Penny passed the buck last night and left it to Preven and Mark to write the blog whilst she checked and repacked all the kit for day two, downloaded photos, GPS and Dictaphone transcripts and made lunch. Only thing she didn’t do was stuff everyone’s boots with newspaper to make sure they were properly dry for the next day. However, the Durban heat dried the damp rapidly, so it didn’t matter.
Today we were quite convinced that this small river would be the one that defeated us. After six river walks we can still learn something new. The big lesson of the Aller? If you can’t walk in the water at times (due to the fact that the stream is an open sewer) you may well end up, at worst, not being able to complete the walk or at best, taking an unbelievably long time to negotiate vegetation and terrain besides the river. Today we took seven hours to negotiate a whole 3km – all because the water was so disgustingly contaminated with sewage that we dared not get a drop on ourselves or our boots.
We arrived at the start bright and early and Hugh took us down to the spewing manhole that had prevented us from crossing the river at end of the day yesterday.
Great start to the day! After spending some time photographing the muck, we headed down the path that runs along the river bank and is actually the sewage pipeline servitude – this was going to be a piece of cookie, strolling along the bank looking down at the river.
Similar to yesterday, many of the manholes showed signs of surcharges
and the indigenous bush was smothered in Balloon Vine and other assorted invasives of the same species as seen yesterday.
Then it all went pear shaped: with the inaccessible Aller River to our right, a steep ravine spanned by a small aqueduct materialised in front of us cutting off our route ahead.
Beyond the aqueduct stretched the Aller Valley.
That was when I knew that this time we were beat – unable to walk in the river due to the sewage meant that we may not be able to cross the river – and cross we would have to do. Our golden rule in hilly and meandering country is – stick to the river bank on the inside bend as the outside bend is generally horribly steep. Bit of a problemo if you can’t cross!
With no way ahead nor left (up) or right (down) we dismally turned back and began to retrace our steps. Seeing a gap we struggled uphill and came out back where we had started. Here we found Hugh who had not yet left as he was attempting to report the sewer surcharge. We headed to the hill edge to attempt to find a way down – and didn’t.
What we did find, however, was something that is probably never thought of by those of us fortunate to have water borne sewage or septic tanks. Think about it – where do people in informal settlements go to the loo? We’ve come across this situation as well as the faeces before – the veld beyond the homes is the loo, and thus one has to be very careful where you walk as there are blobs of faeces dotting the veld. Not pleasant to read? Of course not. Not pleasant to walk amongst? Of course not. What about the people living there to whom this is their only option? Even less pleasant for them!
In an attempt to solve our dilemma of accessing the river, Hugh drove us around to the other side of the valley to a spot that had been earmarked as a potential PUP (Pick up Point). We have a number of these marked on the google aerials that we and the support crew carry so that in an emergency we have a demarcated collection point which is usually the only spot in the area that the river is accessible by vehicle. A dirt switchback road took us down, down, down into the valley and we finally reached the river and crossed it a new way for a river walk: via a vehicle fording a causeway!
The river had grown in size since we last saw her.
We walked a short stretch till the next causeway, decided to backtrack a bit in order to check out the river banks
and state of the river (grey and sewage as usual)
and after Hugh, Mark and Preven did a short reccee across a pipeline and found a track, we used the pipeline to cross the river and took the chance that the pipeline maintenance track would continue down the river and give us the access we needed.
We were praying to the river gods by now to catch a break. Not being able to reach a confluence of a river will have a demoralising effect on us. The Aller has become wide and steep between interlocking spurs of a valley that is covered in thick mostly alien vegetation. So when we saw the road at the other end of the pipleline would provide with a chance to walk beside the river, we were overjoyed.
Spirits renewed we soldiered on and here is where we were rejuvenated by the amazing succour of nature. Who could have imagined that right in the middle of a bustling city we will find a natural paradise?
Okay it wasn’t perfect. Balloon vine was creeping everywhere
Syringas grew tall all around us but it was still natural and with a trail that led us through all the kinks of the river. We headed down to the river, high slabs of rock and water cascading over, a perfect scene except for the sewage.
Along the banks high up we find bottles of plastic and other rubbish, signs left over from flooding.
We continue down the servitude path glad to have the sound of the running river beside us and then we find a causeway going across the river.
Easy enough for vehicles to cross over, of course, but at the moment there was no Hugh to deposit us on the other side. But we were by now resigned to the fact that we have to cross the river and it will be doing this loop-de-loop for the last kilometres of its journey to Mama River Umgeni. We entered the water and were at the other side so quickly that we were soon nonplussed about crossing sewage laden water.
This attitude proved useful because we would be crossing this river by means of causeways more than ten times before the end of the day. The causeways began to follow each other in rapid succession but they were invaluable to us because they allowed us to cross without getting ankle deep in water. Flanked by tall trees it was beginning to finally become a pleasant walk.
We thought this is how it would be all the way to the confluence. However, like all river walks it proved to be the trickiest at the end. There were eight causeways in all and they began to get progressively worse. Causeway 5 was broken in parts and Causeway 6 was in half. We had to jump across the gap in between the concrete. Causeway 7 disappeared into a clump of Spanish reeds
and Causeway 8 was completely gone. Before getting to Causeway 8 however we got lost and ended up wandering into a place of a 100 discarded tyres. Bizarrely these tyres formed circles in the path in front of us and some were stuck in trees. We presumed that these were just dumped from the households and businesses by throwing them over the top of the hill up above the river.
In fact this was a common sight along this and many of our rivers. People seem to find chucking things over a hill a solution to their garbage problems. Out of sight, out of mind really drives me out of my mind! It shows no respect for each other or the environment. Hlonipha, hlonipha, hlonipha! This attitude is causing our rivers to become so maligned and misused. The reality is that we continue to do it, continue to use this marvellous river simply as a resource, a place to fill dams or get rid of our waste. Really? I know I am preaching to the converted and all you true blue river heroes reading these words know this problem. The question becomes then what do we do in a national water crisis?
We have now run out of causeways – just as we have run out of excuses for not protecting our precious water resources. We have entered the flood plain, yet surrounding us on every side are mile high Spanish reeds.
We begin to hack our way through hoping we will eventually hit river. This proves to be very draining – hacking and slashing and cutting, we decide to head up the steep bank hoping that there might be a path there.
We reach the shelter of the cliff face where I find the skull of a dassie and some much needed shade. We take a small lunch break at the foot of this rock face revelling that we can be so close to the city yet so lost in a river system.
We now have to find the confluence of the Aller and Umgeni. But we encounter more reeds which blocks us from seeing anything.
After much hacking and sweating and swearing we reach a river,
which looks like the uMngeni but in a much diminished state. The drought has made her shallow, good for river crossing but bad for the ecology. The sides of the riverbank is encased in deep green sludge, I scramble to get across and onto an island before we take a pause for breath and cross the once mighty uMngeni. The current is strong and deep in paths but we managed to find a place where there are enough rocks to cross. Mark finally has his ‘river walk baptism’ – wading through a thigh deep, strongly flowing river.
We now have to backtrack to the confluence because we came down in an arc from the hillside from our lunch spot, and through the reed bed and overshoot the confluence by 50 meters. The left bank of the river is not choked with Spanish reed which helps us quickly find the confluence and the almost end of our walk. Where the Aller enters the uMngeni river one can actually see the difference in colour. The Aller is a sickly grey whilst Mama Geni has a more clear look.
We need to get samples from Aller before she enters Geni but we are on the wrong side. So we devise a bottle on a stick tied with ductape and get our last 2 samples, one from the Aller
and one from uMngeni river to assess how badly this sewage surcharge is damaging the ecosystem. I do not even want to enter the water with my elaborate stick design but just 20 meters down from us a group of children are playing, carefree in the water.
I am happy that children play in South Africa’s rivers but saddened that this untroubled attitude (which should be one of the hallmarks of everyone’s childhood) will cost them their health.
We head back to our last pick up point which is a kilometre away from where we are through the fields of vegetables and mango trees and where Hugh is waiting patiently for us.
This last stretch brings to a close to the area we passes on a previous river walk. It is clear that with each walk the situation is not improving but rather getting progressively worse. Children run on top of the silver pipes that carry this precious resource to the rest of Durban while local communities cannot even cross their own rivers due to sewage. How long will this imbalance continue? This river walk has, as usual, asked more questions than offered solutions but hopefully this will be the catalyst that is needed for action.
With strong community groups like the Ethekweni Conservancies Forum championing this cause and this river walk, maybe “Aller is not verloeren”. Perhaps we can repair and reclaim our wonderful water factories?