of the damaging agricultural practices of yesteryear when it was common to drain wetlands.

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Doug arrived bearing gifts of icy cold drinks and while we had a welcome break, Preven was interviewed by Sphiwe and Nombuso of DUZI Productions.

p1600113  Not even able to see the water in the canal we plodded on, eternally grateful when the day came to an end at the confluence with the section that we had completed yesterday.

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Unfortunately, we were only able to do one MiniSASS today as all other suitable Mini SASS sites were totally buried in piles of dead wattle tree branches.

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