Mayday 16: Fire, Ice & Rainbows

Cumberland Nature Reserve overlooks the uMngeni River and its steep gorges, just before you enter into the aptly named Valley of a 1000 Hills. At night when we sit beside the fire you can hear the roar of the river as it rushes down the valley below. Water is offloaded regularly on this section of the river into Nagle Dam to ensure it is always optimally full for eThekweni and other cities downstream and beyond. John Behn, the magnanimous custodian of this wonderful place (he sometimes reminds me of ol’ Tom Bombadil, of middle earth, for all you Lord of the Rings fans, when he has a twinkle in his eye), has a fire lit every evening when we, weary, often cold and wet, river walkers, straggle in.

Yesterday was such a day, when right at the end of our journey at about 5pm, we were faced with a fence. We have crossed so many fences during this walk, over, through and under them that I was by then loathe tackling another one that was crisscrossed with barbed wire at the edge of the river. I decided to wade across while Pandora and Sphiwe hopped over. Pretty soon I was wading in knee deep water followed by Penelope and Nontokozo (the two of them slipped on the precarious rocks and got dunked unceremoniously into the river). So when we arrived later that evening at Cumberland, the four huge tree stumps that were blazing in the fireplace were a welcome sight. I eagerly got into warm clothes and laid my pants, socks and boots by the bonfire as I went to grab a beer. I must have taken too long because when I got back my socks were on fire, and the flames were creeping up the seams of my pants and the rubber edges of my boots were smouldering. I sacrificed the socks, saved the trousers and it seems my boots have become more water tight.

That night after a wonderful supper brought in by Gary Behn and cooked by the Burdens (chilli con carne, yay! Thank you it was delicious) I tucked into bed (a luxury after the last few weeks) and suddenly the roof was attacked by the staccato fall of chicken egg sized hailstones. I managed to slide into sleep, dreaming of ice.

Morning arrived, cold and misty, but there was no sign of the cascade of hailstones the night before.

With Andrew Booth as our guide, we set of and by 8am we were at the rivers edge at a new fishing cottage on the reserve which has a sign that ominously says “Beware of Crocodiles”. We conducted our preliminary Mini SASS test and Pandora caught brush legged minnow mayflies, an exciting find.

Our score was 6.75, the highest since upstream of Howick.

Our spirits a little lifted, we headed up the path past scenic views and waterfalls of tributary streams.

We passed the lolombazo trail (John translated this to mean ‘a place which means, to sharpen one’s axe’) and watched the uMngeni river flow furiously below at an altitude of 648m.

There were many magnificent places that forced you to stop and just take everything in, with Penny compelling us to be still and then delightfully blowing soapy bubbles into the valley below.

The trails and the state of the veld is well managed here on Cumberland but John does acknowledge that the lantana is particularly tenacious here.

By 10h30 we were in sight of Kranz Hut a tiny getaway cottage, as described by John and Stella’s son Gary, who came out to join us for a few hours. We were not prepared for the delightful surprise of Wendy and Stella on the verandah providing us with hot coffee and Stella’s homemade muffins and rusks (you can see I have hobbit blood – food is a wondrous thing to me).

But sincerely, the hospitality of John and Stella Behn just leaves me speechless because I know thank you’s and appreciation barely describe how lucky we are. We head off after a delightful pit stop at this quaint little cottage, up a steep path climbing 80 meters to the top of the kranz.

To the one side avocado and sugar cane fields and the other the wild gorge of the uMngeni river guarding the entrance to the Valley of 1000 hills.

We reach a breathtakingly high viewing rockscape, perched atop high cliffs that plunge down to the river.

As we approached, we spotted a rock python brilliantly camouflaged, thick and resplendent, basking in the sporadic sunlight peeking through the canopy of clouds.

Legend has it that this is the place where Dingaan used to fling his enemies off the cliff, in order to kill them. Linking in with this fact is that the old name for this farm used to be called Aasvogel Krans (Vulture Cliffs).

After reluctantly leaving the viewpoint, we headed over and down the hills. We were walking through pure Lowveld Africa, spotting python, blesbuck, nyala and bushbuck. We crossed another tributary stream, one that looked fair but felt foul and in which lay an old dead male kudu. We were pondering the circumstances of its death when Penelope spotted a snare. Obviously this majestic animal was caught in the now defunct snare and died in the stream. Its skull and bones still lay in the water. Up stream of this grisly scene we took a sample because the river had this hanging fetid smell.

The rocks were also blood red, possibly from algae, but we are not certain yet of its cause. We reached the electrified game fence by late afternoon and walked up to the rendezvous point where both John Fourie and John Behn awaited us. Getting aboard we felt we could still walk for miles but the sky was rumbling overhead and rain birds and dark clouds circled ahead. The weather turned chilly as we drove through orange orchards and bright green valleys of sugarcane.

Suddenly the sky turned lighter and we saw the most complete and strong rainbow in the sky ahead plunging straight into the uMngeni river gorge, and surrounded by undulating hills. It was a phenomenon and a blessing and both Penny and I agreed that we have never seen a rainbow so strong and for so long. It followed us constantly never changing position till we entered the welcoming sign of Cumberland Nature Reserve.

Makhosi Sarah told us at the base of Howick Falls that the rainbow is a sign and a portal into the spirit world. When I was a young boy I had a vivid dream, one which I still remember, of walking down into the river and entering an underground labyrinth were I was greeted by a host of fantastical and mythical creatures and beings.

The air this afternoon seemed charged and I gazed at the rainbow with my other team members who sang its praises and took pictures. There might or might not be a pot of gold at the end of rainbows, and I probably wouldn’t be able to reach it if I tried, but I have never felt so rich and so blessed in my life to be able to do what I am doing, to follow a river from its source to the sea, to help her and to heal her just as she helps and heals me. This is such an alive two way relationship that is beyond my understanding. To say we are all downstream of each other and connected is to say it lightly. To say that she is the lifeblood of this region and all rivers the arteries of our planet, is almost an understatement. She is mystical, magical and mesmerising. The colours of the rainbow in ancient African culture have a special significance. Yellow and white signify the ancestors and our connection and debt to the past and future. Green signifies the nature and the power of the Earth, red the warmth and sacred blood of the planet, violet signifies beauty and its power and presence, and blue the angel and ever present spirit guide. For me it also resembles our fragile blue planet and the power of water. She is my spirit and my guide. Mighty uMngeni it is an honour to walk beside you and hear your song

“Be yourself, no matter what they say…”

written by Preven @ S   29° 30. 209’ E 030° 30. 487’

P.S. Thank you Stella and John for your hospitality today and for cooking the team a delicious breakfast, tea and muffins at the Kranz Cottage and for the special dinner you prepared, courtesy of Dirk Carlitz of Outdoor Educators, who offers team building, environmental education and other leadership courses out of Cumberland Nature Reserve.  Thank you Dirk for enabling young people to experience this special place through your programmes, for the dinner and for your support of the ‘Mayday for Rivers’ uMngeni River Walk.  Thank you Andrew for being our guide for the morning.


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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2 Responses to Mayday 16: Fire, Ice & Rainbows

  1. Jane Weston says:

    Thank you for the beautiful words which let us join the journey and hear the song and offer the honour even if only in imagination. Its almost as good as being there but without the braaied boots!!

  2. Pat Hoffmann says:

    Yes – thank you for sharing your experiences so openly and generously. I can feel something of what you are all feeling because of the words you have a written down and the photos you have shared.

    It’s amazing to realise, when reading your words, some of the similarities between rivers in South Africa and New Zealand, The little critters you collect in the uMngeni river for the miniSASS are the same ones we collect in the Waihopai river in Invercargill for water quality monitoring. We also celebrate when we see a stonefly. And although we don’t have any snakes, we have eels which evoke a similar reaction of fear and attraction in many people. The metaphors you describe remind me so much of the Maori worldview and perception of rivers. In the Maori worldview, the land is our mother and her name is Papatuanuku. The mists are her sighs and the rivers are her tears. She nurtures us and gives us what we need – but we can wound her if we are not mindful of our role as caretakers (kaitiaki) of the land. All things are connected and the river as a whole (from source to sea) has a mauri (lifeforce) of its own which can be damaged if we mistreat it. As we come to understand how deeply we are connected to each other and to our environment (ko au ko koe, ko koe ko au) (I am you, and you are me) we find we want to take better care of each other and our environment.

    Kia ora and best wishes
    (sent from New Zealand – Lord of the Rings country)

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