The Gift

Rietspruit Day Four – 28 December 2016

Pandora writes:

Penny’s Whats App message came as a special Gift the day after Christmas.  “We are going back to explore the last section of the Rietspruit on Thursday. Are you in?”   A really bad chest had prevented me from joining the team on the walk the week before.  I jumped at the chance to be out walking rivers with the team again.  I sent a message back “I’m in!”

Six of us set out on this post-Christmas expedition.





and his wife, Zim, who was walking with us for the first time,


Our camera man Siphiwe


and his assistant Nomusa


and myself.


Penny had done a recce with her friend Laura the previous day to find the ‘vanishing waterfall’


and the best spot to park the vehicles to access this part of the Rietspruit Valley.


We met Siphiwe on the Cedara College Road and made our way past St Joseph’s dam and onto a rough dirt track.  The day had dawned overcast, but clear.  “I always told my students – never believe the weatherman!” Preven says of his UKZN geography teaching days.  We’d been concerned about having to abort the walk or walk in the forecast rain.


The sun broke out over our ‘totem’ mountain, Inhlosane and we watched in awe as an ethereal light bathed this sentinel, that has stood watch over all our Midlands riverwalks.


We arrived at the elusive Umgeni Water Reservoir.  Gosh it was BIG!  I wondered how many people it would fit around its diameter.  Certainly more than six!


We made our way from the causeway just above the large concrete slab housing the Umgeni water pipeline, into the cascading river.  Then it was time for our river blessing,


before setting off along the riverbed down towards the gorge.


Penny explained why she had decided to come and explore this section of the river further. “At the end of day three of the Rietspruit, we sat at the cliffs overlooking the uMngeni valley.  I remember this valley from when I worked at Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve several years ago.  You can see two waterfalls from that side of the gorge but the only waterfall we had seen properly on this walk was where the big Combretum was. I felt like the walk was unfinished, incomplete in some way, like stopping a project halfway through.  The vegetation had been so thick, the terrain seemingly inaccessible and although you could see where some of the waterfall ledges are from above, they just disappeared from sight.  The time was short on day three, so that’s where we left it.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about those waterfalls – about either leaving them be if it was impossible to get down, or if there was an existing path, coming back to find a way to explore them.  A call to one of the landowners who is passionate about this valley and its river, Dave Larson, opened the way for this exploratory walk to find the falls.  I also felt we needed to do some further miniSASS tests below the reservoir”


After some slipping and sliding and quite a bit of wading


we came to a lovely cascade where the weaver birds were having a riotous time and where we stopped to do the miniSASS test.  We were excited to find a host of aquatic invertebrates, although one or two low scorers brought our score down to a river in a fair condition. But the signs were good ones and reason to celebrate a river that brought hope back into our Riverwalk work!

Crossing at this point to a pathway on river left, we made our way to where the river dropped invisibly into a narrow gorge below.


This is where Dave’s local knowledge about accessing the waterfall, led us to a steep pathway down to the bottom of the cliff.


There a little pool was surrounded by huge cliffs and a second pool led back to the point where we’d lost sight of the waterfall.  From this vantage point, two beautiful cascades were framed in a cavern scene.


It was time for lunch and that, for me, meant time to swim. I swam across the pool and climbed up into the long cavern to the upper pool and swam to the end to sit under the waterfall.  Here a brilliant shaft of sunlight pierced the crack in the caverns ceiling, and reflected light off the cascading showers of water droplets.  This effect formed a shimmering Christmas angel amidst little rainbows of light!


Prev joined me under the waterfall while Penny took photos from the other end of the pool.  I was glad of the time to just sit and reflect over a busy year, to look ahead to what 2017 would bring, and then to just be present, under the waterfall, at one with the river in this ancient place, at this Christmas time, and with these people, my awesome Riverwalk friends.


This is the gift that this walk unfolded for me…a magical, marvellous and mysterious gift.   Much later when we reviewed Penny’s photo’s, the symbolic significance of a huge rock owl drew us together in contemplation. How wise nature is, the river, the rocks, trees and wildlife – from the tiniest aquatic creatures cleansing this river, to the majestic fish eagle that had flown over the River-walkers earlier in the walk.


We called these falls, Angel Owl Falls.  This was truly a special, sacred place. This experience was a Gift to remember.  Later I asked Zim what she felt about her very first river walk….what gift did it bring her?


“Wow it was very amazing, I really enjoyed it… I never thought that for my first time river-walking would be like this. It was very impressive.” Zim said with excitement.  “Actually I saw the meaning of why we have to take care of the rivers and save them.  None of us can think what a natural river actually has to be like… for me the deepest part of the walk was as you were reading that poem for us … many of us don’t understand the reason why we have to protect the rivers… now I know.


When I was young, my mother used to say that the new generation has to have something to hold onto, but there is no one to tell the new generation about nature and why we need to protect it.  River-walking is not about enjoying the experience or just recreational walking, it’s about walking to protect the river.  When Preven used to go on walks I would worry about things like – what if he gets hurt and all.  Now I realise that you don’t have to worry about that.” (read on to see what really did happen to Prev on this walk!)

“I realise now that it’s not about the superficial things,” Zim continued.  “It’s about the teaching that you go there for. What I saw is so free and cool, it opened my mind about river-walking.”  I’d love to come more.  As for the Gift – what can I say, that I felt powerful, protected… When we went back to the last waterfall, not Angel Owl Falls, the other one where we were sitting not talking too much I saw something. I can’t even explain it.


You know like when something is in the flow and you can’t explain it, it was so deep.  I saw the things that we are not thinking about – that God is protecting the river. I saw that the power of God was there in that place”.  Zim smiled.


I ask Prev to take up the story… to tell us his experience of the Gift – that is – this walk down the Rietpruit. He smiles.  If you look ever so closely it’s a new smile, warm, generous.  Always the jester, but this new smile speaks of gratitude, goodness and mercy.  It speaks of knowing exactly where ‘that place’ is where one finds oneself ‘in the gap’.

“Well I think my gift to the river was that of my tooth…” Prev laughs his usual laugh, but if you could listen ever so carefully, there was a new sound, like a whispered whistle in the wind.  But this story must wait.


“On day three, after getting sight of the reservoir and thinking we’d be there in no time at all, we never actually got to it. So coming back and going up to it was great.  Walking to (where we had been incorrectly told) that the reservoir overflow joins the Rietspruit and getting straight into the water was very cool.


It was a nice initiation for Zim, a nice testing ground. Part of the Gift was to share this with my wife – the beauty of it all.”


It was wonderful to linger at the waterfall and then getting to the top of the gorge and sitting on that ledge, just drinking in the beauty of that tapestry of nature, moving and pulsing with life.


Sitting with Zim overlooking the gorge.


I loved the encounter with Dave Larson and Timothy. I felt uplifted to see such a vibrant young boy – this is how I want my son, Tao, to be like in nature.


We spoke with the Larsons for over half an hour. So by the end of the walk I felt complete, with a sense of peace, and part of the beauty of the place. That for me was the Gift that the river gave me today.” Prev ended.


“What about your Gift to the river?” I reminded Prev about the story he left hanging.

“I was really tired and fell asleep at the rock by the disappearing waterfall. On the way back I was happy to walk, hop, skip and jump but the rocks were wet from the rain and I wasn’t concentrating.  I slipped on the rock and fell, tasting blood and clutching my missing tooth.  Zim came in as the miraculous medic she is (actually everyone came forward to help) but I felt sorry to cut my tooth short – and the walk short.” Prev laughed.  “I can’t believe how blessed and lucky we are to do this work.  That is the Gift for me. How really fortunate I am to be engaged in this work.”


Siphiwe and his sound assistant, Nomuso,  joined us to film the day.  Like Zim, Nomuso is also a first time river-walker. Here is her account of today’s walk. “I love and support the initiative of walking rivers. Our rivers are our lives and their health depends on how we treat them.


I have walked Rietspruit which was quite a good river with five beautiful waterfalls but what shocked me is that where the stream goes through houses, the condition gets poorer.  From the source the river condition is pristine , meaning that wild animals do better than us.”


Siphiwe added, “It was great to meet the River-walkers again. I think the River Walk organizers must invite decision makers and community members to walk, so that maybe these new insights can improve the river condition downstream.  Walking the Rietspruit River was a good experience for me, even though I was working behind the camera.


Looking at the impacts, you can see how cruel we are to Mother Nature.  My message is: Thumbs up to the River-walkers even if you lose a tooth!  Never give up even if its hard going!


Penny talks about her Gift –  “One of the reasons I walk rivers is that I’ve been hoping to find what we found today, a river that is loved and that is responding to that love,  a river that is still in beautiful condition. For me today’s Gift is finding that river, meeting some of the landowners that are looking after it, and knowing that its future is entrusted into their care. The Gift today, is also my team…


I remember sitting on a bank at Albert Falls waiting for our support crew to arrive with the canoe, to ferry us across and saying, “I would take this team to the moon with me…” I hope that through this work I can reciprocate all the gifts that I’ve received through walking rivers, by giving back and being a voice for the river.   I am also thinking of Angel Owl Falls, and my gratitude for being able to be there today, but I have also a deep sense of sadness that so many people will never experience anything like that.” Penny concluded.


And so, in closing this story of The Gift, it is my turn to take hold of the talking stick and to share my experiences with young people in 2017.

To take the story of the Rietspruit as it journeys from the hillsides of Cedara, past St Josephs dam and on, to tumble down one, two, three, four, five, six waterfalls, before meeting with the uMngeni.  To share the wisdom inherent in Angel Owl falls, in the folds and creases of ancient rock, in the sparkling stillness of pools, the rushing of rapids and disappearing falls, in the forested gorge, the riverside canopy, the grassland glades, in the flowers, in the insects that live on land and water and in so doing are able to clean rivers, in the rich loamy soils and the sands, in the wind, sun and rain, and in the wildlife and birds.  Above all it’s time to take the wisdom of the river to young people to teach them to love the land and to live and work together to leave a living legacy.  This is my Gift back to the River.


Penny’s last word:

Prev, Penz and I originally knew about only two waterfalls on the Rietspruit, but the discovery of additional beautiful falls plus numerous cascades was thrilling.


We have now seen three of these falls. Our debate raged on that night last night as to how we could access them – from the confluence? From the top? From the hillside, walk in the river itself? River left? River right?

Then it dawned on me in the middle of the night – we are not explorers on a mission to conquer un-chartered territory. If there is no path to access these places, then we leave them un-accessed: there are pitifully few places around here so close to urbanisation where Earth and her residents are left in peace, with only the echos of the bird song, the rushing waters and the rustling leaves as the days music. I will not and could not intrude on this – leave Mother Earth in peace here, leave the sanctity of this wild area in peace, beautiful, sacred, untouched and respected…The memory of sitting on the edge of the cliff  looking out over the wild, untamed green mantle, with the sound of the river rushing over the falls is quite enough. We leave the rest be, with gratitude and love.

The DUCT Mayday for Rivers Team would like to take this opportunity to thank N3TC for the funding that has made the Rietspruit walk possible. Without their funding, not only the Rietspruit, but also all the other walks except the uMngeni and Aller would not have been undertaken, and none of the post walk rejuvenation work and umpteen positive spin-offs would have happened. Thank you for your continued support.






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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