Our Fearless Leader – Penny Rees

DUCT and the Midlands Conservancies Forum nominated Penny Rees for the Eco-Warrior Award in the annual Enviropedia Ecologic Awards this year. Penny is admired by her peers and environmental organisations for the very important work she does, contributing to the understanding of how theory and reality intersect. The best part of the submission was that everyone got an opportunity to say what a positive impact Penny has had in the Midlands and how she has inspired people to care about rivers.


These are a few of the people who contributed:

Mike Farley

The uMngeni River Walk walk was the brainchild of Penny Rees, with encouragement from Preven Chetty. Penny pulled a diverse five member team together and had us working well together, despite the “age dynamics”: an environmental teacher(♀) in her 20’s, environmental lecturer(♂) 30-ish, environmental educator (♀)- 40-ish, Team leader-Penny(♀)- 50-ish, myself (♂)- 60-eish! Various other people joined us, at different stages, to walk a section of river, set up camps, catering and/or assist with transport.

Almost 100% of the pre-planning, daily logistics, liaison with landowners and Municipalities, was done by Penny, with great support of the Duzi uMngeni Conservation Trust, of which she is a part-time employee. Due to her meticulous pre-planning, no serious incidents or injuries occurred and most landowners were very supportive, allowing access through their properties and assisting with accommodation in many cases.

After the walk, Penny spent a huge amount of time producing a very comprehensive 44 page report, dated December 2012, with photographic records and power point presentations for follow-up talks to varying audiences, including conservancies, municipalities, schools and general public, on the results and outcomes of the walk. A filmed documentary, by a professional cameraman, has been completed and is being submitted to SABC “50/50” programme for possible airing.

Since this walk Penny is not satisfied to rest on her laurels. She again organised two shorter river assessment walks, which are tributaries in the same catchment (Lions River and Dargle River), and now has plans for other local tributaries in the Midlands of KZN (mPofana and Indezi Rivers).

Several interested people have, through the uMngeni Walk blog-site, shown an interest in organising walks on their own rivers in various parts of South Africa and one particular lady in Australia. Penny has recently been contacted by The Chairman of Eco-Forum (offices in Durban and Johannesburg), who was inspired by “ Mayday For Rivers Walk”, and Penny has been asked to help that organisation ‘duplicate this on a national scale.’


Pandora Long

Penny not only mounted a citizen science project down the entire length of the uMgeni River, together with her Team she blessed the water every morning before starting out on the day’s walk.  She not only cares about clean water to drink, she cares about every creature, every plant that make their home in and around rivers.  From soaring Fish Eagles that accompanied the walkers every day down the river, to tiny stoneflies, the indicators of unpolluted water.  Penny loves and protects her ‘Mama River’. This was her prayer:

  • With these hands
  • With this heart
  • With the pure intention of God
  • This water is blessed
  • Removing and transmuting all impurities
  • And returning them to the light forever.

sangoma and Penny howick falls.res

Liz Taylor

Penny has done more to raise the profile of our rivers, especially the Umgeni river, than a lot of more scientific and expensive methods have done. She has captured the hearts and imagination of the people of KwaZulu-Natal with her epic adventures along our rivers. She has approached the challenges these walks produce with enthusiasm, hard work, dedication and what I like to call “stick-attedness”.

Many groups have asked her to come and talk about her walk, the last being the Rotary Club of PMB who are now interested in sponsoring similar walks and water awareness initiatives. Her walks have brought the magic of rivers as well as the threats and challenges they face, into the lives of the people of KwaZulu-Natal. She brings an element of fun and adventure back into our lives.

Wendy Ross

I have been keeping up to date through the blog and am in awe of you all. Your determination to achieve your goals for rivers is inspiring and you certainly seem to be making a difference.

I don’t often wish to go back in time but when I read all this today I have to admit that I do admire your energy, endurance and passion. I wish I had met you all 20 years ago before the body began to moan at the many body-testing projects & outreach programmes that I have been involved in over the years. I turned 70 yesterday and although my mind is as strong as ever, the body reminds me that it can’t keep up as it did before! Penny – you are a great inspiration. I appreciate the time we spent together during the walk. Thank you.

azolla pinnata - Invasive alien plant - Penny

Preven Chetty

Penny has been a tireless coordinator and without her diplomatic organising, the team might have been thrown off properties long ago. I feel honoured to be a part of her team. Besides the important data collection, she brings a spiritual aspect with daily water blessings and communion with the rivers. Penny is a true eco-warrior.

Judy Bell

Most of us fear to dream so big, let alone work to realise the dreams to do more for the environment, but Penny did so courageously. The awareness raised has been invaluable to all those doing their bit to improve our planet’s ecosystems. She has done us all proud.


Mark Graham

Interest and enthusiasm for this sort of initiative has spread widely, illustrating what committed and keen individuals can do to make a difference, showing landowners how they can better manage these precious systems and influencing the way authorities are viewing our water resources.  Data gathered has illustrated the greatest pressures on these systems. This work could, and is hoped will, become a national initiative undertaken by committed and caring citizens around the country.

Peter Thomson

Penny is a remarkable lady. She has been passionate about environmental conservation all her life, much of which has been spent in passing on her broad knowledge to others. Her passion is, however, well-grounded in pragmatism and good sense, which makes her all the more credible.

Penny in Lion's River

Kevan Zunckel

It is interesting to consider the difference in impact between the walks that Penny does and the water quality sampling of an institution like Umgeni Water.  We get regular monthly reports based on the latter, all showing the seriousness of the situation, and yet nothing is done.  These reports are received by many and yet it’s a bit like the frog in the boiling water.  However, with the River Walks there is a far greater personal angle to the outcomes, as well as the fact that the water quality sampling is done as part of the walk and is therefore directly linked to what they observe as they walk down river.  For me the most valuable insight to come out of the uMngeni walk was the ability of the river to “heal itself” as a direct result of riparian restoration work.  It is on the basis of this finding that I calculated the possibility of being able to restore the entire length of the uMngeni River’s main stem for 10% of Durban Water’s monthly water treatment spend.  I believe that this estimate played a pivotal role in persuading the Water Service Authorities and other key stakeholders to join the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership.  These walks play an important role in catalysing action towards the restoration and better management of our catchments. I encourage the key role players in the catchments to follow Penny’s example and put as much energy and passion into their legal responsibilities.

Barry Downard

Penny’s commitment is passionate and, impressively, much of her effort is voluntary. Her findings have been a wake-up call and have truly set a benchmark.

r penny umngeni vlei 008

Penny’s connection to the rivers is a creative and spiritual one which compliments her environmental drive and pursuit of scientific data perfectly. At the end of the uMngeni walk she commented. “Here Mama River is an old lady – after a lifetime of nurturing and unconditional giving, she barely remembers her journey that started gently in the folds of distant hills. A life which began with sparkling, bubbling energetic youth, turned sour from abuse and hurt. If only we could all give back to her as she has given to us.”

It is clear from this submission the esteem in which Penny is held. We believe she has more than earned the title of Eco-Warrior for the impressive contribution she has made to protect the ecosystems on which over 5 million people in KZN rely on a daily basis.

Mayday for Rivers 2013 - Walking the Lions 103





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 Our Fearless Leader – Penny Rees

  1. Reblogged this on The Independent Advisor and commented:

  2. Karen Paulsen says:

    You always give your all to everything you do. I miss the trooper I use to see everyday years ago.

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