It was with joy and anticipation that I (Penny Rees) looked out the window of the bakkie as we wound and twisted our way along the hillside of the Valley of a Thousand Hills yesterday. From that height we looked down at the uMngeni River, twinkling in the late sunlight, the bush clad hill slopes rising above us
the echo’s of birds calling across the distance, the feel of the breeze light upon the skin, the smell of an African evening. From that perspective up on the hills the valley is vast, wild and beautiful – it seemed surreal to think that we had walked all of that just 15 months ago!
After a journey that on a dark misty night could take on nightmarish proportions with the steep slopes above the road, the sheer drop to the valley bottom below and the very with tight corners – meeting an oncoming vehicle did not bear thinking about- the road finally dipped down to the river, and there to welcome us once again was Imfula Store, perched on the river bank, with its thatched bungalow
behind the old store which oozes history and long forgotten stories.
The small shop that is next to and has replaced the enormous original trading store stayed open for us, and after inflating my air mattress in my tent (why sleep indoors when a tent is available?), I wandered down to find everyone perched on wooden African style benches on the shop verandah, beers in hand, enjoying the evening as the light faded and night set in. After a wonderful meal prepared by Imfula owners John & Jill Graaf, and eaten in the old store which makes a wonderful dining venue, we retired for the night. The breeze rustling the leaves of the ancient Mango trees above the tents and the call of the frogs with a backing of Mama River flowing over the rocks was a wonderful lullaby.
Last nights drizzle and overcast skies cleared for us with sunrise,
and a group of us went for a stroll along the river in the fresh early morning breeze. Nguni cattle grazed peacefully, we passed vegetable plots and awakening homesteads,
then dropped down to the path that runs along the river’s edge that we had walked a year ago. And our euphoria crashed to earth with a thud. Keep in mind that last year this was the second healthiest stretch of river that we encountered along her entire length, even finding a stonefly which cannot live in dirty water. Today, the rocks all had algae on them on the water line
a sign of nutrification. The only invasives here last year were the prolific Madumbis lining the river banks but other aquatic invasives were seen today (Water Cress & Water Lettuce). What last year comprised riverine vegetation
Bare river banks are testimony and Pandora and I looked at the damage, stunned and saddened. Silently waiting for another days work of sand excavation, was a yellow excavator similar to the one we watched last year that was digging the guts out of the river which we likened to a deranged elephant. This is a long stretch of river, a few hundred metres, that in the last 15 months has been destroyed on both banks.
Which leads to my request – that you, our loyal readers, keep this in mind next time you go to the hardware shop and ask for uMngeni sand; or when next you are doing any construction work or repairs – ask the hardware store where the sand comes from, ask if it is legally sourced, ask for its manifesto. If we all refused to buy illegally purchased sand, would it not begin to make a difference? (Passing a sand distribution point on the way home – a legal business that is operated properly, a sign showed the business is for sale – someone said that apparently they can no longer make a living here, due to the competition of the illegal sand mining businesses).
Intermittently dotted in between the devastation were pockets of beauty,
a young Sycamore Fig with new spring leaves,
amazing, ancient decaying granite.
This is not the end of my sad tale: the valley seems to have become the playground of silent cyclists – and off road motorcycles and souped up 4x4s.
The motorbikers get their thrills by seeing who can drive the highest up a steep slope, revving and spinning their way up, and creating bare areas that result in eroded gulley’s after the rains.
The 4x4s seem to delight in gaining access to the sand mining areas (bundu bashing along the river bank any way and any how to get there) in order to wheel spin in the loose sand.
Even the silent and seemingly unobtrusive cyclists have left their mark – a recent race that overnighted here caused additional damage to previously impacted river banks which had recovered to the extent that grass had grown on them, thus stabilising the slopes. Now cut and fill terraces have been carved into the banks where small tents were pitched during the race,
and once again the slopes are unstable – and being invaded by weeds to add insult to injury!
HLONIPHA. Respect. As Dr Ian Player said before our walk last year – its all gone. No respect for the residents of the area nor other visitors, no respect for the earth. From what I can see it is totally selfish – the only ones gaining anything from the exercise are the drivers, everyone else loses, including the river. And at the back of the Imfula homestead, the pile of broken canoes that John removes from the river when he sees them gives witness to the fact that even the silent, almost unobtrusive canoeists also at times contribute to impacting on the river.
I left the Valley in a contemplative state, searching for answers, searching for solutions. My spirits lifted somewhat at the stunning views as we wound our way out of the valley up a steep road,
and suddenly had a view of Inanda dam with the ocean behind.
Hlonipha! Penny Rees Howick 21 August 2013