May Day 21: Caught between a Rock and a River

The horseshoe shape of Nagle Dam did not easily let one comprehend the amount of water that it retained from the uMngeni River. We were camped right at the foot of the huge dam walls and beyond the waters edge there was a huge hillock, under which in the eerie glow there appeared a silhouette of a crocodile in the reflection of water. Penny tells me that in Native American culture there is a belief that whenever such a silhouette is seen in the water it is a symbol of the guardian of such a place. We have not yet seen a crocodile on our journey down the river, yet I hope that the legend is true because the uMngeni needs strong guardians.

I was shown the enormity of this when as soon as we began Day 21.

Just as we got out of the campsite and down to the other side of the wall I was greeted by the most heart rending sight of all so far on this journey. We were used to the up and down nature of the state of the rivers health, but until now, were always buoyed up again by the sheer beauty of her sceneries and her seemingly bottomless health when given the chance to recover with love and care.

Now on the other side of a wall more than 50 meters high, white water rushed out through three large outlet channels on the corner of the wall closest to us.

All this water is then diverted direct to Reservoir Hills. Nothing of the river was seen on the other side of the wall except some stagnant pools created from seepages in the wall. On the high wall three much smaller small outlets could be seen but no water flowed out of them into the valley below. This is how one steals a river.

All this water is used for Durban and surrounds and half the KZN economy runs on it.

But where is the river? In disbelief I listened to Penny as she said that the rest of the river is channelled through turbines for the hydro station and pumped out some 100 meters below the wall. We rushed ahead to see where our wonderful river had been taken too. Soon we were following the huge sound of a waterfall. I hoped that something mighty would flow once again through the man-made sluices, but I knew it was an empty hope.

I had seen the river beyond these walls and she is but a ghost of what she was just 20 meters upstream. Fast flowing and more than 150 meters wide surrounded by rolling hills. As we approached the source of the sound I was greeted by a very warm river. Water that has passed through these turbines has not been allowed to cool. The impact that this has on organisms in the river is dire.

Only one channel lets out the river here as opposed to three above. We follow her downstream, walking on a dry riverbed covered in massive stone boulders and other times walking on a flood plain that after 60 years has given way to succession so there is a forest now growing were once a river flowed.

We set of on a brisk pace tracking the river. She did pick up a little volume but not as wide as it could have been.

Our SASS score today was a 5 which indicated a critically modified river.

Moods were down and we were just plodding on recording errant aliens

and high silt levels in the river.

There was a beautiful section were the river was free of alien invader plants – this was a section that was being cleared by DUCT’s River Care Teams. The River Care Team and Doug Burden joined us at the confluence and it was good to talk to them again and express our appreciation for the work they were doing for the river.

Then we hit the Duzi confluence and found serious problems. Basically after Nagle Dam the uMngeni virtually disappears so one of the main contributions of water is the Duzi river which carries the rest of the river down to Durban’s Blue Lagoon.

The Duzi brought in our first water hyacinth and also added even higher nutrient levels into the river.

The scene was bleak and the river looked dead even though it still flowed.

Scum and grease seemed to obscure the surface

 and the water was murky and turbid.

After being with her for three continuous weeks so closely, one can’t help but feel something in you breaking as you watch this scene.

We carried on downstream determined to reach Marion Foley bridge.  We were already clocking 15 kilometres for the day and the team joined by Liz Gow, Moraig Peden and our guide, Jeffery, soldiered on. Jeffery led us into steep rock slopes and made us climb them. We followed him onwards noticing that the terrain was becoming steeper and steeper and suddenly before we knew it the river widened and we were perched like mountain goats on a steep granite cliff.

“Is this the only way Jeffery? Where are we going?” Numerous team members began asking the wiry, inscrutable young man with the perpetual smile on his face.

“Don’t worry as soon as we get over this boulder there is a path” or “ Just through this crack in the rock, there is a path” or  “Don’t worry, at the top of this hill there is a path.”

But the hill never stopped growing and soon we were scrambling up a steeper and steeper slope, clinging on acacia thaxacantha trees. It was a real adventure obstacle course with the sheer drop into a deep green river below.

Luckily, Doug Burden, John and Gill Kraft and our support team spotted us on the face of the hill as it was approaching dusk. They begged us to come down which we did very eagerly as we were not keen to be stuck on the hillside for the night.

Doug then managed to get a canoe and paddle all team members to safety across to the other side of the river. When we got to the other side and saw what we were attempting to do at five in the evening, it seemed like madness.

We learnt a valuable lesson that when faced with a steep cliff, always choose the easier flatter inner bend bank of the river. All’s well that ends well – with the amazing good will and graciousness of people who helped us. Tonight we are staying all warm and dry at Isithumbe House in the heart of the community. Good night river watchers and walkers, it has been a long day.

Written by: Preven Chetty

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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 21: Caught between a Rock and a River

  1. 0sh3n says:

    What a bitter-sweet post – I feel your despair for the river – the river that you and your intrepid trippers trailed for the last three weeks – by the way what an awesome blog you guys are unraveling here in pictures and in words – we cant be with you in person but we are walking alongside in spirit – woza moya – the spirit winds have come… hope to catch up with you lot in Inanda… and definitely in Blue Lagoon – where we have a special treat for you guys – recall the legend of the 1917 Umgeni River Floods – the son of one of the Padavattan 6 – the crew that saved 175 people from drowning that afternoon – will be there with us… and now a final word from Neruda’s ‘A song of Despair’ – a poem your blog reminded me of: “The memory of you emerges from the night around me. / The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea. // Deserted like the wharves at dawn. / It is the hour of departure, oh deserted one!”

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