DAY 1: Hole-in-the-Mud
It began like any other river walk – Preven arriving the afternoon before, laying out and dividing the kit,
and Google mapping the stream we were to walk.
All very last minute as, due to unforeseen circumstances, the river walk that we had been planning fell through, and, well, it is September one of the two best months to walk rivers. It is not too hot nor cold, water levels not too high nor low. So we had itchy feet, and decided to do a short two day walk. However during the mapping the night before, we discovered that the stream actually has four sources and branches, and any one of them could be the main Merrivale Stream. No problem we thought, we will walk three of them – only 10km in total, do-able over two days. Hah! When will we ever learn?????? That’s about when it ended being like any other river walk.
Sadly, Pandora was unable to join us, but it was still with high hopes and that feeling of anticipation that always accompanies the drive to the source that we set out this morning, Heritage Day. We headed for the light industrial area in Merrivale, parked and then ambled around until we found the ‘source’. One tiny hole in the mud at the very bottom of the railway line embankment – so small to be almost invisible! Not a natural hole either by the look of it. Where the water emerging from that hole originates will have to be investigated on another day. Immediately below the tiny hole, the water looked suspect
and then it disappeared into a pipe under the road, to emerge stinking of sewerage in a stream whose banks have been bulldozed , backfilled and used as a dump for building rubble.
The next indignity comprised of the usual glut of invasive plants: Bugweed, Bramble, Indian Shot, Canna and Wattle – although it looked as though some of the larger Wattle had been cleared.
Water Cress was flourishing – a sure sign that there are an overload of nutrients in the water. This was followed by more backfilling, to within a metre of the wetland. This is completely illegal and completely negates the wetlands ability to break flood waters and clean pollutants and toxins out of the water. No doubt people will complain bitterly when the stream floods, bursts its banks and floods their premises.
And guess what? On the opposite bank, the exact same thing (backfilling) has been done.
We were reeling – only 400 metres along and this stream is in serious trouble. No other stream or river we have walked has suffered such massive impacts quite so close to the source, nor so consistently! We were therefore very pleasantly surprised to walk through an area that has been lovingly cared for, where wild flowers (Crinum and Hypoxis) were emerging, and Acacia trees have been planted.
Our joy was short lived, as, after crossing the main road, we found a sewage man hole whose lid was not properly in place. As the manhole is in the stream bed, I don’t think I need to describe the impact on the stream.
Preven takes up the story: We left that sad sight to cross the railway line where we immediately found a factory with its walls almost on top of the stream itself.
Finding a small gap that was left in-between the bank and stream we gingerly made our way forward watching out for treacherous lidless manholes which seem to be cropping up everywhere on this stream. The factory had then created a concrete stream bank because they had already stolen the rest of the bank.
The bank they created is however woefully inadequate and even the slightest flood will wash it away and overrun most of the factory itself which we hear does actually happen. The vehicles on the premises get inundated apparently. The river then ran into the factory premises underneath a double fence laced with razor wire which was almost impenetrable – we debated squeezing in, but decided against it in case there were guard dogs on the other side. The section of the river was cordoned off and as the only access into it was onto the premises we had to make our way back on the narrow non-bank to a small lane to skirt the factory fence. We came to the road and were surrounded only by more factories and a road but no stream. We looked all around in vain, we looked through the factory fence and saw the river lined with wattle trees and silently slinking away in the corner like a naughty school child but we could not see where she emerged.
We wandered around and tried to find her but no sign was forthcoming. How unloved must this river be? Now she’s gone. We search around and finally find her pumped diagonally into the grassland adjacent to the factory.
The stream is murky and sludgy but she is still there and moving stoically onwards towards her destination.
You can do many things to a river but you can’t hold her back.
Nice to see pretty again – We walk onto the wildflower fields which give us respite from the relentless onslaught of the factories. Penny was so enamoured with these beautiful little flowers that she spent some time photographing them.
We were so entranced by these wonderful blooms that traipsing happily along we almost stumbled onto a hole in the ground – an old termite mound – which was filled with …… bees. They were swarming in droves using this readymade hole as a beehive so we quickly scampered away.
Penny continues: We continued downstream along the wetland edge until we reached the first confluence of streams, surrounded by wetland on the left bank, and wattle and bramble encroachment on the right bank. We were pleasantly surprised to see sign of Water Mongoose, albeit not fresh. A short way farther on, the river channel was finally accessible and we were stunned on two counts: first to see not only the by now all too familiar grey sewerage sludge, but also foam on the waters surface (from soap? from chemicals?).
As the slope of the ground began to steepen away from the river, we were stunned again – this time to see that some local homeowners use the slope between their fence and the river bank as their disposal point for waste – both household and garden! Surely they would not be happy if I took my black rubbish bin bag and threw it over their fence into their garden? Why then should the reverse be in order? It boggles my mind!
As we began to descend downhill we suddenly found our selves in a forest of Privet growing alongside the stream comprising grey soapy looking water flowing over a stream bed thick with a dark grey sludge stinking of sewerage.
Notwithstanding the stench of sewerage, it was clear that Bushpig had been rooting around in the undergrowth for juicy roots and other tasty morsels. We hacked our way through Bramble and under Mauritius Thorn to get to the sound of water flowing over rocks – rocks that we could sit on and dangle our feet over the soap suds,
however as the bush eventually proved impenetrable, we sat instead under a Mulberry tree in a Privet forest and ate our sandwiches with the smell of sewage wafting up from the stream.
Rapidly learning our newly acquired skill of how to cross a watercourse without getting a drop of water on your boots, clothes or skin, we crossed this open sewer aka stream and then fought our way through stream banks choked in different places with Bramble, Privet, Maritius Thorn and other invasive plants. Entering a patch of beautiful indigenous bush, we greeted an old Grand Daddy Acacia tree that stands guard over the streams .
Cascades – each ‘step’ down was highlighted by the white soapy foam on the water surface. Someone had been harvesting privet saplings from a neighbouring clump, and the poles were stacked on the edge of the stream.
It has proved an extremely difficult task to actually capture on camera the disgusting filth that comprises the stream bed, and not one of my photos illustrates the point properly.
The valley sides on both banks went up steeper and steeper and the bush became thicker and thicker as we hacked and slashed our way alongside the smelly stream, suddenly arriving at the top of a waterfall.
We were appalled at the state of the falls – stinking smell and green and white from thick layers of algae (due to the overloading of nutrients from sewage and possibly detergents) and unnatural foam.
This should be an energising place of celebration, of cleansing and healing, not filth.
It seems as though the farther downstream we went, the steeper the hillside and the thicker the bush – mainly Mauritius Thorn or Privet!
Which ever of the two of us was behind had a battle to actually keep the leader in sight.
Having read Ed Staffords book on walking the length of the Amazon, we gleaned a tiny inkling of what he had to hack through (at least he didn’t have the stench of sewerage relentlessly following him all day).
Finally, approaching the top of a second, higher waterfall, we decided to call it quits.
Temperatures had soared into the 30’s, and we had both consumed far more water than ever before in a single day on a river walk
We had run out of drinking water, so we decided to make our way out the valley.
To our absolute dismay, the steep climb ended in the first ever fence to defeat our river walking team. After a heart stopping few minutes, we decided that all we could do was follow the fence until we could find a gap or see a road or house. What we eventually saw was the different fence of a neighbouring property and a miracle – a friendly staff member in a garden who saved the day by bringing us ice cold water and explaining how we could get to the road, where we both collapsed in a heap and waited for our second miracle of the day – Liz Taylor come to collect us after a short phone call!
A Mayday for Rivers Team record breaker today: 6 hours to hack, climb and scramble (and walk a bit) 2 km of river plus valley side! Without the ever present sewage we would have been able to walk in the river and would have progressed at a far greater speed. What a Heritage Day! As fellow South Africans all over the country (hopefully) enjoyed their celebrations, Preven and I could only shake our heads in sadness as to the heritage that we are leaving our children and grand children. We are both ashamed to be part of the generation and community that can treat a stream with such disrespect.