Standing under a waterfall is always a wonderful experience. When the waterfall suddenly shifts 10metres along the cliff to include those who thought they would avoid the experience, you know it is extra special.
This is the magic of Grey Mare’s Tail Falls in Karkloof. From the grasslands above, the stream plunges 101 m over the dolerite cliffs into the mist belt forest. It gets its name from the swishing action – the falls move constantly from one side to the other – just like the tail of a horse.
For the 40 learners who spent a few days at Shawswood education centre last week, the 3 hour climb to Grey Mare’s Tail Falls was worth the effort. “I’m dying” puffed Nomfundo Mlotshwa when the falls were just visible through a gap in the canopy. She trudged on along the path through the forest, climbing a wooden ladder, crossing streams and rock hopping. Soaking wet after splashing in the pool, all tiredness forgotten, she beamed “This is wonderful!”.
This excursion was part of the MCF Environmental Learning and Leadership (EL&L) project that organises wilderness experiences for young people, believing that in order to value and protect something you need to have experienced it. Time spent in natural environments is often life changing and certainly instils an appreciation of nature. MCF EL&L is funded by N3TC.
In collaboration with the MMAEP, the Zenzane Enviro Club from Balgowan and the Mpophomeni Enviro Club were invited to make new friends, learn new things and taste clean, cold, fresh water straight from the stream.
The morning began with introductions beneath the cliffs. MCF has found that bringing different groups together stimulates learning and sharing. Knowing that there are people in other parts of the Midlands as passionate about environmental issues as you are creates bonds that last for a long time.
Then water bottles and lunch bags in hand, we set off on a hike. Through the surrounding homesteads, greeting cows with new born claves and crossing a stream into the plantations.
Michael Keefer, education officer for Shawswood, pointed out the impoverished habitat, the low diversity of plants and animals and explained the differences between forest and plantations. The difference was clear to Sihle Ngcobo: “There are fewer types of trees in the plantation and bigger spaces between the trees. In the forest there are more worms and insects, there is not much sunlight and it is cooler.” he said.
Shawswood is a great place to learn about ecology, biodiversity and human impact on the natural environment. They support the IUCN’s environmental education definition ‘The process of recognising values and clarifying concepts in order to develop skills and attitudes necessary to understand and appreciate the inter-relatedness among man, his culture and his bio-physical surroundings. Environmental education also entails practice in self-formulation of a code of behaviour about issues concerning environmental quality.’
Once inside the forest, the air cooled and the biodiversity increased. The temperature in a forest is pretty much the same whatever the season. We observed the layers of plants, some with big leaves to absorb more light, others climbing through the canopy to get some sunshine, saplings simply waiting for a big tree to fall over and create a gap to let in light for them to grow. Philani Ngcobo was fascinated by the tall stems of uMsenge, the Cabbage tree reaching for the sunlight. “It was interesting that when the trees fall down, the insects go into them and help the tree to decompose.” he commented. We heard Samango monkeys but could not spot them.
A gurgling stream provided a refreshing stop to drink from the river, fill our water bottles and have a snack. This stream is a tributary of the Karkloof River which flows into the uMngeni River. The group from Mpophomeni commented that the uMthinzima Stream through the township was also a tributary of the uMngeni.
The trail mostly follows the old logging path created by early settlers to harvest the big trees – especially Yellowwoods. We came across many hollow Lemonwoods, an Ironwood that had its bark all nibbled at the base (porcupine perhaps?) and many giant Strangler Figs. Everyone was fascinated to learn how these trees can squeeze the life out of other trees.
We learnt that the cure for the forest stinging nettle that created a bumpy rash on our skins when touched, grew right beside it – a member of the Plectranthus family. Forest Magic.
We caught a glimpse of the Grey Mare’s Tail Falls through the trees. “How far?” became a constant refrain. Before the final ascent to the bottom of the falls, we sat on the rocks a while to catch our breath. Surrounded by fragrant Clausena anisata, large clumps of Scadoxus clinging to the rocks and Streptocarpus tucked in the shadows.
The final stretch involved clamouring over huge rocks, the mist from the falls increasing with every step. The vegetation changed considerably in the constantly damp environment.
Laughter ran around the cliffs as the youngsters slid on the rocks and splashed in the pools. “It’s so cold! It stings! I feel so good!”
On the way back down for afternoon tea, we spent a while completely quiet. Listening to the sounds of the birds, the water, the horseflies buzzing; feeling the cool breeze on our skin and the damp leaves on the ground; surrounded by the sweet air and earthy fragrances so far removed from our usual lives. Asanda Ngubane loved the quiet time in the forest “It calmed me down and I felt so relaxed.” he commented.
Free time to make new friends, play soccer and shower was a rowdy affair! The cosy dormitories are converted stables, a donkey boiler provides hot water and the views of the surrounding hills are stupendous. Sitting around the fire in the evening is ideal for imaginative storytelling. Altogether, this is a fabulous spot for a weekend in nature.
The next morning, woken by birdsong, it was time to complete an obstacle course. Sisanda Hadebe really enjoyed this “It was fun and we learnt to work as a team. I made some new friends too.” An inspiring creative activity using waste materials, and games, brought the weekend to a close. “That was amazing. I imagine I can still feel the drops of water from the waterfall on my face.” Nomfundo said afterwards.
Many of the photographs included in this story were taken by the learners.