Aller River Day 1: Two Boots in the Water

As a river walker you have to be up early, otherwise you pay the price later. Today we wanted to escape the wrath of the sun’s rays which has been predicted to be a sweltering 31 at high noon. So it is up at 5am and out the door at 6. But wait, hang on, just a back up a little to give everyone some context.

We (Penny and Preven) are staying with Mark Liptrot (who has officially become a river walker/warrior on this walk) and after a sumptuous dinner last night, we retired to our comfy beds. Mark’s home overlooks the stunning Krantzkloof Nature Reserve,  a deep gorge flanked with Acacia trees and zebras on the hills. Thus morning breaks over this gorge with the sounds of numerous birdcalls that love to nest in the sprawling indigenous garden that Mark and his wife Cecily, have been patiently nurturing for more than a decade.  Preven, Penny and Mark have compiled this report and all the others on the Aller River.

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Out the door at exactly six (Phineas Fogg would have been proud) we meet our super organised support driver Hugh McGibbon, and we load into his 4×4 as we head down to the source of the Aller. Photos from the previous evenings preparation meeting were posted on the Ethekweni Conservancy Forum Facebook page, showing the map of the river from source to confluence. However the wrong map was uploaded and conservancy members were quick to note that we had the wrong source.  We will meet these eagle eyed citizens later on our trip down the Aller.

So the river starts in a hole in a ground, seeping through the bedrock and then beginning its meander, in the middle of a suburban New Germany

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at a cross roads on Hilmer street. This is where our adventure begins.

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Not surprisingly, invasive vegetation dogs this river from the start. It is a litany of aliens: bugweed, swordfern, balloon vine, inkberry creeper, lantana, ginger, bramble, scheffelorea, castor oil, elephant ear, Singapore daisy, syringa. And this was all in the first 200 meters dotted amongst the indigenous vegetation.

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Really startling was the amount of illegal dumping – predominantly garden waste but also some building and general rubble.

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The river was flowing slowly snaking through the vegetation and gradually building up her momentum. We decided that here was a good place to do the Kwan Yin River blessing, a ritual we could not do on the last river walk due to the high levels of sewage we found. The Aller was cleaner and thus safer for us to place our hands in the water, and in the shade of a mixture of indigenous and alien trees we conducted our river blessings

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and began the mini SASS.

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In the clear slow flowing water we found prongils, minnow mayflies, cased caddis flies, snails, whirly gigs and a female crab with a case full of eggs.

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But despite these finds we still ended with a mini SASS score of 5.3 which translates into POOR condition for our little stream, so close to its source.

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We cross a causeway and head into a new section of the stream, here it is not an easy stroll down the river bank but houses wing the river banks on both sides. We soon realise that both sides of the river bank is unnavigable because of the thick infestation of aliens close to fences that are on the margin of the river itself,

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so we choose the only route available to us which is into the riverbed itself.

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We did not even get five meters into the river however before we heard the raucous shouting of a woman clearly upset and hell bent on getting us out of ‘her’ river. “Hey! Get out of the river now. Turn back and get out or I will call the police” We were dumbfounded and were not certain who she was talking to.  Soon it became clear that she was talking to us.  I tried to explain to her that the river is public property but this only infuriated her more. “Get out! It is my private property you have no right walking through here.”

But I insisted we have a right, it is a thoroughfare before I was smartly stopped from trying to push forward this line of argument.  Penny calmly appealed to her and told her that we are merely walking the river to gather data so that we can clean it up. The lady was quickly calmed by this tale, and then asked us who she can speak to regarding the pollution in the river. We never did see her face and she quickly ducked away. She did reveal that her fears stem from the spate of burglaries that have been happening in her neighbourhood and she mentioned that it was mainly from people ‘sneaking’ along the river.

From this encounter we moved on and into the water. Two boots full of water and we hacked and slashed our way through thick layers of bugweed, lantana, soo soo, balloon vine and other assorted vines specifically designed to trip us up at every step

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We were hailed by yet another riverside resident who chatted to us and mentioned how the crabs and other wildlife have disappeared over the last few years. All this time we had the constant presence of our support crew Hugh, Justine and Phumelelo, who were waiting for us each time the river emerged near the roadside. The sight of their faces and their encouragement and supply of ice cold water was more than enough sustenance for weary river walkers. It made a difficult mission made so much easier knowing that we were covered by these three wise people.

We now hit the industrial zone.

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A huge bridge arched over the river surrounded by high fences and factories and the constant drone of trucks. We entered the river and clambered into the dark water which now started to rise up to our knees. The foliage has become dense and balloon vine has now smothered every tree in sight.

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We were now only making progress step by painful step every 10 minutes. More time was spent hacking and coughing from the dust and the foliage. Deep in the water and it now began to stink of sewage, we were very uncomfortable and decided to emerge on the side of the bank only to realise that it has taken us 30 minutes to get 10 metres.

We head down now into the pine forest where walking was a bit easier. On arrival, found that it was a thick stand of Indian Laurel (Litsea glutinosa).

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The river snakes and flows at a steady pace beginning to be smothered by alien vegetation almost completely. We continued towards the second bridge but where alerted by our support team of potential danger up ahead. They were parked on the verge of the road but were told by locals to move because of a gang of tsotsis hang out under the bridge. We decided to get out of the riverbed and into the township to escape any danger. We encountered many colourful characters who were interested in what we were up to and it was a joy to explain to them how important the river is. Everyone knows but seems to think the situation is as it is and cannot be changed.

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It is good, I think, that three strangers in blue shirts can make them believe that something can be done. Well, I hope something can be done as South Africa is on the verge of a water crisis.  With a major drought on our hands it is amazing that no one looks to the water factories, the river that provides us water to begin with.

We catch up with our team at the road next to the river and they have brought the cavalry. They have called local constables Ziqubu and Shozi to escort us down the river past the tsotsis and the whoonga boys. It was so amazing to see and get help from this quarter.

On the whole the local community has been very accepting of our (to them) slightly crazy project. However, we were cautious to tread lightly and greet all and sundry with a few words and friendly wave. This did not have ANY effect at all on the sometimes humungous sprawls of litter on the riverbank,

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and massive water mains leak near the main road.

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Mute testimony to the unfeeling attitude of Man to our incredible riverine heritage. Often this illegal dumping was advertised by a NO ILLEGAL DUMPING sign

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At this point it was impossible to continue along the river due to the impenetrability of the (mainly alien) bush and a surcharging sewer manhole contaminating the stream.

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Team Hugh had to transport us to a spot downstream, past another water mains leak, to where we could continue from Afrika Tavern.

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We  headed once more along the banks, this time noticing dozens of dagga bushes interspersed amongst the more legal legumes and mealies.

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Walking now towards the New Germany sewage treatment works, we were all feeling the effects of both the midday heat – and the smell, wafting up from the diluted sewage channel, which the Aller River had now become.

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Unfortunately, the treatment works outflow seemed to have a detrimental effect on the water quality, as seen by the increase in turbidity and odour including a strong smell of chlorine.

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Samples were taken before and after the inflow for testing for bacterial loading. All thoughts of doing another mini-SASS had been abandoned as clearly the water quality had deteriorated to a point to which all contact with it was deemed a health hazard and for the first time on a river walk I donned gloves in order to take a water sample.

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This treatment works is apparently due to be closed shortly, and the sewage will be pumped to the main works at Springfield. This can only assist in improving the water quality.

We continued along the sewerage servitude and noted that at least half of the inspection covers had been subject to overflows.

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At one point there was a sewage overflow up the bank, and we had to scavenge some wood to make a walkway across. This coincided with a huge pile of what looked like plastic cable covers, where the valuable metal innards had been removed

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We soldiered on to a point on the servitude halfway between sewer manholes and wolfed down our lunch.

We had a chance to collect our thoughts on the walk so far. Ecologically, it was a disaster and a danger to the surrounding residents, with unsafe water that couldn’t even be used for irrigating gardens or crops;

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wild legions of invasive alien plants that would prove extremely difficult to remove and very low biodiversity of flora and fauna. However, geologically it is a very attractive river, with many interesting rock formations and the potential for river walks, picnics and fishing for the surrounding community. There are some magnificent trees in amongst the aliens – uMdoni, flatcrown, pigeonwood and Ficus sp. to name a few – and with a consistent habitat improvement programme could be improved to the level of, eg, that found in Paradise Valley.

Day 1 was going to end at a point a few hundred metres downstream, but we got an urgent call from Hugh that the servitude had become flooded with a further, serious, sewage overflow. This was just after we had crossed a magnificent rocky area

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where the river edges were lined with dozens of snails feasting on dark green algae, an indication of nutrient overload.

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We met at the designated pick-up point, but found it too precarious to even attempt a crossing.

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We therefore trekked up the hillside to the Westville side of the valley, where we met Hugh next to a NO ILLEGAL DUMPING sign.  Next to – you guessed it – illegal dumping!

Having been denied the opportunity to wet even a finger since the water blessing near the source, sinking into Mark’s swimming pool at the end of the long, hot and humid day was an absolute luxury.

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About Nikki Brighton

I live in a Magic Cottage near the mist-belt forest with my African dog, Dizzy. We enjoy long walks in the fields to gather wild greens, sitting on the verandah with a pot of tea, and harvesting vegetables outside the kitchen door.
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One Response to Aller River Day 1: Two Boots in the Water

  1. Pingback: Take Back Our Rivers | River Walks

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