Rietspruit Day One – 14 December 2016
I left the howling streets, frantic malls and bright light casinos of Gauteng and got on the early morning bus to Howick, to rendezvous with Penny and begin our first river walk of 2016 – a crazy, upsetting and magical year.
We begin the planning and mapping of our next adventure, along the four tributaries of the Rietspruit. See map on our recce blog. Day one in red.
On the Wednesday morning at 05h45 Penny, Penz and I jump into the Jimny and head up to Cedara College, where we are to meet our intrepid camera man Sphiwe and his assistant Nomsa, and our support and vigil(ante) Doug, to begin the walk.
The College looms beyond the grey gates, the sun rises across its many turreted residences, laboratories and silos. In the Illustrated Guide to Cedara College it says that ”[T]he land on which the college stands was bought when it became evident that an investigation into farming conditions had become necessary to address the problems associated with agriculture and food production in the Colony of Natal”. And in what a wonderful way it does this – more than 900 acres of undulating fields, wetlands, riverine systems and laboratories.
Buildings older than a hundred years, knowledge systems, and residences for staff and students, it made me wish I changed my undergraduate degree to become one with this tribe. In those times (being the early 1900’s) the only place of training for farmers in South Africa was Elsenburg College in Stellenbosch, which catered for farming conditions in the Cape but not in Natal. “Conditions in Natal were very different, and farmers who wished to have their sons educated in agriculture, and in English, were obliged to send them to Britain – where much of what they could learn was inappropriate to farming in the colony of Natal”
It seems that some things have not changed (or have they gone in reverse?) since the turn of the last century: “Food was needed in far greater quantities than were being produced. The importation of food from abroad was prohibitively expensive and the markets for food had expanded faster than the production capabilities of South African farmers” (from the IGCC 1905 – 2005).
We drive up more than 1400 meters into the fog and mist of the winding river course to its elusive source. The source is hard to find its hidden between brambles and bugweed.
We start our journey down river trying to find the vein of a river beleaguered under continual pressure of roads and farmland. We don’t see her for many miles. The road is a grey presence flanking the river’s edge, which is choked with a multitude of alien invasive plants, so much that the water has died with a gasp and flows no more.
We continue down the road as ‘gunslingers for a better tomorrow’, the mist and fog lifting as the sun breaks the day.
Dead gum trees rise in an eerie display of a soldier stance over an undulating sea of lantana and bramble.
We cannot continue on the road as it veers upwards while the river meanders down – so off the beaten path and into the wildness of the river system – we dive. Wildflowers are scattered in beauty across the field of grass and the hills are studded with trees in every shade of green.
To my delight I spot a huge mushroom in the field and want to take it home for today’s curry, but I am warned off by our group and, since my knowledge of the fungi kingdom is not that good, I relent and leave the huge and meaty mushroom in the ground. Readers can any of you enlighten us if this mushroom is edible or not?
We encounter an ancient gauging weir not operational, its concrete turrets already beginning to be overgrown with weeds. As we wander down through the plantations we continuously seek the river which has in most places been jammed with logs after careless tree felling. We arrive at a windmill, creaking on it hinges, its fan blowing continuously in the wind and I just stared at it, as it is framed in the blue and white of the sky, a decidedly Don Quixote moment.
At the windmills post is a long dam wall that runs the breadth of the river which has grown very wide here. We stop at this wall for a short break (and the obligatory selfie) and then continue along the river which means following the left bank and crossing rusty barbed wire fences into the sprawling plantations.
At a rocky stretch of river we conduct our first miniSASS for the day and get an abysmal score of 5.6 which translates to poor condition. This is a shocking score looking at how pretty the land is, but not surprising in respect of the dam and heavy timber plantations and abundant alien invasive plants. We enter the cover of the plantations and try to walk in the river bed, a great joy for a river walker as it generally easier to hop on rocks than hack through thick growth of bramble and wattle.
A cleft in the landscape reveals a minute patch of beautiful indigenous forest where the stream bubbles under moss clad rocks,
We enter the light and find a lovely stretch of river which has wildflowers growing abundantly beside it.
The mini sass score at this site goes up to 7, which means good condition. This goes to show that with a little care and removal of alien invasive species, the river can return to its natural state. Not much is needed, but much is asked of conservancies and people working together, so let us begin.
Sadly, close by we found a clump of Limnocharis flava (Yellow Sawah Lettuce),
an invasive plant that disrupts the ecology of river banks and shallows and crowds out other species. Its growth also restricts water flow and increases sedimentation.
Penny and Penelope are astounded by the sightings of the Christmas Bells wildflowers (Sandersonia aurantiaca). They grow all over this stretch of river, a good, cheerful sign and our Christmas wishes are well received by the swaying orange flowers.
There is a spider spinning a web above the rippling waters, her silvery strands have created a perfect tapestry of the water beneath, we all lay spun in uncast splendour. Penz inspects an antbear hole. It has dug an enormous hole in the earth without even three whisks of its tail.
We walk on a well maintained road and come to a gate and barbed razor wire running the lie of the land. In front of me sprung up this enormous board proclaiming the Tekwani Plantation. In high letters it states that ‘[T]his is a commercial timber operation and has hazardous operations on a 24 hour day 7 day a week 360 day per year basis. Be warned this is not a safe recreational area on any day of the year. You may not enter to ride your bikes, mountain bikes or quad bikes or to trail run, hike, take photos, collect fauna or flora, sketch, paint, or for any other reason”.
Crossing the famed Cedara Flats
the Rietspruit is channeled along decades old drainage ditches large and small.
We came upon a terrible sight, rubbish piled high and a burst pipe, soaking the land and framed between the clouds and the ground.
We continued towards the highway, and skirted the Armco rail precariously while motor vehicles thundered past us, trucks and caravans too.
Wild Gladioli wave frantically each time a large vehicle passes
and Penny cautions us not to run across this trap of doom and says that she spotted a tunnel where we can cross further down. Traipsing along, we head towards the tunnel, the noxious fumes of the 21st century wreathing around us. The tunnel was a long and deep cavernous space with eerie light and spooky rocks.
We exited through cannas,
to find a water tanker refilling from the stream – apparently for road works somewhere.
The invasive Nasturtium officinale (Water cress) was seen for the first time – an indication of elevated nutrient loads. Not surprisingly the Mini SASS score was a paltry 4.8: seriously modified, very poor condition.
Crossing the road we found ourselves face to face with the railway line which was on top of a steep embankment.
Climbing the near vertical embankment that comprised loose grey crushed shale and tall yellow everlasting flowers we literally hauled our selves up the steep sides. The view from the top was beautiful, looking south west back over the Cedara flats towards the hills that give birth to the Rietspruit.
To the north, the course of the Rietspriuit across a floodplain to begin its descent to the confluence with the uMngeni River with the Karkloof hills in the distance.
The views gave us a good idea of the lay of the land ahead that we would be soon walking. After descending the embankment we struck out over the floodplain
and rounding a rocky outcrop,
St Joseph’s Dam came into view.
We rendezvoused with Doug at the St Joseph’s Dam, tired but satisfied as we watch the sun set over the fields on the drive back home.