Bulldozers, Mud and Heartache

Rietspruit Day Two – 15 December 2016

Penny writes:

I’m still reeling with shock, horror and disbelief. Disbelief primarily. Disbelief that in 2016 the construction of a housing development can cause so much environmental damage. Disbelief at the apparent lack of thought process, at the apparent lack of correct planning, at the lack of compliance to our environmental laws, at the clear lack of understanding as to how our natural water systems work, at the lack of respect for water courses, wetlands and Earth in general, as well as lack of care for the people who will one day live here… But I’m getting ahead of myself!

After our arrival at Cedara at 06h00, Doug drove us up to another small tributary arm of the Rietspruit  where a new low cost housing development is currently under construction. From our arrival there it was downhill all the way. Literally. Figuratively. A tiny hollow in the grassy slope is squeezed be.ween the outside edge of a plantation and the original village.  See map on our recce blog. Day two in yellow. 


The drainage line that runs out of this hollow has been partially obliterated by terracing of land so that the toe of the slope all but obliterates one bank of the stream.


The other thing the mountain of bulldozed soil has buried was a forest of Bugweed, so often seen choking our midlands water courses.


Then there was the road under construction – running straight down the hillside! We are hoping that some storm water drainage plans will be made.


At the foot of the hill slope, this steep road T-junctions with another road, and crosses a sewage line marked by sewage manholes – all of which are placed smack bang in the water course. It was so easy to see the route of the water course – just follow the scar left by the earthworks burying of the sewer pipeline and the protruding sewer manholes.


Looking back up the watercourse, now filled with piles of dumped branches, it seems hard to believe that no-one else can see it.  Its called a water course / drainage line because water can flow here. Yes it is now dry. But what happens when all the pine trees on the hill slopes uphill are felled and the ground water rises and streams begin to flow again?

Add climate change predictions: increased storm events and increased storm ferocity – where will that water flow? Will it flood homes? Gouge out the now destroyed fragile water course bed? Expose the sewage pipes? Who will control the forests of bugweed, bramble and other invasives that will flourish on the disturbed land? Will there be organised refuse removal or, to add insult to injury, will the water course become the local dumping site as has happened in so many other places where there is no refuse removal? What a sad legacy for the downstream occupants.

It gets even better – two small wetlands have also been destroyed – areas that could have slowed the speed of any rushing water.


The mottles in the soil are evidence that this was a wetland.


It almost looks as though a ditch that has been dug through the area is an attempt to drain out the water!


To add more insult to an ever increasing injury, a deep sewer manhole (sans lid) enabled us to see that there was water running along the system – we wondered where that came from. Then a construction worker climbed into the manhole. On re-emerging, Penz went and spoke to him – to be told that they are having a problem with water getting into the system!


He explained to Penz that they put subsoil below the pipes to absorb the water and the pipes are plastic so they are not permeable. When Penz suggested that when the pine trees are felled and the water table rises, the problem will worsen, his response was “they are up there, and this is down here”. When Penz, unable to bottle it, burst out laughing, he got very impatient and told her she didn’t know what she was talking about.

This illustrates the need for proper environmental education of all involved in the development of human settlements.

At the lower end of the sewer line (just up from a large earth dam) we came across another surcharging manhole, this one surcharging muddy water. The houses aren’t even built, the sewers aren’t even connected, we have just gone through two summers of drought and there are already surcharges from too much ground water entering the system.


Our team was halted by an extremely unhappy and unfriendly resident who oozed antagonism. He was so focussed on his pre-conceived ideas that he would listen to no one. First Sphiwe, then Preven, tried to reason with him to no avail – he was convinced that our sole purpose of being at the construction site was to stop the construction. His priority was purely that homes be supplied to the local people, no matter that rivers of sewage may run, or that perhaps flooding may occur.

The one thing that all this highlighted for us was just how strategically important the large, earth walled dam will become when all this construction is completed. The dam is all that will protect the lower reaches of the Rietspruit from sewage contamination originating from surcharging manholes.  The reed beds are already there, at both ends of the dam. Lets hope that they are sufficient to protect the lower reaches of the Rietspruit that borders a dairy farm, bisects Cedara and eventually joins the uMngeni River.


Determined not to become any more depressed, nor to become the target for any angry Comrades (whom Penz had heard our aggressive interviewee summonsing by phone) we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and turning our backs on this disaster zone we headed for the next “arm” of the Rietspruit. See the map on our recce blog.


Our shattered nerves were soothed by a visually soothing green valley of mistbelt grassland bisected by a small wandering stream and wetlands dotted with Arum lilies and tree ferns, and timber set well back from the buffer zone.  This area is a good example of a rehabilitated riparian zone – apparently in prior years the timber was planted almost to the stream banks.

p1590951  A Mini SASS test conducted just downstream of an earth walled dam resulted in a score of 5.7: Fair condition. Not surprising, considering we were just downstream of a dam, plantations and an area of offices and buildings.

p1590943 This small tributary eventually joined up at the aforementioned dam with the tributary we started on this morning. In the lower reaches, below the soon to become strategically important dam, the river has once again been historically canalised and its waters are hidden between reeds, bull rushes and flowering invasive elderberry bushes. The air abounds with the calls of sakabula, weaver and red bishop birds.


Temperatures were beginning to soar as Doug drove us up to the fourth and last tributary arm of the Rietspruit. Passing en route a pretty, pastoral scene of the dam where yesterday we ate our lunch.


Starting again in the far hills and meandering down through timber plantations, the western arm of the Rietspruit looked, from a distance, as though it would be a reasonable walk.


However our illusion was shattered when we repeatedly hit either extremely steep or thickly vegetated banks that were almost impassable.


The alternate of walking in the water was non-existent due to masses of log jams caused by wattle falling into the river – and the wattle saplings and bug weed on the banks were so densely spaced that we could not squeeze through them.


After vainly criss-crossing the stream and hacking and stumbling on the banks we realised that staying in sight of the water was not going to happen, and so after a wobbly fence crossing,


we made our way to the farm road on the outer edge of the wattles.


Every now and then when we were able we would access a spot to have a look at the river.



In sweltering heat (around 36 degrees!) with no shade, not even from the tiniest bush, we slogged on,


passing a silted up gauging weir now home to reeds and a mass of weaver and red bishop birds.


It was obvious that decades ago this was the point where the stream had arrived at what is today known as the Cedara Flats. The place where the water’s flow would have slowed as it hit the plain that was the start of a vast wetland. Today the river is canalised – evidence of the damaging agricultural practices of yesteryear when it was common to drain wetlands.


Doug arrived bearing gifts of icy cold drinks and while we had a welcome break, Preven was interviewed by Sphiwe and Nombuso of DUZI Productions.

p1600113  Not even able to see the water in the canal we plodded on, eternally grateful when the day came to an end at the confluence with the section that we had completed yesterday.


Unfortunately, we were only able to do one MiniSASS today as all other suitable Mini SASS sites were totally buried in piles of dead wattle tree branches.


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The College, The River, The Fields

Rietspruit Day One – 14 December 2016

Preven writes: 

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.

p1590503To 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,


beside Begonia


and Streptocarpus.


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.

p1590822Climbing 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.

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There’s water in them thar hills…

We are at it again! Thanks to the drought we’ve put off the 2016 walk for 11.5 months and have now decided that we can’t let a whole year go by without a River Walk. So, in a flurry, we took the decision just two weeks ago that we will walk this week.

Today was the recce to find the source of the Rietspruit. There are numerous seeps that arise in the hills that separate the back of Cedara from the area of Hilton known as the Knoll, as well as from the Sweetwaters area, and we had our hands full in making a decision as to where the river actually starts!


We realised that we would need to walk all the tributaries.  Red = day 1 Yellow = day 2 Pale Blue = days 3 and 4


We – being myself (Penny Rees) and Alistair Kent, the farm manager of the Cedara Agricultural Research Station who, although expecting an office meeting with myself and DUCT Manager Doug Burden, happily offered to show me around in order to understand the lay of the land.

We drove to the back of the Cedara farm, inspecting different arms of the Rietspruit and eventually had to turn back after getting stuck in thick gooey mud – cattle had walked up here and churned the road into something impassable for a two wheel drive vehicle.


We made our way up a long gentle slope and as we slowed for a closed gate, as if deciding it had had enough and wanted to turn around the bakkie did a 90 degree slow motion slip – slide turn around.


We got the message and headed back to the office – with stunning views along the way of the Karkloof and de Magtenburg Hills in the distance.


Our thanks to Alistair for taking the trouble to explain the complicated lay of the land – it made our lives so much easier on the walk.

Our team this year comprises three walkers: myself (Penny Rees), Preven Chetty, as always, (Preven has done every single river walk with me) and joining us for the first time since the uMngeni walk in 2012, Penz Malinga is back! Sadly, due to ill health, Pandora Long can only join us down the last section of the Rietspruit. We were delighted to have Preven’s wife, Zim Ndulelisa, join us on this section as well. Finally, we are thrilled to be sharing the journey once again with Sphiwe Mazibuko our “river walking movie making camera man”, and his assistant Nombuso Kheswa.

No walk is compete without support – the driver who gets us to the day’s start and collects us from day’s end, who finds us and brings ice cold drinks on a sweltering hot day, who is always (mostly invisible), in the background, for ‘just in case’.  Doug Burden, was IT on this river walk.


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Take Back Our Rivers

Pandora Long shares about this inspiring account of the past three months with the Aller River Eco-Champs – a most incredible journey with seven young people in pursuit of ‘Taking back our rivers’.

Paulo Candotti, chairman of Ethekwini Conservancies Forum, conceptualised the “Take Back Our Rivers” project

as one of three such initiatives that will see biodiversity conservation, ecological infrastructure restoration and eco-systems goods and services revitalisation in the eThekwini region.  The other two are “Take Back Our Grasslands” and “Take Back Our Nature Reserves.”  An Ethekwini Joint Partnership Project managed by Kloof Conservancy with Ethekwini Municipality as the funders and DUCT offering support around alien invasive clearance and the education, training and development and community education and awareness component.

Paulo is a master at telling the project progress of the Aller River Pilot Project – subscribe to the Ethekwini Conservancies Forum Newsletter or check out their  Facebook page.

My role is to give you some insights from a ‘Riverwalker’ who joined Penny’s team in 2012 to walk the uMgeni River Source to Sea.  When we passed the murky Aller, at its confluence with the uMngeni river, I had no idea that four and half years later I would be asked to put together a framework for Eco-Champs training and capacity building to support river restoration, monitoring and community conservation education and awareness building along this river.  Or did I?  If you are interested in my question, I invite you to go back and read the story that informed the 2012 art campaign, read this blog and decide for yourself.

Penny and Preven, together with Mark Liptrot went on to walk the Aller on the 6th November 2015 and Penny wrote an Aller River Walk Report that made several recommendations.  One of them was to appoint several Eco-Champs to champion the river!  On the 10th October 2016, seven young Eco-champs from the Clermont/New Germany area were appointed to undertake monitoring and community education and awareness activities with ‘river communities’ along the river.


Called Phase I, the primary objective is to see the Aller River restored and a turn-around in unfriendly river behaviour by three different ‘river communities’ the New Germany Residents, The Industry Players and the Clermont Community.  The project duration for the Eco-Champs work during phase 1 is six months with 45 days in total allocated to the Eco-champs work!

The pace was cracking starting with two full days induction, day one getting to understand the project, the Eco-champs role and responsibilities, the working parameters and the training programme and project schedule.


Day two started with the DVD of the uMngeni River Walk, contextualising the Aller River in the greater uMngeni Catchment.  Listening to the story and finding our place in it.  Getting to know one another better and getting to understand the level of participation required for the journey ahead.


Our journey continued by learning to work within communities to create a platform for meaningful change to take place, becoming aware of our own levels of awareness, of influence, of organisation and power relations.  We started a process of community rural appraisal with some of the elders in the community.  How do they see their place?  How do they perceive the river? What are the challenges they are experiencing?

4-rural-appraisal-with-eldersGetting to know the river, its benefits, its ecology and basic conservation started with our first walk down the Aller.  Learning about miniSASS brought surprising new knowledge and experiences.  Seeing how people disregarded the river brought our first feelings of sadness and withdrawal.



We learnt about water, visited Northern Waste Water Treatment Works, Umgeni Water Treatment Works at Reservoir Hills and Blue Lagoon to see where the uMngeni exits to the sea.  We met new friends at Durban Green Hub and got to understand the broader context of a tourism vision for the Lower uMngeni Valley.


We celebrated Weed Buster Week by inviting New Germany residents and Clermont children to join us on a walk down the Aller, learning about Alien Invasive Plants and Ghost Moths from Mark Liptrot, being introduced to Mtini and Mo and their special brand of storytelling.7-weed-buster-walk

Monday 17th October was the day that the DUCT River Care Team started clearing and in an amazing display of community respect, and true to our river walk ethos, a Blessing Ceremony was held, with several local ministers from various congregations, councillors, community leaders and supporters attending to wish the two teams well.


The next day it was off to PMB and Howick to learn from the DUCT Education unit, the River Care Teams, Sewer Monitor teams and Mpophomeni Enviro-champs.  A highlight of this interaction was to be taken through a door-to-door interview, just one of the many approaches that has made the Enviro-Champ project so successful, and on which the Eco-champs programme is modelled.


A stop at Midmar to learn about dams for water storage, the good the bad and the ugly (farmer who dammed the Mpushini River) and then for a first sight of Howick Falls, an understanding of the challenges of the people living at Shea Biszali and a glimpse of the valley as it makes its way down past Albert Falls to Nagel where all the outflow, bar just enough to generate the turbines that feed current to Nagle Dam, goes on to Umgeni Water at Reservoir Hills then to EThekwini’s Mount Moriah reservoir and on into the taps of the homes, business and industry in New Germany and homes in Clermont!


We are eight days into the project and ready to look at community education and awareness, community based social marketing and education approaches, forming Eco-clubs and Kidz clubs where we can bring about connection, understanding and action towards making meaningful change along the Aller River.


The focus of the Aller River Eco-champ training in November is Alien Invasive Species Identification with two days spent with the DUCT River Care Teams, getting practical experience in the field.  A final assessment of ID skills brought a total of 32 species identified with many already ‘under the belt’.


A highlight of this week was the visit of Dr Elsa Lee, a social researcher from Cambridge University, who will be funding phase 2 of the Aller River Pilot Project.  This extends the project for a further year and gives the Eco-Champ an additional role of community researchers.


One of the most sobering points in the project thus far was to witness the appalling state of the Aller River in ward 92 where we joined Dr Elsa Lee for a community ‘walk about’.  It was clear that something was very horribly wrong, and not only with the river.  Penny raised this state of affairs in 2015 (although reading her report and experiencing it first-hand were two very different experiences)  What exactly was broken in the system, infrastructure, monitoring and support system for ensuring that the ‘product’ in the vast network of pipes that were marked on our Sewer line map got to its rightful destination at the WWTW’?  Or was it the WWTW’s that was not working properly?


With these questions at the back of our minds the programme for December training started with a visit to the New Germany WWTW.  Here we were in for several surprises.  The lady overseeing the NG WWTW as one of four plants was hugely helpful, supportive and encouraging.  Yes, things did to wrong at the works, today there was green dye coming through from one of the factories in New Germany.  On Friday evening, some thick black oily substance played havoc with their process and had to be manually scooped out the works.  At the end of the tour, which included a fortuitous meeting with the head ‘pollution chaser’ for the area and a promise of more networking with this group to follow, we arrived at the final outflow. A much anticipated event since our first reaction on the 8th November downstream at the ‘walkabout’ was to put the blame squarely on the WWTW.  So what we saw was a pleasant surprise.  There was no or a very negligible sedimentation load, certainly far less than other treatment plants that I’d visited in the past, although remembering it is a very fluctuating window that one is looking at.  Open, direct communication served to build trust and as we described the condition of the water on that fateful day, its turbidity and viscosity, it was clear that this outflow was an unlikely source of that problem.


Other surprising thing we learnt that day was that the sludge is not treated at NG WWTW but rather goes on its way in another pipeline that runs along the Aller River and on to the Northern WWTW’s.  I wonder if it is at all possible that that is the one we had to cross in 2012 when Penz had to be blindfolded and bribed with chocolates (and a gentle Preven) to make it across that void.

On one of our monthly Eco-champ meeting days we planned for our first community clean-up events taking place as part of our focus on waste management in December.  It was heartening to have the ward councillor, community representatives and members from DWS education department join us for planning our community appraisal process and clean-up days.

Spending a second day in the same community that we visited for the ‘walkabout’ with Elsa Lee  and viewing the river again brought new insights.  After speaking to many individuals in the community and assessing the extent of the problem with waste dumping in the area we left with two primary thoughts in mind.   The community received us openly and with good prospects for participation.  By the end of the day, the problem that had appeared possible, now looked unsurmountable.  Along the river banks and in a little tributary gully households had their dump.  To make sense of where to start cleaning up this sodden, stinking mess was a huge challenge.  The second challenge was psychological, could we really make a difference?  The day ended on a cheerful note with plans in place for next week’s clean-ups.


With the focus on waste management who better to visit to cheer us up about the right way to go about waste disposal, than Marge Mitchell from Keep Hillcrest Beautiful.  With a lovely welcome, a history of the project, a tour of the centre, an introduction to the recycling waste streams and the news that they too were healing a river, we left for the last part of the day’s journey to find out more about upcycling.


Two projects opened their arms to the Eco-champs showing them around and inspiring them with the creativity of the upcycled articles and projects that they were overseeing.  We visited the Hillcrest Aids Project and Embocrafts, where we were delighted to meet some of the project conveners and teams for sewing, fabric printing and fashion upcycling.


All that’s left for the telling are the clean-up days.  I am going to say the least although actually I need to say the most.  We did have wonderful support to see us through what was the two most challenging days of the entire project.  Briadene Youth Centre thank you for your support. DSW collected several loads of bags from a pretty inaccessible spot near the river.  Thank you for coming.  We asked the councillor why she didn’t come.  One Tuesday, she was ‘getting there’ but didn’t quite get there in the end.  On Wednesday she went to a rally quite far removed.  The ward committee members?  To be sure we had some community members pitch in and help, particularly on Tuesday.  That kept us going.  Some children with a trolley took a huge workload off our shoulders.

On Wednesday, in the little trickling tributary as we chopped away at alien’s and the full extent of just that local area started to reveal itself to us, we prayed.  We gave the responsibility to do something about this back to God, set ourselves a target, and worked with heavy harts and tearful eyes and gagging throats to clear the little stream.


In some sort of inverted mythical fashion, it was a little green snake that came to say ‘thank you’ for your effort.  I can see my lunch much better now and wow, I didn’t know that this little stream could flow so clearly, down on its way to the Aller…and on to the Geni.


Note: If you are interested in a formal project account of the Aller River Pilot Project, of the names of various people mentioned herein, I invite you to contact the project manager, Nick Swan on 082 807 7796  nickswan@iafrica.com.  Nick has been the hero in the story of the Aller River Pilot Project over the past three months, playing a variety of roles required to ensure a successful project outcome.  Nick’s right hand lady is the Projects Community Liaison Officer, Thozeka Ntlukwane, who has played a wonderfully supportive role for the Eco-Champs over the past three months, as well as setting up logistics and mobilising community support for the events.

You will find this Video of Phase One interesting too.

The Aller River Eco-Champs are: Nokuthula Mkhize – Team Leader, Nomfundo Nala, Silindile Bengu, Silindile Sithole, Thandeka Dube, Bukeka Nkqeto, Thembinkozi Gwala.  There is a full profile for each Eco-Champ on the eThekwini Conservancies Forum Blogsite.  A huge thank you to everyone who has played a role in this journey thus far, I took a decision not to mention all by name in this story, but you are non-the-less valued.  Thank you too to everyone at DUCT for their support of this joint venture project.


Story compiled by: Pandora Long, DUCT Education, Training & Development Practioner, For: Aller River Pilot Project


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Drizzle and Dams

Just a month or so ago, we heard reports that the Midlands water table had dropped by 60 metres!  Fortunately, it has been raining quite a lot since then, but don’t be fooled by the grey and drizzly days – the drought is not over.

For the first time in two summers, the Midmar-uMngeni River catchment area received good rain recently. More than 50ml was recorded at Singisi in one night, and the river was still pumping healthily, at volumes not seen for more than 18 months. The general perception is that with five dams plus the entire uMngeni River, there is plenty of water. This is not the case. This is how it actually works, explained by Penny Rees.

Midmar Waterworks purifies water from Midmar Dam, which is fed by the uMngeni River. The Waterworks sends the purified water via pipes, tunnels and reservoirs to an area stretching east to Wartburg and New Hanover; as far west as Richmond and Mid-Illovo; and south to Vulindlela and Botha’s Hill: plus Howick, Hilton, Pietermaritzburg, Sweetwaters, Camperdown, and everywhere in between –all are dependent on Midmar Waterworks, which gets its water from Midmar Dam. Midmar Dam is fed from two small catchments – the upper uMngeni and part of the Mooi River catchment.

For such a crucial river (supplying over 5 million people plus industries with water), the catchment of the uMngeni above Midmar is tiny. It’s roughly triangular, with the top corner at the N3-Nottingham Road offramp; running parallel to the highway down to the lower corner of the triangle at Midmar; then across to the north west around Midmar Dam as far as Fort Nottingham and back to the N3. That’s it.


This small catchment can no longer supply enough water  to everyone due to growing population, industry and demand.  So Springrove Dam was built on the Mooi River. The Mooi River runs to Springrove from the Kamberg area in the Drakensberg and once trapped behind the Springrove dam wall, is piped to the uMngeni catchment.  As the Mooi River eventually joins the Tugela, which enters the ocean 70 kilometres north of Umhlanga, the action of taking water from the Mooi results in less water in the Tugela. But that’s another story!

The water of the Mooi River is gravity fed from Springrove Dam via pipeline to Balgowan where it is dumped into the Mpofana stream. The Mpofana joins the Lion’s River near Caversham Mill, and the Lion’s joins the uMngeni River less than a kilometre upstream of Midmar Dam. This transfer scheme is the only reason Midmar did not dry up last summer. So when you see the Lion’s River pumping away near Thokan’s Store, don’t think the drought has been broken or assume the catchment has had lots of rain.


Springrove Dam is just more than half the size of Midmar. When construction was completed three years ago, it filled up in less than one summer. But the Springrove catchment has also been hard hit by the drought and for more than a year, Midmar has been artificially kept at 46% full by means of transferring water from Springrove. So, as at 21 November 2016, Midmar Dam’s back-up supply (Springrove Dam) was only 45% full and Midmar was 50% full!

Do the sums. Stop watering your gardens, washing cars, using water irresponsibly.

The recent rains are not nearly enough to fill Midmar.  The drought is now forecast to continue another two summers. We need to ensure that what little water we have lasts for as long as possible – so keep practicing your water wise habits – and hope it lasts until the drought is actually over.


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Anti-Fracking Angels

Pandora Long writes about the day she spent with 50/50 filming a fracking documentary.

Kholosa was winging my questions as we drove a rather windy route (due to missing a couple of strategic turnoffs) up to Malvina’s beautiful midlands farm, nestled at the foot of Inhlosane. From time to time Penz and I reminisced over familiar landmarks from our Riverwalk journey down the uMngeni in 2012.

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Kholosa reads from the World Energy Report the latest figures projected for SA methane gas extraction. It’s set to make up four percent of SA’s future energy. Just four percent? Rhino Oil and Gas are applying to wreck the entire KZN Midlands to produce just 4 percent of SA’s energy requirements? Ludicrous.

Ryan had set up his camera when we arrived and Malvina greeted a double load of arrivals. As synchronicity would have it, Mike Farley, (aka retired uMngeni riverwalker) and Gareth Boothway arrived at the farm right behind us. Warm greetings over, it was time to get down to the shoot.

Jacqui and Julie had set out the basic questions required to complete the story line for the Frack Free KZN 50/50 story of the Fracking Angels. In a space of just sixteen weeks we’d moved from an ad hoc group of mainly women, gently gathering up the midlands to help raise awareness, to banner wield, toyi toy, and rapid-fire sharp questions at professional hunter, Phillip Steyn (COO) and geology student, Travis Smithard of Rhino Oil and Gas, and SLR consultant, Matthew Hemming. Add apathetic and you have the list of negative psychological responses that removes feelings of guilt after simultaneous feelings of pain, anger, sadness and helplessness get too overwhelming for one. I really do feel empathy but it’s no excuse for misleading, obfuscating snollygaster tactics. So Viva! Viva! to our Midlands Fracktivistas who, in no uncertain terms, let Rhino Oil & Gas and their consultants SLR know that exploration for methane shale gas in KZN gets a resounding NO!

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So how did this all come about? A small newspaper advert that raged like wildfire through KZN alerting landowners, farmers, residents, environmentalists to the threat of exploration and fracking in KZN. The 50 50 story followed this break, tracing some very human stories that show concern for the future health of our beautiful province.

Some shots of a strategy meeting, swopping research info about Rhino Oil and Gas and the hell they were proposing to wreak on KZN. How many litres does it take to frack a well? I rattle off a research study listing seven types of shale rock and the corresponding amounts of water that each fracking well required. I got to the last one Horn River Shale, British Columbia….15.8 million gallons. That’s a huge amount of water. Converted that makes 59.809 million litres of Berg water. How much is that exactly? A whole stream for a whole year? Seven times seven times seven years of no rain of Malvina’s farm?

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Now the shooting begins in earnest and Ryan is in top form directing the shoot. We are not good. He makes us do it again, and again… quite hard this walking the length of the lawn without talking at the same time! That under the belt, we take a drive to the Furth river a little way from the main house. Kholosa does her citizen science thing with an ice cream tub and puts her heart into an interview. “As women, we must unite to fight fracking she says” adding “Protecting the land is close to our hearts, we must fight peacefully to protect it.”

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Malvina sets off for a grazing group of distant Ngunis. Amongst them are two beautiful Shires. She feeds them carrots. The snuggle into towards her. A Mommy Nguni and her calf move up. The wind shifts. It’s a moving experience. I’m glad they can all graze safely. What of our dairy herds, our beef herds if fracking means we cannot guarantee uncontaminated grazing, unpolluted rivers?

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Now it’s my turn and we move to a beautiful shale rock waterfall. I digress from my questions quite a bit and start again quite a few times probably off topic. I wish I’d said this and not that. Ryan takes it in his stride. I show him how the shale rock is fissured and talk about how fracking will push these fissures open further, six km and more under the ground. It’s like artificially weathering rock, and I point at a substantial crack reaching up into the rock and wonder how much gas would start an upward journey through fissure after fissure to find its way into the aquifer and into surface water and beyond. Have you seen water on fire? It happens you know, in areas where they frack.

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We move into the house for some shots of the webpage Frack Free KZN. Malvina is talking, then its Kholosa’s turn.

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Now Evert is taking us on a really wild journey in the 4 x 4 up to the waterfall. Ryan follows a little more cautiously behind. The men hive off at a fast past and the angels take a more leisurely pace down the steep slope to the edge of the falls. In a little while, a square white drone about the size of a stack of four large pizza boxes, hovers over the falls and then shoots gracefully up and down between its steeply incised banks. I joke with Malvina – “no more riverwalking, I say. We can just send our drone down a 200 reach at a time to check it out” I say. A large enough one could just helicopter us down! The men are on their way back.

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I take a couple of photos. The light peeps out from behind billowing cloud to bathe Inhlosane in a soft light as she adjusts and readjusts her milky shawl around her head. I think of Nkosazana Nkubluwane.

Shoot over. Ryans off to Himeville to do a Falcon story. We laugh. We had serious fun. We talk about bringing young people up into areas like this to learn about rivers, about fracking and what that will mean for the future of our children, our water resources and our landbase. We are stilled for a moment, then we are filled with ideas. Penz is going to find help to write a Frack Free song “Get the hell out of KwaZulu-Natal” It’s got a nice ring to it. Kholosa is going to write a story that unite women against fracking…

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I’m going to ask Penny if we can invite the Frack Free angels to stand with us on the Escarpment at the top of the Tugela Falls and then find ways to fly then all over KZN to raise awareness, as the Riverwalk team descend down the foothills along the Tugela towards Colenso. With the spectre of a newly approved coal power station the symbol of a Rubicon for KZN a new future for SA. A future where everyone stands silent and firm for renewable energy, renewable rivers and renewable livelihoods for the children of our land.

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We Can’t Drink Gas

“Are your ears just ornaments?” asked an audience member at the recent Rhino Oil & Gas meetings held in the Midlands “Why have you come back when we have already told you NO?” Clearly, it is not a good idea to hold meetings about exploration that might lead to water intensive fracking, during a drought. Hot and thirsty people are often cross.

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Silent, Anonymous Protest


After the chaotic and poorly organised meetings held in October last year, SLR Consultants (contracted by Rhino Oil & Gas) arranged a second round of meetings with bigger venues, public address systems, professional facilitators and translators and security guards (both visible and in plain clothes), in early February 2016. Things didn’t go quite according to plan as despite their best efforts the protestors were difficult to control.

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South African Youth Climate Change Coalition


At the first meeting of the week, held in Howick, they tried to impose their Agenda which included a two hour ‘information session’ before questions would be taken. Fortunately, a sharp member of the 230 strong audience pointed out that Agendas should start with Confirmation of the previous Minutes (which they had promised to provide but never had) and Matters Arising and eventually they conceded as the crowd grew increasingly agitated. There was also insistence that everything be translated into isiZulu.  “You are disrespectful. I am asking you respectfully to please respect us, our children, our Chiefs and nature.” said Stella Hlongwane, speaking in isiZulu. Noluthando Nzimande of SAYCCC (SA Youth Climate Change Coalition) added “We want to learn about you – your family, your neighbours, the area you are from. How is the water situation there?”

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Stella Hlongwane


Many hands shot up to ask questions and were allocated a number.  The facilitator told participants “I am not going to promote a dialogue” when anyone asked for clarification or spoke out of turn.  Ben Goodwin asked her calmly “We are obviously united in one call. How seriously do you take our objections? If this was a truly democratic process, it would be clear that we don’t want you here.”  Pandora Long of DUCT challenged them “Your Background Information Document states that that the process will include informative, transparent and accountable decision making. You have not answered ANY of our questions from the last round of meetings.” Paul Fleishack was disappointed that, despite having registered as an IAP, he had received no information or notification of the meetings.

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Security observes proceedings



Phillip Steyn, COO of Rhino Oil & Gas sweated profusely in the oppressive heat and was unable to answer questions satisfactorily, many of his replies were patronising and met with shouts of “propaganda!”, “bulldozing!”, “I’ve had a gutsful of this nonsense!” “It’s a fairy tale!”

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Concerned Young People of South Africa


He appeared to have some facts muddled – was the core drill only two and a half inches in diameter when the image in his presentation looked far larger?  When asked about the effect core drilling and seismic testing has on soil life, the Rhino geologist Travis Smithard replied that it was like ultrasound used to listen to unborn babies, the vibrating machine in a gym or driving a bakkie over the ground! This despite the Background Information Document prepared by SLR of possible impacts of exploration that states that seismic testing could disrupt ecosystem functionality.

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There were quiet moments amongst the noise. A mother went right up to Phillip and spoke to him gently. “You do realise we are trying to protect our children, they are the voices of the future – we have to listen to them. How can you stand in front of all this anger so calmly?”  Lindiwe Mkhize walked onto the stage behind Phillip with her very clear message. When loud and animated, Nhlonipho Zondo joined her, they were both escorted off by the men from Global Phalanx Security.

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Lindiwe Mkhize makes a statement (Phillip Steyn in foreground)


When asked why he didn’t invest in renewables instead, Phillip told the audience (many of whom used public transport to get there) “If we switched to renewables you would have to stop driving your cars. Locally produced gas will be good for South Africa.” He went to great lengths explaining that SA imports 155 million barrels of oil a year and his solution would save taxpayers millions of Rand.  He didn’t reply when asked if he thought it wise to replace one fossil fuel with another and was at pains to point out that despite the current low oil price, the market would recover to ensure his was a profitable business. When challenged with the fact that SA had just committed at CoP21 to divest from fossil fuels and move rapidly to renewables, Phillip replied that he believed ‘with all his heart’ that gas was the bridging fuel that would help us transition to renewables.

Charlie McGillivray was unimpressed. “You arrive as though you are an economic messiah, but I have never been to such a dog show in my life. All afternoon we have sawed sawdust.”

A small group stayed as the sun set asking detailed questions. The police were bored. “This is a party and a waste of our time.” one said tiredly. Penny Rees invited Phillip to join her on her next river walk to see for himself the state of our rivers – our precious and dwindling water resource.  The meeting adjourned just before 7pm.

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In Mooi River the crowd was smaller and less noisy, but just as angry. Farmers who had taken precious time off from their land and animals to attend were unimpressed with SLR’s explanation as to why such an enormous region with so many water sources and protected areas was included in the application, when in reality only about 1% of the area is actually suitable. Matthew Hemming of SLR replied “Because there is nothing in the legislation that says they can’t.” Someone asked “What happens if something goes wrong when you drill just outside a protected area?” Matthew responded “Legislation provides protection if something goes wrong.”

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Weston boys know where they stand


The vague replies were met with derision.  “Do you have internet?  It seems we know more about these things than you do.” quipped Ricardo Rassen of CYPSA (Concerned Young People of SA).  Phillip Steyn was asked to answer Yes or No to some statements.  “There are real documented, health, environmental and social risks associated with all phases of assessment, exploration and subsequent possible production of these oil and gas reserves?”  He answered yes to all and admitted that this was a ‘high risk, high reward business’. We all know who will be rewarded and who will be left with the mess.

When asked by James Kean to define ‘the right’ that Rhino would have to explore, Matthew  explained that the landowner’s right and the mining company’s right were equal and that if the landowner was obstructive, the government had the power to approve the right of the mining company. Phillip Steyn acknowledged that Rhino would enforce their right if it was in the interests of the country and their company. Even when asked, by a member of the local Ministry, if he, Phillip, as a human being, and a South African, would release his rights to this exploration, and not pursue it any further, for the sake of the community and their health, Phillip indicated he was going to carry on.

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Phillip Steyn


Water was, of course, an issue on everyone’s minds.  Particularly in Greytown where 800 people packed the Community Hall, questions revolved around risk and health impacts, environmental impacts and empty promises of jobs. A farmer asked if Rhino was going to ask for water rights (which would infringe on the existing rights of users) Philip answered in the affirmative. Phillip hid behind the process, the fact that PASA makes the decisions, but was constantly reminded that he was in fact the one that makes the decision to continue.

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A common refrain throughout the meetings was “Why have so many countries banned fracking?” and “How could South Africa, a third world country, hope to improve on safety standards?”  Rhino indicated that they would hire experienced first world contractors (oops, there go the jobs) and be the first company to undertake fracking or extraction without any incidents. This would be a remarkable achievement, not accomplished by any other firm in the world as far as we are aware! It was clear that they think that that once a well has been fracked and the methane ‘burned off’ it can be abandoned and pose no further risk. Do they really believe that the concrete casing will not eventually degrade and leach heavy metals into groundwater?  Have they not heard about acid mine drainage?

Francois du Toit said afterwards “No amount of jobs or economic benefit can mitigate the potential health, social and environmental  impacts of an invasive and apocalyptic industry, fuelled only by greed and benefit for a small minority. The real issue is that the community and the general public take all the risks and the companies and government take all the reward. An infringement of our constitutional rights cannot be justified in the name of a growth economy.”

Eventually the crowd, led by a local elder who had opened the meeting with a prayer after the audience had requested so, resolved that they didn’t want this process. There was a mass exodus utterly rejecting exploration and the possibility of fracking.  How much clearer could the message be?


Greytown Community Hall was packed

We do know however that the facilitators are not interested in people’s opinions – these public meetings are simply part of the process. In fact Matthew Hemming commented at one “We can play this game all day”. They might be watching the game and even using the rules, but the farmers and communities on the ground are playing it, and could get hurt.

We need to ensure that the Government demands a full Strategic Environmental Assessment for the entire area – and that there is a moratorium on issuing any Technical Cooperation Permits for exploration until that is complete. Our message was loud and clear.

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Mpophomeni Enviro-Champs


All week television film crews were on hand to capture the action and anger. Watch out for Carte Blanche, 50/50, SABC and eTV features – we may learn more about the process on television than we did at the public meetings.

This is no time to presume that someone else will be preventing unconventional gas exploration and extraction from affecting our health, the quality of water we drink and the air we breathe, while further placing our food security at risk. It is up to us.

  • Register as an IAP (Interested and Affected Party) with SLR’s Stella Moeketse smoeketse@slrconsulting.com to keep abreast of developments, ask questions and lodge objections.
  • Contribute to the campaign: SMS DONATE FRACKFREE to 40580. Each SMS costs R20. Free minutes do not apply



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