Table Mountain Guards her Rivers

Kwa Zulu Natal’s own Table Mountain is known to all who travel the Durban to Maritzburg highway. As you reach upper Ashburton, Table Mountain dominates the Eastern vista.

“Mkhambathini”, as it was known to local tribesmen is a 960m high flat topped wedge shaped prominence towering over the confluence of the uMgeni and uMsundusi Rivers – silent, majestic and fascinating. It’s east facing craggy cliff wall looms over the Umgeni River roughly opposite Nagle Dam. The West face overlooks a wide sweep of the uMsunduzi valley. At the Northern end of that cliff wall is a gentler slope where a cattle track winds from the valley floor to the long green waving grass crowning the open summit. From the middle of the flat wedge of its plateau, a small stream gurgles and sparkles its way to the Southern rock face. Just before plunging down the abyss in a misty waterfall, it disappears down a narrow crevice in the sandstone. Looking up from the base, the crystal water appears to gush out of the very rock face itself, somewhat below the precipice – really quite magical.  From the boulders at the base of the cliff face the water hurries and chuckles through the wooded slopes to join its new master, the uMsundusi.

From car windows, Mkhambathini, “the Place of the Giraffe Acacia Thorn” is admired by all but few set foot there besides the abafana who daily drive their Nguni herds up to feed on its topmost pastures.

As a newly qualified History teacher from Durban, I was assigned to the hallowed halls of Maritzburg College in the mid sixties. (Sadly, it was not my matchless teaching talents they wanted, but rather my mediocre rugby playing and coaching skills.) Mkhambathini welcomed me to Maritzburg and politeness demanded a visit. Luckily I managed 3 trips- 3 very different trips.

My first visit was via the Mountain Club, for a day’s rock climbing and abseiling along Table Mountain’s eastern face.  From that vantage, the uMgeni snaked its way down the shaded valley taking a quiet “Ozela” in the deep blue of Nagle Dam before coursing on through the jumble of the Valley of a Thousand hills to disappear in the haze that lay seaward. Looking up the valley towards Howick and the Midlands one imagined the river must have been looking forward to its Nagle siesta after the tiring journey from the Dargle and Impendle. At that moment, the uMgeni seemed to me a portend joining my past with my near future. South and out of sight, it joined the warm ocean where as a child I swam and fished from the beach at Rocket Hut near its mouth. (I had even ventured up-steam a few kilometers in a battered canoe). North and above Midmar, the uMgeni called me to my new found and developing interest in exploring the upper Berg lying directly beyond the river’s marshy source. It was a true uMgeni day.

My second visit was a camping weekend. After crossing the plateau with two other College boarder masters, we scrambled down the bushy slopes on the South face and traversed across to an overhang- (hardly a cave) behind the magical little waterfall. What fun, to wriggle out of a sleeping bag, venture just a couple of paces out from under the overhang and refresh oneself in the cool waterfall, a waterfall that had provided a lullaby to entice the previous evening’s slumber. It was a weekend spent in the greenery below the cliffs, bird watching, scrambling over crags and sunbathing. What bliss the little un-named stream and its miniature waterfall had given.

And the third visit….? Oh so very different! The following summer, Sleepy Hollow bestowed upon me -the love of my life- a bright eyed wisp of a girl I have adored these past 46 years. In the early months of our relationship, I had been invited to a formal Sunday supper to meet her family for the first time, a chance to impress her parents.

Filled with the elation by Table Mountain, I chose to take my loved one for an afternoon stroll across its plateau to see the enchanting little waterfall. There would be plenty of time to get home for the evening engagement. All went well until our return. On the way, we walked by a large milling herd of grazing cattle- not giving them a second thought. After we had gone some 200 meters past the herd, a lone bull detached himself from their company and started following us- walking at a steady measured gait at first…We remained unconcerned. Then his pace quickened and it became clear he had menacing intentions. The only thing I could see that might have upset his composure was the rather bright luminous green jeans Sandra wore. But this was no time for leisurely speculation.

The bull then broke into a threatening charge directly at us. I wanted to shout “Mkhabathini!” but there was not a shrub or acacia to be seen, let alone a tree. The incline with its path leading off the plateau was almost a kilometer away and the bull was closing on us fast. We raced for the precipice where just at hand, we saw a small ledge some two feet wide and five foot or so below the crest. Down we scrambled just as the bull arrived, stamping and snorting right above our cowering heads. All we could do was crouch down in our minimal safety. Pebbles showered down on us from trampled the earth above. The incessant bellowing was ear shattering. His lowered head could all but touch ours. We were well and truly trapped. While the bull could not get at us because our little ledge was too narrow for it to advance, we had no escape with nothing but a sheer drop below the ledge. Had the uMsundusi river gods saved us by providing such a handy ledge?

Soon the bellowing of our angry captor spread to every inkunzi in the uMsundusi valley. What a cacophony. The valley was alive with their foreboding bellows. Time passed… The evening kraal fires were lit in the valley, producing a flickering galaxy below… and still we remained prisoners. It was only when night’s darkest cloak finally gave us refuge that our belligerent inkunzi wandered off in disappointed frustration. We furtively emerged and cautiously headed for the track leading from the mountain top. A Dusi of a day!

It goes without saying that I failed spectacularly to impress my future in-laws, arriving back late into the night. All that was a long time ago, but memory of our Table Mountain, uMsundusi saga still gives us wry smiles

And I learned something of etiquette- No matter how enticing the invitation to visit Table Mountain with its moat of precious rivers may have been, two courtesy calls should have been sufficient. The third possibly exceeded the bounds of hospitality. Why else had inkuzi taken such exception? What got into his head? Was he worried that we had brought an invasion of the alien that might threaten the herd’s favourite idyll?  Was he an iDlozi of the rivers and mountains set to guard their pristine heritage? Or can he now pass the baton to the Duzi Umgeni Conservation Trust?  Join the River Walk and keep up the guardianship.

P.S. At the time of writing this, almost half a century later, I looked down on Table Mountain, the uMgeni and the uMsundusi from “Google Earth”, and guess what?  iNguni cattle can still be seen grazing the meadow around the enchanted waterfall above Natal’s lovely rivers. Is my iDlozi among them?

Ed Spalding 26 March 2012

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About Nikki Brighton

I live in a Magic Cottage near the mist-belt forest with my African dog, Dizzy. We enjoy long walks in the fields to gather wild greens, sitting on the verandah with a pot of tea, and harvesting vegetables outside the kitchen door.
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2 Responses to Table Mountain Guards her Rivers

  1. Edward Spalding says:

    Dear Nikki,
    I wrote Table mountain in the hope it might help publicise the River Walk. Duct may give it anyone they think might help their cause. I am however, a little a surprised that it has proved worthy of further publication.
    I must thank you again for putting me in touch with Robin. We have exchanged some laughs and memories.
    Alas, I was on leave over our school Easter holidays and spent my time teaching and caring for my grandchildren, so missed the opportunity to wish Penny and team all the very best for the adventure. I am very envious.
    I am sure you will be in touch before they reach Blue Lagoon. When you meet, please let her know of the admiration I hold for her in managing this great adventure and bringing a dream to fruition.
    Undoubtedly there will be rough patches- bad weather, items left behind or lost, members being a little out of sorts for a while- and oh yes, blisters, scrapes and aching muscles. But the sense of achievement, the friendships and wonderful memories that will be forged.
    May the river keep them safe,
    Ed

  2. Liz Gow says:

    I so enjoyed this story of yours Ed – and that was before I got a little more involved with the uMngeni Walkers and DUCT, and before I was able to spend a few very happy and interesting days joining in their May walk from the bottom of the Nagle Dam wall and looking up and back to mKhambhatini.
    Last Sunday, 9 December 2012, I joined a BioBlitz and, at last, made it to the top of this intriguing mountain – this time looking down on Nagle Dam, and across the cliffs and green grassy hills, and knowing how the iNguni get to the top.
    That waterfall will be visited the next time I visit, hopefully soon….
    Liz

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