May Day 15: Feedlots, Falling in, Fading light

We are travelling in the ‘breadoven’. Penny is giving us instructions for the day. She talks about the detour we will need to make to respect one landowner’s decision not to allow us to walk the section of river on his property. We are disappointed. We’ve all started to see the river differently. We’ve started to talk in metaphors and draw analogies in the way the river is treated. “A river is just like a beautiful woman” Penny is saying now – “a goddess’ Penz adds. “Nobody owns the river – as the pressure increases, people will have to work together to ensure clean water and a healthy ecology.”

We chat about the Dargle community’s response to pressure on their natural resources and the openness and sharing that we witnessed during the time we spent there. Preven is joking again. His walking stick (a present from Kath Coulson) is his microphone. “I’ve tried so hard to please you…” he belts out in a burgeoning rock star voice aimed at Nontokozo. “You’re crazy!” she doubles up with laughter. Siphiwe, our camera crew, sits quietly but I can see his eyes are smiling. “Does anyone want to become a vegetarian?” John slows the breadwagon. I hear a sharp intake of breath. Penz pulls her jersey up around her face.

We get out and take a look at the feedlot and I take a few pictures. I wished that I didn’t eat meat, keeping cattle like this doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. No hlonipa for the animals, no hlonipa for the land, no hlonipa for the river. We climb back in and pass several farms, poultry, vegetables and grass before reaching the cane farm where our journey ended yesterday. Everyone is looking clean and fresh in their ‘Mayday for Rivers’ shirts. We are ready to walk the river.

Mike has stayed at ‘home’ as his back is sore. We are sorry he is not with us today. “Did you check the weather?” John asks Penny. She is quick to reply. “32degrees and a 40% chance of rain.” They check the map and work out the rendezvous points.

The sugar cane lands are wet and we make a slippery dash to avoid the spray from the giant irrigation system. A rainbow appears.

We walk along the edge of the lands identifying alien species. Like in other areas along the river where there are cultivated lands there are many of them. I start a list in my head: bramble, lantana, caster oil bush, datura, crofton weed, cestrum, maple, liquid amber, plain, Chinese elm, syringe, wattle, jackaranda, gum, pine, willow, peach, Indian shot, balloon vine, moon vine, many other vines!, cats claw, morning glory, Japanese honeysuckle, agave, yukka, sesbania, peanut butter cassia, cotoneaster, that dreadful red thorned, brown pod tree that is now everywhere along the river!

We pass sugar cane, super lush kikuyu, cabbages.

Everywhere there are pumps and irrigation systems with clicking sprinklers. Preven has climbed into the blackened heart of a great granddaddy gumtree.

A gust of wind takes my hat and I find a grey and white feather. It is the third identical feather I’ve found on the trip. In an amazing coincidence, Rob Symons brought me a fourth, found on Broadleaze. “I think your ancestors are following you” Penny says with a smile. “Perhaps I am following them?” I reply.

“Did you GPS that prickly pear?” I shout to Penny. It’s the first we have seen.

The team is walking some distance ahead, feet crunching on the hard grey district road that runs alongside the river.

We turn onto the Wartburg road and head for the bridge. How beautiful is this valley!

Along the roadside tall Aloe ferox catch my attention. I can’t believe that they are flowering in May!

I sms home to see what the aloes are doing in the Mpushini Valley. Our altitude is 600m. We’ve dropped 494m over the past 150km from where we started this journey at Drinkop and yet we are only 64km from the source as the crow flies. We are 18km from Pietermaritzburg and 14km from Wartburg. lying on a bed of ‘wandering jew’ under the Wartburg Bridge.

Wendy has done a sterling job on the lunch boxes as usual. Smooth apricot jam, crunchy peanut butter and soft cheese…mmm. Despite this fare and copious helpings of delicious evening meals, I find myself hitching up my trousers several times.

The river alternates between deep wide pools of olive green and fast flowing areas of clear white water.

We take several water samples, climb several fences and work our way through several areas of thick undergrowth. Nontokozo falls in at a crossing.

She dresses in what we have to spare and becomes our river goddess for the day.

The wind is full in my face now. The river is broad and brooding under the ominous storm clouds.

“River one to River two, come in, over”, John’s voice crackles over the two way radio. Penny replies, “River two to River one, reading you, over.” “You want to take emergency exit?” John’s voice. Penny tips her head to the side and looks us over and feels our responses. “No” she says, “we’re pressing on, will make exit as planned” I look at the time and then at the sky. We hurry on. Thunder rolls around the valley. We are still in thick valley bushveld and despite the fading light I lag behind taking photo’s. The hillside is rugged with fractured dolerite boulders climbing steeply up one side. Two beautiful Aloe pruinosa’s grace a rocky ledge.

I’m pleased to see them here, evidence of the link between my home valley and this one. Otter scat. The whole trip I’ve watched out for Mtini. Now as I watch I am fascinated by a black shape swimming in the water. I’m sure it is otter. I call to Siphiwe to get a shot. A fish emerges followed by a long neck and two wings and a heron flies off into the gloom. The team is moving faster now. Ahead lightning illuminates a field of kikuyu and the comforting tick tick tick of irrigation sprinklers signals that we are through the bush and back in farmland.

Penny is on the radio to John. “We are pulling out here.” she says. Siphiwe tucks his camera under his shirt and we make our way up the hill to the homestead.

The cattle are huddled anticipating the impending storm. A white Brahman bull follows me up the hill. The farm belongs to the Harper family. Kay and Tracey greet us and we explain our mission. Tracey is eager to tell us about the history of the area, the boer skirmishes that its seen, about her father’s days on the farm in the 1970’s and subsequent purchase of the farm, of their love for the land and her efforts to farm in a sustainable way. Tracey is concerned about plans to extend the neighbouring feedlot to accommodate 19000 cattle in enclosures, very close to the river. It would appear that currently in the summer, seasonal flow carried slurry water into the river. “This heavy nutrient load is apparent from photographs taken of the stream on the crocodile farm too,” she says. “We have a number of issues here that threaten not only the quality of water in the river but its ecological functioning too,” she said, “and the important biodiversity that this area supports. There are two breeding pairs of fish eagle and numerous other species of birds and animals” Her voice and expression rise above the mounting storm, and we move in under the farm sheds out of the rain. She is also concerned about the impact of development on this valley. “Come see the bushbuck that I rescued from poachers,” she says.

The breadoven arrives at last, guided by our host John Behn of Cumberland. We are happy to see them. We climb in out of the rain and drive over 30km to reach Cumberland which although neighbouring, is on the opposite side of the river. It is dark when we arrive. We’ve renamed the ‘breadoven’ the ‘icecream freezer’. Nontokozo sits shivering in the one corner. Preven is piping a haunting river melody. There is a blazing fire awaiting us at Cumberland.

Stella and John Behn welcome us and we are pleased to be ‘home’. This will be our base for the next four days. John is telling us about the crocodiles that they have taken out of the river. “Two” he says –“a 2.8 and 2.7 out of the river,” John says, “and eight out of the dam!” “1200 crocodiles,” the other John is saying, “Do you know what it must take to feed them!” I ask Stella about Cumberland. “My late father rescued the land from illegal sand mining” she said. He bought the farm around 1985. He couldn’t stand what he saw – they were taking building sand from all over the place, down to bed rock!” I know some of the farm from my visits here to help with school groups but I haven’t seen the scars from sand mining. John offers to take me sometime. The 303h farm is now a private nature reserve and natural heritage site no 320. The Behns share a vision with other landowners in the area to establish a Biodiversity Stewardship site. “We are really blessed to own this piece of land” John says. “It’s not about money,” Stella adds, “It’s about loving the land, giving it back to nature and sharing it with others that respect it” We love hosting school groups especially, so that they can experience nature.” There is a warm glow and the light from the fire is reflected in Stella and John’s eyes.

I hope that in some way this walk can help bring this community together to achieve this stewardship vision. Perhaps it will bring my communities vision, to link the Mpushini Protected Environment to the uMngeni Valley here at Cumberland, together too. Perhaps someday soon, there will be a uMngeni Green Corridor, source to sea. I hope so. Tomorrow our journey unfolds further. Two giant cliff buttresses herald the start of the valley of 1000 hills. I can’t wait!

Written by: Pandora Long P.S. Thanks so much to the Burden family for the delicious meal for the walking team this evening and to Gary for bringing it up. Thanks too to Stella and John for their hospitality, it is really appreciated. Thank you Ntombi for helping us with our laundry and housekeeping, it has enabled us to get some extra rest. Thanks too, to John and Wendy for your ground support!


About Nikki Brighton

I live in Howick, between the river and the hills. I enjoy pre-dawn walks in the streets with my dog, sitting on the veranda with crochet and tea, and harvesting vegetables outside the kitchen door.
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One Response to May Day 15: Feedlots, Falling in, Fading light

  1. Bart Fokkens says:

    I am living this walk with you as you explore your way down the uMngeni. I am in awe of this mighty challenge you are undertaking. Great story in today’s Durban North Fever about your journey.

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