It’s pitch dark. I’m lying on my tummy tucked up into my sleeping bag like a chrysalis. I hear the pop pop of the fire in the hearth and higher up the bushy slope the orange glow of the campfire illuminates the murmuring voices of my fellow team mates. In the distance a bushbuck barks into the night. Preven is tuning the guitar. All around the night sounds pulse to the rhythm of the river. Then soft strumming, an occasional melody line and a gentle voice lulls the camp to sleep. We are at Inkonka Camp, Umgeni Valley. All’s well.
It was an amazing day. Meeting so many different people and sharing experiences as we walked through the village of Howick, past Howick falls and on down to Inkonka camp, exemplified what this walk is all about. The river runs through us all.
Joining the team for the day as we started the second leg of our journey to the mouth were: Allen Goddard of Arocha SA, Kevin Lakali of Umgeni Valley NR, Franco Khoza a local river lover. Our guides from Howick down were Gareth Boothway, Biodiversity Stewardship officer for the Midlands Conservancy Forum and Brett Smith, assistant reserve manager for Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve.
We were surprised at the change in the quality of the river as we started our walk at sunrise from below Midmar dam wall. The water was brown and muddy had a sulphurous smell. Penny explained what she had learnt yesterday from Umgeni Water staff on the tour of the dam wall. There are four different extraction levels for water leaving the dam depending on the time of the year and current water level. Usually water is released from the top two levels. Occasionally they open the scouring pipe from the very bottom of the dam wall. This releases anaerobic silt that has that rotten smell. There is an informal rubbish dump on the river bank.
Yesterday, Penz and Previn took two school groups down to this spot to do a Mini SASS getting a reading of 3.9. This morning we can find no aquatic invertebrate life.
Soon we came to a well maintained path running through the residential area of Howick. This is the work of chairperson of the Howick Conservancy, Bill Speight. In the next few kilometres we meet many Howick residents walking their dogs and swop stories about the river. We stop at Moonwalk Drive to do a Mini SASS test on Moonwalk pool. This is the spot that Penny, in her previous work as education manager for Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve, used to take the school groups to show them a healthy river.
Penny is standing on a large rock with the early morning sun behind her. “I’ve found a planaria worm, she says.” Her voice conveys the dismay she feels. In past years the mini SASS score for Moonwalk pool has been 6.8 and 7.9 at Moonwalk, indicative of a largely natural, few modifications, good condition, today’s score is 5.3, indicating a largely modified stream in poor condition.
On this walk our spirits are seldom down for long and soon a cheer goes up as we meet a whole band of uMgeni walk supporters and helpers! Nikki, our media and moral support, Hazel and Liz our mealwagon support, Sally, whose designed the amazing ‘Mayday for Rivers’ logo blazed on our turquoise t-shirts. We all greeted one another enthusiastically. Without this wonderful group of supporters this walk would not have been possible! In the distance there is a wave and a big smile! It’s Pam! It’s lovely to see her again and we all hang our heads as she teasingly chastices us for not mentioning the amazing dinner that she and Ross hosted on our first night in Howick. “No-one even took any photo’s of the beautiful colourful table we laid out!” the smile never leaving her face. “It looked like an artwork!” A host of supporters had contributed to a wonderful meal. Special local fare gave substance to a commitment to homesteading and sustainability practice. “I did!!!” Penny is amazing! Keeping the big picture in mind in the planning, logisitics and implementation of this walk is no mean feat. Recognising the people, detail and acknowledging it is a further feather to her beautiful cap!
We reached the little path used by Nogqaza Primary and Injoloba High children that cross the river twice daily to and from school.
Liz has arranged for them to meet us as we pass the school and she hurried off to let them know we were nearly there. This is the first littered area that we have seen on the entire walk, apart from an occasional sprinkling on a forestry or rural path. As we reach the edge of Howick West signs of serious dumping and litter along the river banks create a stark contrast to the rural farmlands we have come from.
As we walk I chat with community members along the street above the river. I ask why the yards and verges are so neat, clean and tidy and why there is such a mess along the river. Themba is washing his car. He doesn’t know. Further along a lady is hanging washing. She doesn’t know either. Princess has a better idea. Alongside her home are huge piles of glass recycling. She tells me that she takes them to Wildlands Trust Recycling depot when she has collected enough. Alongside the recycling bags are neat rows of vegetables.
Principal of Nogqaza Primary, Mr Zondi and educator Mr Shange, come out to greet us and we chat about how people’s different perceptions of the river. “It’s a cultural thing” he says. “Everyone sees the river differently. Some see it as something that takes waste away while others see it as a symbol of purity and use it for prayers and baptismal,” he adds, ‘But culture is made by people and can be changed!”
Joyce Pope, Manager of Parks and Recreation uMngeni Municipality met us under the Howick bridge to hand over a letter from the Mayor of uMngeni.
Our camera man, Siphiwe films an amazing interview. This message encourages citizen action and youth participation in restoring our rivers. It encourages respect and reverence for our environment. This is awesome! Liz Gow screeched up bringing the PH strips and nitrite kits from the lab up from PMB. What would we do without you, Liz! Mike shows us an ingenous rubbish trap he has created from plastic bottles and strung across the river.
I have never stood at the top of Howick falls before! It is awesome. I don’t have another adjective to use! Women from Shiyabazali Informal Settlement are washing their clothes. It is an amazing colourful sight as bright clothes and soapy suds and the thundering white water merge into an extraordinary scene.
At the falls there is another amazing host of supporters!! Vonnie Monk and other Friends of the Falls are there to encourage us onward. The have done an amazing job of restoring the beauty of the Howick falls and communicating its history to visitors.
Peter Thompson chairman of the upper uMngeni Catchment Management Forum is there too! This walk is pulling together committed conservationists! Then there are the WESSA staff, Cheri Cade, Cara and Brett Smith there to greet us and tell us about the arrangements for Inkonka camp. They have pulled out all the stops! Thank you WESSA! We were running late and Penny apologises if she didn’t get to greet everybody.
She hurried us down the steep path to a little clearing below the falls where Makosi Sarah Wager and Makos Muvo Ngcobo are waiting for us.
It is a moving ceremony as they explain the significance of the river, of Mother Earth to traditional beliefs and the relevance to re-establishing the respect and reverence that is needed to restore our rivers. The river links and connects everybody, past, present and future. The candle I chose from the rainbow was green symbolising nature spirits, those of the trees, the plants, the animals and the river.
I felt honoured as it burnt together with those of Sarah, Muvo, Penny, Preven and Nonkokozo. I listened as Sarah and Muvo explained about the symbolism of the rainbow its connection with the river goddess and the water cycle. I thought of the story that I wrote for the ‘Mayday for Rivers’ arts and cultural campaign. The story of Mtini and Mo, and their journey to the sea was not just a figment of my imagination. It is written into the hearts of all of us.
Saying our goodbye to Sarah and Muvo we made our way, with difficulty, over the huge boulders below the falls.
Soon in the far distance we saw four figures standing in the middle of the river on a giant rock. We progressed slowly, hopping from boulder to boulder, making our way through a tangle of alien and natural vegetation. The story of the Dunlop factory was fascinating. We looked with amazement at the huge turbines in the old stone hydro-electric pump building which was built in 1919 to power Howick. It still supplies power to the Dunlop factory today. Matthew Hyland and his security managers had brought us a cooler bag of refreshments. As we took our leave he presented the team with special badges, “Phenduka” It means to change…
I don’t have time to tell you what happened next, I have a whole new world view. The earth is not a round ball spinning away into obscurity. It is the most beautiful woman. If at Drinkkop we stood in the trickle of her tears, this afternoon we climbed down the cleft of her breasts into her heart. We sat in her skirts of huge granite boulders, restored and refreshed, and learnt of her sacred secrets.
Written by: Pandora Long