Merrivale’s River of Shame – Where Children Once Played

DAY 2: Where Children Once Played  

Preven tells today’s tale: With today’s heat warning predicting a high of 42˚Celcius we wanted to get off as soon as possible and start our trek. We left Penny’s home early in the morning to get to our stream – today heading for the arm of the stream that begins in Sakabula Golf Estate.

Skipping Sakabula for now, we started at the Merrivale/Boston intersection immediately downstream of the Sakabula wetlands and on the west side of the N3 highway where the stream has been known to be continuously overrun with sewage. We were on a manhole spotting mission this morning – aiming, like detectives, to see where the sewer line intersected the stream. Unfortunately it did this with surprising consistency and regularity.


Here a storm water drain was lined with grass that caught the sewage solids and was black with dried, caked sludge.


The pool beneath the end of the storm water channel was a thick black mass of fetid dark sludge.


Inside this ‘catchment area’ we found discarded manhole casings and covers, and lots of discarded bottles. While the stream went under the N3 via a culvert, we followed it by going under the N3 on the road leading into Merrivale, recording more manholes and storm water drains.


Emerging on the other side of the highway, the water was stagnant and gave off a sickly smell.


Here the stream does not flow at all and the banks have Bramble, Privet, Loquat, Bugweed and litter  before being  channelled yet again under another mountainside – this time that of the railway line embankment.


By this stage our spirits have sunk low again and we do not expect much more improvement from these open sewers. This is sadly not a stream anymore but a sewer line and very little (if any) stream life exists here.

Bull rushes and Watercress smother what little water occurs where the stream emerges from under the railway line,


before it again disappears in a culvert this time under the main Merrivale / Howick road. This leads immediately to a second culvert that runs under a disused railway line: a mass of concrete forming tunnel, floor, storm water drain and water course is smothered in thick dry sewage sludge where not covered in the filthy, slow moving stream water so grey and sludgy that the concrete floor is invisible.


To make matters worse (if possible) a manhole lid in the floor of the culvert lies flipped upside down revealing what looks like flowing sewage.


Onwards on the other side of the disused railway line we find yet another manhole open in the stream bed and with dark grey water flowing inside it.


Everything around here is laced with sewage and it is very hard to breathe. We are now in the industrial area and we see workers in a factory sweeping up what looks like black soot which we watch being blown towards the stream. This clearly also gets washed down a spillway which then goes into the river making it black all over again.


The stream banks are lined with a mix of invasive plants, from the Blue Gums to Lantana, Indian Shot, Castor Oil and countless other species which then give way to Kikuya clad banks dotted with stumps of enormous felled Blue Gum trees and Watercress in the stream. It appears that someone has been doing some clearing, as all the Bugweed have been cut down.


With some love and care, this could be a beautiful stretch of stream


Downstream of a small bridge, the water is even blacker than before – could this be from wind blown soot/ash?


We have now reached the industrial area where we lost the stream for a while yesterday but we still need to reach the confluence via the arm which we are on. There appears to be a walking path between an electric fence of the factory and the river.


There is clearly no respect for the 32 metre water course buffer in either of the industrial areas – both yesterday and today! This would be understandable if factories are old, but how this is happening with newer factories beats us and leaves us speechless. All along the way the stream is choked with invasive from Bramble to Mauritius Thorn. Now here we start to find Syringa, Sword Fern and thicker sections of Bugweed. We continue and find a “bridge” between two factories built out of two massive round concrete drain sections which are bone dry – the stream seeps under them and emerges again in a pool of thick black sludge.


Everything about this stream has sadly been trashed. As we aren’t prepared to risk the pool of sludge, and don’t know how far the factories extend, we double back and join the other arm of the stream walked yesterday (the one which has escaped from the factory and onto the grasslands), continuing until we hit the wetland and find the confluence of the two streams again.

For the first time on a river walk, we walk up the stream instead of following the flow – it does not feel right! Doubling back up the stream now we see rows and rows of houses beyond the right bank. The left bank is so choked with Wattle, Mauritius Thorn and Bramble its impassable and almost impossible to see what the right bank looks like.


Then we find a small old bridge to cross over – and the stream is full of foam!


We can now see what condition the right bank is in – it has a tar road to within four or 5 metres of the stream.


Strangely enough there is a derelict post box at the old bridge and an old house and overgrown remnants of gardens and Penny deduces this must have been a farm or homestead.


What a home it must have once been, snuggled up in the V formed by the confluence of two streams. We could almost hear the ghosts of children long gone, playing and splashing here.


“Where do the children play now since all the land has been taken over by factories and roads?” As I look around at this unloved stream I sadly realise that this is true. This is the heritage we are leaving behind to our children – nothing, nothing to look forward to, steel grey landscapes with polluted rivers and busy lives. There will be few wild flowers and birdsongs. This is the sad tale of the unloved stream that summarises the state of many rivers in South Africa today.

Pennys Postscript: I tend to remember rivers we have walked by the main impact per river. The Lions stands out in my memory as impacted by livestock effluent in the upper reaches and siltation in the lower reaches; the Dargle for the invasive plants choking the banks; the Mpofana for upstream over extraction and downstream , the horrific erosion caused by the waters of the Mooi uMngeni Transfer scheme, and the Indezi from the impacts of the pollutants released by vehicles on the adjacent N3 highway. These two Merrivale streams will stand out in my memory for the sewerage, actual and stench thereof, from start to finish. Sewerage in such concentrations that, for the first time in a total of 4 years and 49 days of river walking we were not prepared to do miniSass which on a river walk involves getting hands and feet wet.  Nor were we able, as in the past, to start each day on arrival at the river or stream to pause at the rivers edge, place our hands in the water and say a water blessing. The uMngeni River along its route, suffered all of the above impacts at one place or another.

Prev’s parting shot, when I asked if he was ‘glad’ we had managed to walk another river was “It wasn’t even a river”.



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 Merrivale’s River of Shame – Where Children Once Played

  1. penzmalinga says:

    What a terribly, sad story of the stream that once was.

  2. Vanessa Ford says:

    Our frightening water crisis goes on from bad to worse. Will we get to the stage that our rivers catch alight, as they did in the States in the 60’s, before there is sufficient public pressure & action from Government Departments like Water Affairs?

    It’s absolutely appalling & I thank you all for the work you do in these depressing & dangerous circumstances. I think it was Newton who said: “I can calculate the movement of stars, but not the madness of men”.

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