Today the river is wider and deeper. Today is perfect. A master artist has painted a clear cerulean sky, and with broad rolling strokes, mixed in raw umbers and burnt sienna’s to make a palette of translucent greens that hold the now meandering uMngeni in a timeless embrace. We are in the heart of the Dargle.
Little clumps of reeds smother the banks in butterfly kisses. My feet sink deep into the kikuyu pastures. I think of the dairy herd along the banks yesterday, one cow chewing in deep repose; her gentle eyes following the ‘Mayday for Rivers’ Team as we passed by. I think it would be nice to be that cow. Even just for a few hours.
I think the rest of the team is tired today, too.
I can tell from the level of banter. John Fourie has joined Penny, Preven, Penz and myself on the walk. Mike has driven off in the bread oven to help Wendy to pack up. The river is so pretty here. I’m distracted in my reverie by the Mann’s dogs that have accompanied us on the first part of today’s journey. They are so happy to see us. There is a little brown and white smudge digging frenetically in the bank. In a blur of snapping jaws and gyrating paws, a great mound of earth piles up. I wait patiently for a picture of his frontend, as the odd shattered root is flung aside. I catch sight of the tail end of my fellow walkers. I think I stretch Penny’s patience to the limit. I hurry on over fences and ditches to catch up.
I’m really surprised when I round the bend to find that instead of a weir, a natural rock shelf holds the waters back in a long lazy stretch. Then in a noisy tumble, a rocky cascade takes the river down to a new level. We startle a francolin into a hasty, flight. Here there is much activity along the banks.
A friendly couple, the Van der Post’s tell us about their efforts to clear the alien invasive species that they inherited when buying their new property. The offer us tea. Wisely Penny turns it down. ‘We’ve a long way to go’ she says. We have to make Tanglewood on time, there’s a special dinner planned. The whole Dargel is invited, are you coming? We do a Mini SASS. minnow mayflies; stout crawlers; planaria; tiny life forms all working to keep the river healthy. I’m fascinated by the algae’s long filamentous green threads as they pop little gas bubbles to the surface.
On the rocks tiny round heads of red amidst filaments confuse us and need identification. Turbidity test clear again.
The Dargle is beautiful and the people equally so. Such overwhelming generosity has greeted our walking expedition, we are really grateful for the support. Somehow the DUCT mission of championing the uMngeni river connects us and instead of feeling a stranger to these rolling green hills, I feel part of this landscape. I know the team feels the same.
We all have a job to do as we walk along. Penny takes the lead… mostly. Preven has the GPS and is reading off, at a cracking pace, the coordinates of whatever it is Penny is pointing to with her stick.
Mostly aliens, aliens, aliens. I wish we could get a river care team in here. Penz is filling in the data sheet.
I’ve caught up and take photo’s of otter spoor. I’m sure it’s Mtini. I have the camera job and am called to take photo’s of scats and more scats, and other things of interest, but mostly I just love photographing the river.
Mike has the bushslasher beat and I’m really glad he has joined us for lunch.
We are at a secret place along the river, so special, so stunning. I’d say sacred.
I’m sitting refreshed and content on a rock ledge, water cascading over my cool body. Now it’s time to move on.
Mike takes the edge off some brambles. We’ve just climbed out of the river and I roll my trouser legs down, grateful for the strong khaki fabric. Penny and Mike’s legs are shredded from periodic bouts with brambles. Out of the river bed now, the sun is hot on my back. Penny has just got off the phone to the forester. There is a fire warning. Penny laughs, “I think he thought that we may be making a braai” I’m pensive. We’ve been on veggies for six days.
We go through a blackjack forest and I emerge porcupine like. I wish I could back up to the nearest tree, or something that wouldn’t feel too offended in receiving my prickly offering! I steady my pace. ‘Watch out, there’s a hole. I follow the end of the pointed stick with my eye, relieved to have avoided the antbear hole.
A little team scene re-enacts itself. We are deciding which route to take. Everyone has some direction to offer, sometimes it works, sometimes we backtrack. Now, surrounded by silvery white gums I hear a thousand thousand bees. There is a strong smell of honey here.
We backtrack and cut down to the river. I narrowly miss putting my foot into another large hole. Butterflies, bird song, basket shaped spider webs, a myriad of much that is new to me claims my attention, and I long for the wisdom of this wilderness.
We pass another large hole. I put a stick down. One and a half meters. This one is definitely warthog I’m told. No flies, no one home; I remember Mike’s lesson with relief. A sharp sting brings my attention to the present. I scrape the little sting off my arm wondering why on earth this little creature has to die to defend his swarm. I’m sorry.
Back down at the river Mike does a little housekeeping with the slasher. I move a wattle branch or two. “Mike did you bring the groundsheet?” John’s sense of humour jollies our tired senses. I raise the camera and point it at him. “Pandora, Pandora, Pandora!” John remonstrates. I love my river walk team subjects – I just have one too many pictures of them disappearing into the distance!
I’m reclining against my backpack, the late afternoon sun behind a young wattle sapling. The river is gurgling alongside on my right. It is broader now, with boulders again in wide S-sweeps. There is much pouring over the map. We need to meet Wendy at the bridge and get to Tanglewood on time. Penny points with a piece of asparagus fern.
There are so many north, south, east, wests that it makes me feel a bit giddy. ‘All I’ve got left to eat are rubber gloves from the first aid course and suntan cream’ says Mike. By now I’m very slow on the uptake. Several minutes elapse. ‘I’ve got some spaghetti’ I say. Mike looks surprised. ‘It’s from last nights supper’ I say.
Across the way Penz, in purple, is framed by giant golden beds of turpentine grasses. On the far bank, a forgotten copse of indigenous forest is a beacon of hope amidst pines, wattles and gums.
Once again the familiar debate arises. River or river bank…river. We head on downstream. The river is deep now. One slip and that’s the end of my camera and the day’s takes. The rocks are treacherous, full of silt and we make our way carefully to our rendezvous with Wendy.
We are at the bridge at the entrance to the Hans Merensky forests. To the west of the bridge, the uMngeni is painted pink with the last light of the sun, to the east a near full moon shimmers across the waters. I have a renewed sense of direction.
This walk is redefining my vocabulary. I have a new meaning for ‘rock music’ I’ve introduced a new word – ‘rock dancing’ and when I say ‘You rock!’ I’m talking to the magnificent, magical uMngeni. And I’m listening, so quietly, so carefully, for an answer.
It’s not easy walking the uMngeni river. So many different ways, different views, different paths. Sometimes I am the pathfinder, but at other times my team mates say, ‘Go a little left, Pandora, put your foot up there. Here take my stick’ Other times it’s ‘You ok?’ I nod, give a thumbs up and we move on down the river, together, towards the sea.
Written by: Pandora Long – late at night.
P.S. We got to Tanglewood Country House on time for our special dinner. Thank you so much to Tanglewood and the Dargle Conservancy for a wonderful evening, a delicious meal and gracious company. After a long day we are tucked up in beautiful rooms in a most beautiful setting. To the people of the Dargle, thank you for letting us into your heart!
Although the River Walk Team arrived a couple of hours later than expected, the welcome at Tanglewood Country House where Dargle residents and friends had gathered was still very warm.
Nicky Mann showed everyone to their lovely, luxurious rooms. “I’m too filthy to go in here” quipped Mike, but after a few sips of cold beer, settled right in. he chose the room which Jack-the-Ripper had stayed in hundreds of years ago. Penny was desperate for a bath, so was delighted when Nicholas arrived at the door with a drink for her to enjoy while she soaked away the grime.
The Camera Crew, Siphiwe and his assistant Nonthobeko sink exhausted into the couches after an exciting day of filming.
Nicky Mann, a great supporter of the Dargle Local Living initiative, has gathered ingredients all grown in the Dargle for our supper. “Delicious” pronounced Penz, the herbivore, tucking into celery soup, ratatouille and roasted crescents of pumpkin.
Between courses, the smokers headed outside under the almost full moon to chat about their adventures. We are all in awe of their determination, energy and enthusiasm.
In appreciation of the enormous contribution which the River Walk team are making to conservation in the area, they each received a Dargle Dassie Adoption Certificate. With their commitment to the catchment, we believe they will make wonderful custodians of our precious Rock Hyrax.
After supper John and Penny get out the maps and plan the next day. How on earth they still have the energy is a mystery to most of us.
Thank you to the River Walkers for reminding us just how special the uMngeni is. The Dargle Conservancy takes seriously its role as custodian of an important water catchment and some of the most vulnerable biodiversity in South Africa. Our actions impact on a far wider community, including Pietermaritzburg, Durban and beyond. The Mayday for Rivers Campaign will no doubt have an enormous impact in raising awareness about the importance of taking care of all our rivers, not only in the Dargle, but across South Africa and probably the planet.