D-Day plus 1: At the Source of the Eland

Pandora Long reports:

A cold wind whips Penny’s unruly locks around her face as she pulls it back into a ponytail.  Mayday for Rivers 2013 - Walking the Lions 103

My eye looks beyond her as she bends to retrieve her hat and I catch a glimpse of a little strip of open water nestled amidst the soft fawn expanse of a vast wetland.  We are high above the Lions River Valley.

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A Fish Eagle feather floats out on the wind and in my minds eye, I see Penny similarly bent over a patch of turf to retrieve the feather, not far from the start of the uMgeni Source to Sea walk last  May.  Now it’s firmly attached to Penny’s stick as she clasps her hand over the knarled end and turns her face to the wind, chin set to the distant saddle bridging the Eland river.  It’s D Day plus one, we are together at the source of the Eland and Penny and team are walking the Lions river.

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We are going with the flow.

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It’s been a year and four months since we walked the uMgneni.  Penny Rees, environmentalist, earth watcher, river lover, team leader.   Prev Chetty, eco-warrior, lecturer, river guardian, team jester,  Mike Farley, earth steward, nature revere, team spoor reader,

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Penz Malinga, earth maiden, river goddess, team sunshine, and me, Nomthini, mother of Mtini, team swimmer and record keeper.  Ground Crew, John Fourie, Wendy Ross and Hugh Raw.

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Today after weeks of organising the team and logistics down the Lion’s River, well laid plans erode as Penz calls in sick, leaving Penny and Prev the sole walkers.  But teams hold one another up in times of challenge and Sithembiso jumped at the chance to take Mike and myself up to be with Penny, Preven and ground crew John and Brendan as they set up camp in preparation for walking on day one.

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How is it that time cannot separate the bonds that bind our shared experiences.  It is as if not one minute had passed since being together at the source of the uMngeni near Drinkkop, not far from where we are now walking.  I hear Mike saying the same thing and then Penny mutters about me to the group, “Have we lost her already!” she says and then catches a glimpse of me rock hopping above them to record our progress.

From where I am, I have a clear view as the little river sculpts a curving path down the steep hillside.  In the distance, framed by shades of blue mountains,  cattle graze on green patterned hills and the first farm dams are visible nestled between the clefts of the valley below.

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As we crest the saddle we hear the call of the crested crane.

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I give thanks that I am able to join the team today and that we all saw the opportunity to bring the start of the walk forward by a day. We look back at Eland Mountain, our eyes searching for the solitary gentle giant sentinel that Penny had seen on her recce here a few weeks back. Eland.

Now, bending over the little pool at the bottom of the sinkhole to say our river blessing, I think how appropriate it is, that we should be walking the source of the Elands river on world anti-fracking day.

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I think about the little impromptu ritual that we enacted after our picnic lunch saying a blessing for both land and rivers.

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Calling on our ancestors to be present with us on such a momentous journey through life and down rivers makes sense, and I feel their mentorship and guidance as I grapple with the knowledge that the government has granted prospecting concessions to international companies wanting to frack (drill wells and fracture rock deep under the ground using millions of litres of water) the Drakensberg to extract shale gas to sell as energy.  For us symbolically it is the Day we reverse the systematic abuse of the world, its people and natural resources and living creatures by those who show no Hlonipha.  Only by respecting both the land and rivers that runs through her to fill the oceans and the unseen, until the light casts its waves through the  misty heavens, do we begin to understand the promises that are held in a rainbow.

I remember over lunch as I capture the team on camera, talking about their views on fracking.

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There is no dissention, division or indecision regarding our position on fracking.  After lunch we get as close to the earth as we can to express ourselves clearly and without any ambiguity. NO Sithembiso adds the exclamation mark!

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My revere of events earlier in the day is disturbed by Penny’s walking stick, to point out the path of the river we are to follow.   Penny’s stick is a fairly amazing phenomenon!  It appears to follow each bend and twist in the river and yet when you look at it again it is dead straight and generally pointed to some far distant spot on the horizon.

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“We’ll be at the confluence with the uMngeni next Sunday,” Penny says…  I wish I was going with.  “You’ve got your part of the work to do”, Penny reminds me gently.  Go and show our walk documentary to everyone that visits the Garden Show stand.  We make plans to skype live.  “Imagine if we could stream live the last day of the walk,” I say excitedly.  I try to think of whether this may be technically possible and where to find the equipment.   (I’m setting up the UMDM DUCT feature garden stand at the Sunday Tribune Garden and Leisure Show opening next Friday 27th September.  The theme is International Year of Water Cooperation and 24 other organisations are collaborating to teach people about the value of water.)

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After UMDM sponsored and took such a committed interest in our uMngeni River walk last year, it is nice to be working with Riaz Jogiat and his team again around environmental education.  I think again about the Government decision to allow Fracking exploration in the Drakensburg and I am glad that we have a District Municipality that recognises the critical value of water and that are so dedicated to ensuring we protect our resources.  I wonder what say they have with regard to these National Government decisions.  I wonder what say  any of us have?  What say does the landowner have when a wellhead is sunk a mere 100 m from her homestead?  Who is lying about South Africa being a democracy?  Who is believing these lies?  Top down can only mean one thing, oppression and imposed decisions.

Mike and I are excited to be joining the team for the day and it is appropriate for us all to be together on this, World Anti-Fracking day.  “Did you bring an ostrich egg” Mike asked as we go down on hands and knees around a little sinkhole that appears about fifty meters below the saddle and a good kilometre from the vlei.  Penny looks up from her prostrate position and draws her hands out of the cool fresh water to find her water bottle.

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As she pours the contents ceremoniously onto the short burnt Berg grass Penny says with no apparent pride in Umgeni Water treatment plant, “I am pouring chrorinated  Howick municipal water out of my water bottle and replacing it with pristine water from the Eland’s river. “ As she does Prev brings her up short.  “Hey, he says,” pointing to the bottle, “Look its an anti-Rhino Poaching bottle, did you know that today is also World Rhino Day.”

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Fracking and Rhino’s are two inseparable strands that if followed, lead to a root of greed and corruption, oppression of people and degradation of place.  Now the race is on to extract shale gas and sell it back to the people of South Africa for profit, at a huge environmental risk, and at the risk of our children’s future.

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The team is way ahead and I speed up down the steep slope careful where I put my feet.  The nature of the Elands river is revealed as we go further down into the valley until we stand in awe of a little yellow wood forest tucked away in a sacred sanctuary between the embracing clefts of the hillsides.

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This is tomorrow’s journey for Penny and Prev.  I wish again I could share in this mystery as I look across into the late afternoon sun and draw my eye over the sharp silhouette of the far distant mountains.  It is as if nothing has changed, it is if I have always been here in my home in the mountains with the Eland.  But as I watch the team move off through the fire blackened veld towards the little green oasis that is the camp Brendan and John have set up for the night, I know that things are not the same, I know that everything has changed.

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I know that it is time to stand up and speak for the silent stones, for the tiny translucent yellow flower that Penny cupped gently in her hands, for our children for the Mountain, the Eland and for our rivers.

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And as I begin the decent to the camp I stop to collect ochres, burnt umbers, sienna’s and charcoal and with an age old binding agent I spit in my hands and transform my outer appearance to match my inner resolution and the colours of the Berg.  And thus adorned with battle paint and quills I join Mike and Sithembiso to say our goodbyes to the rest of the team. I know they are standing up for the Mountain, the Eland and the Rivers too.

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As I embrace Penny I look deep into her eyes and it is as if I see my own.  “Thank you”, I say.  “Thank you from the earth and her creatures, the plants, the rivers and the sky.  Thank you for your commitment.  Thank you for walking the rivers.”

As Sithembiso and I drive away, I keep Penny in line of sight – both of us waving till we are out of sight. “This feels good” I say to Sithembiso.  “This is good.” he replies. I ask him, “What would you do if a small group of people came and threatened to rape and pillage your Mountain land, by stealing huge amounts of water out of the rivers, deliberately polluting it with highly poisonous chemicals and then pumping it under pressure, down wells five kilometres into the earth to crack the rock and extract gas to sell back to you as energy for your cars and houses at a profit to themselves and at the expense of the environment?”

We talk about this scenario for a while and then settle on a plan – would you like to join us in enacting this plan?

  1. Stick together – just like water droplets – stand together but don’t prevent others from moving ahead.
  2. Form a unit – we are much stronger in groups than if you are on your own.
  3. Speak the same language – use simple ways of understanding and sharing concepts – avoid creating confusion
  4. Take a position – Once you have said NO, hold your stance.  – don’t be coerced into saying yes or taking an ambivalent position in between – people follow by doing what you do – no-one will stand behind or beside you unless they are clear on your position and confident that you will not shift to suite circumstances.
  5. Acknowledge your own common sense – you do not have to make decisions based on some scientific or expert opinion.  You can use your own common sense, insights and intuition.  (Would you agree to someone raping and pillaging your mountain land if someone else told you that it would bring you work, and improve the country’s bank balance?  You won’t have a say where the land gets raped, how many times or how many rapists can operate.  The rapist  takes the spoils, destroys the environment and makes the profit off your land and at your expense.)
  6. Understand the simple issues.  Raping the land takes millions of litres of water which require huge dams and water transfer schemes to be build which will damage ecological reserves in healthy rivers.  These millions of litres of water will be poisoned with chemicals and pumped at pressure five kilometres under the earth.  Water will escape and get into and poison the rivers, there is sufficient evidence of this happening in other countries.  Wells can be sunk within a few hundred meters of your home and will require road transport infrastructure for hundreds of trucks bringing water and chemicals, electricity infrastructure for the energy to drill, land for slimes dams, storing and disposing of contaminated water, gas storage etc.
  7. Saying NO to stealing vast quantities of water from a water scarce country undergoing significant climate change patterns is a logical decision, Saying NO to poisoning this water with chemicals in order to use it to pressurise and fracture rock whereafter there is retention and resurgence of chemically polluted water back up the well through aquifers and potentially into groundwater is a logical decision.
  8. There are plenty of renewable energy sources that can be used for transportation and other energy uses which are not being developed – this in order to safeguard the economic existence of the existing oil and gas energy infrastructure.
  9. Don’t buy (trade) products/services from the companies that have been awarded prospecting licences in South Africa, or from those who are preparing to apply for prospecting rights.
  10. Warn and give local dealers time to move franchise agreements before boycotting these companies.  How long would it take to get Royal Dutch Shell to withdraw their application to frack in South Africa?  Days? Weeks? Months? As long as it takes?
  11. The minority group of people that run large corporations that propose to rape our land and frack it for profits do not have the power to force us to buy their products.  This is a choice.  Being a minority they are actually in a position of extreme weakness.  The majority people who comprise ‘the  customer’ have the power.
  12. Make the politicians come and go by organising your voting power and ensuring that politicians advocating fracking know that they will not get voted in.  Governments advocating fracking will get voted out.
  13. Tell other communities and tell the children of South Africa about this threat to their heritage and the threat of ecocide.  Encourage them to stand up in solidarity against raping our country by international companies through fracking.
  14. Beware of the ‘Saducees’ and ‘Pharicees’ that pretend to be ‘Good Samaritans’ – they are in business to ensure we adhere to their law, and to enable them to make a profit out of us.  Do you really think they are going to be helping us when we, our families, rivers and biodiversity are lying dying of thirst or toxic contamination?  Are they really helping us now?  What about the rest of the world, what is their track record of helping there, or have they already destroyed vast tracks of land and sea and decimated individuals and communities by their activities to extract oil and gas?
  15. Withdraw and change any investments that invest in the companies proposing to frack South Africa.  These could include investments in life insurance policies, annuities etc.
  16. Get a positional statement from everyone you are dealing with and stop dealing with those who advocate Fracking South Africa.  Ask for a clear positional statement from Government departments, NGO’s, Schools, Churches, Civic Groups etc
  17. Organise our efforts further and remain coordinated in approach, united in our stand and committed to saying NO to fracking the Drakensburg, NO to fracking the Karroo and NO to fracking anywhere in South Africa.

We say No!

We will stand silent

And speak not with words

But with love

For the land

That is our children’s future.

We will stand

And not fall.

We will stand

Silent as the stones

You seek to uncover

And we will not move

till you Listen…

Can you hear?

They say NO!

We will stand

silent as children

Without malice or guile

And laugh as the bird song

Bursts forth from the valley

And our biodiversity rests

forever safe, in Gentle hands.

Pandora Long

(The Mkhondeni/Mpushini Valleys have just been upgraded to ‘irreplaceable’ in the KZN Wildlife’s KZN systemic conservation plan.  Community celebrations have been cut short by an application for a prospecting licence over much of the area.)


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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