Window Shopping, Weeds and the Worst Destruction Ever

Penny starts the days tale:

After the horrors we encountered on the Rietspruit recently, I really did not think we could come across riparian zone destruction as bad for a while.  However, Symmonds Stream certainly rose to the challenge!  In a way, the destruction is worse.  What makes it particularly so, is that it is in full view of a main road and well-frequented shops! But I’m getting ahead of myself, so back to the beginning.

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The day dawned overcast and drizzling as we headed off to the start of the shortest stream that we have walked yet. Preven and I (Penny) were accompanied by our camera crew Sphiwe and Nombuso and we delighted to have our invisible, but always constant and to some, mysterious, other member of the Mayday Team – Nikki Brighton – join us. During our walks Nikki patiently awaits our evening email containing the days blog and photos, at times working until late at night to edit and ensure that the blog is posted on time. We have had her pop by on some walks for a quick ‘visit’, but today was the first time that she has joined us for an entire day. She even ate our standard River Walk packed lunch!

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In the middle of the residential area of Howick, the Symmonds Stream runs parallel to the main road for just over two  kilometres, before joining the uMngeni River close to the Howick Falls. Due to my work with DUCT, I’ve watched from the side lines as a small voluntary group of local residents have lovingly embraced the mammoth task of revitalising the Symmonds Stream. Mammoth understates the enormous task that has been underway for the past few years.

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Local long time residents remember this area where they grew up as being a gentle stream surrounded by mist-belt grasslands –  a far cry from the alien infested and at times, sewage infested, stream that is the Symmonds Stream today.

The stream begins in a slight depression in the hillside besides the Currys Post Road near Eagle Ridge.

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The ground  is invisible beneath a blanket of jasmine creeper interspersed with various other invasive garden escapes.

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All of which lie beneath a remnant group of enormous Blue Gum Trees – their companions were felled some years ago during the early attempts at clearing the invasives from Symmonds Stream.

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Whilst wading through the undergrowth, we came across Kate Brown, a member of the Friends of Symmonds Stream group. Kate walked some of the way with us today. As the green vista on the ground varied only in the composition of invasive species,  we realised what a mammoth task lies ahead in attempting to clear these invasive plants.

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A pleasant surprise was the small wetland area of reeds with masses of activity from Red Bishop and Thick Billed Weaver birds displaying on their nests.

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Preven continues:

We found what turned out to be the only pile of rubbish along the stream

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and amongst the rubbish Nombuso found a mini blue donkey from Shrek which she kept as the mascot for this walk.

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Houses overlook this shallow river which winds its way spilling iron oxide minerals from the wetland. Elephant ears jutted out from the sides of the river bank listening intently to what these river walkers were saying. Our conversation would not have interested them however, as we did not speak about sunlight or rain. Our subject was mostly about how people keep preferring manicured lawns to indigenous bush! It boggles the mind really. The path winds with the river and along the way we find a beautiful picnic spot created with logs for sitting and a little tree stump as a table. It is beautiful and overrun and obviously not being used, but it warms the heart to know it is there, possibly reserved for faeries and gnomes. Perhaps they will come at twilight?

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We wandered along and came across a property where the owner has merrily built two terraces by bulldozing the ground and shoving this pile of soil and dead branches into the buffer zone of the stream. Buffer zones should ideally stretch for 32m from each bank,  providing protection to the river by keeping the integrity of its ecosystem intact – thus creating healthy rivers. We found this golden rule broken many, many times over all along this river and on others.

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Along the river bank we saw porcupine quills and Kate told us stories of this delightful inhabitant of the river that is sometimes seen roaming along the banks.We were sad to hear, that a Bushbuck had been hit by a speeding car in this area recently.  Alien trees on the bank were cryptically marked in fluorescent yellow – looking like condemned men on death row that have the executioners mark on them awaiting the day they will culled.

We see the signs of the Symmonds Stream Conservancy along this river and it heartening to observe that it can be a recreational area.   Clearly people do use it for getting to know their river and their neighbourhood. A tunnel under the road brings the river to the other side. Here we find the banks denuded due to vegetation cut back in order to control seeding invasive annuals – revealing the brown earth underneath and a steady flowing river.

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We decided that this was the spot to do our Mini SASS.  It was the first spot with a little flowing water in sufficient quantity that we were able to get to.

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However we were surprised to find that we could not find any of our invertebrate friends. The only critters to be found here was the diving water boatmen and a scuttling crab. After almost ten minutes of searching with not even a Planeria in sight we reluctantly took the score and added up the two species and got a dismal score of 5.5.   Not surprising considering the amount of sediment and silt that caked the rocks and choked the river.

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Downstream of Gush Avenue we were thrilled to walk though indigenous grassland – the last remnant patch in Howick, an indicator of how this area used to look. p1610079

Penny tells me that this is the rare mist-belt grasslands. “Oh” I exclaim quite confused, “then how do you actually spell it?”  “What?” she responds.

“Well if its miss spelt, why don’t they spell it correctly instead of continuously saying its mis spelt.”  Penny’s bemused look made me realise that I was missing something here and it wasn’t the spelling.

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Backjacks flourish on the edges of the grassland and we bemoan this state of affairs.

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Then Nikki points out that actually this little weed is nutritious free food used for making tea and or cooked with other imfino for a delicious lunch. “Perhaps we should think about our aggressive strategy against these plants,” she says,  “they do provide us with mineral rich nourishment and are a particularly good source of vitamin A”  It was interesting to hear another angle on this issue and greedily, I plucked a handful of leaves and started chewing …. and then proceeded to spit it out!  Yeah, well maybe with a little salt and pepper it might go down better?

Penny finds a lonely oak tree on the edge of the grassland and, being a descendant of a family whose clan badge was an oak leaf, we decide to greet the ancestral tree.

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Following another reed bed,

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the pathway spreads out and becomes quite wide, with  immaculately manicured  lawns replacing the indigenous vegetation on the river banks – a misguided attempt at making nature neat and tidy which can compromise the natural functions of a river.

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The gravel road becomes its companion and the occasional car rolls past on this quiet scene. We take our second meth blue sample here and continue towards the Karkloof Road crossing. We find an old Hindu cemetery and a lovely spot next to the river where we decide to have lunch.

The rain slowly drizzles as we eat our sandwiches. After lunch we try to see if we can find any more invertebrates in the river amongst the rocks, but they were all hiding or absent and we had to turn away again in defeat.

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Reflecting on the immediate area we see how much work has been done in this downstream section of Symmonds Stream over the last few years by the Friends of Symmonds Lane. The thick forest of invasive plants have been eradicated and we will post a blog in the near future detailing the enormous efforts to revitalise this stream by a handful of committed people.

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Almost at Karkloof Road, Symmonds Stream crosses Mare Street where we have a first for a river walk – window shopping!  A couple of old buildings alongside the road have been revamped and one is an art gallery.  Penny and I peer in through the closed window at the works on display.

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Penny continues:  Crossing under the Karkloof Road the stream emerges from the culvert where one bank is ‘under construction’.

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Due to the fact that the bank had been irrevocably changed decades ago, the current construction is on the provisio that the bank be rehabilitated post construction. Hopefully this will be a fitting rejuvenation for a place that has been mis-treated for decades. In years gone by this was the site to dispose of old cars, washing machines, fridges and old engines! The bank was filled and levelled, and recently, there was even a small dam constructed on the stream with an earth wall big enough to drive over!  That only lasted about a year before it was washed away – to silt up the pool and river further down.

Being so close to (if not actually part of) the Natural Heritage Site that makes up 40 hectares of the gorge area around the Howick Falls, we hope that the rehabilitation will do the site justice.

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The banks have, unfortunately, been planted with ivy, which will smother any remnants of indigenous plants and eventually invade the water course.

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Heading downstream we swung way from the water to avoid the ever steepening stream bed. We had realised, while inspecting the river bank building site, that there seemed to be waterfall ahead. Our tricky descent has already been described by Nikki and I was relieved to arrive at the falls.

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I have since found out that 13 years ago the plunge pool  was much wider, had a partially rocky bottom and a silt beach. Today any rocks and stones are covered in a thick layer of silt,

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the current beach of rubble was once water in the pool

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and the stream below the pool bares evidence of the detritus of ‘civilization’  – whether dumped over the edge or washed down by storm waters.

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We left the Symmonds Stream to descend into the uMngeni River valley and returned home with much to mull over.

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The stream is currently dismally unhealthy, possibly as a result of the drought combined with other factors which we will still look into. On the good side, problems with surcharging manholes that were so prevalent in past years have decreased, with the hard work and input of local residents and the authorities.

We will soon post a blog on the results of the Mini SASS health tests carries out during the Symmonds Stream walk.

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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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