Tag Archives: river

Catchment to Confluence Complete

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The excitement was brewing as the team were heading to the start of the final leg of the journey along the Karkloof river. This would involve walking the section from below the Karkloof Falls to the confluence where the Karkloof meets the uMngeni River.

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Aerial view of the Karkloof Falls

This entire stretch traverses through the Karkloof Safari Spa property, which is an upmarket private game reserve, lodge and spa with restricted access. This day was set to be a little different from the rest, as we were missing half our team (Ndu and Ayanda), however, we were fortunate to be joined by Jenna Taylor of GroundTruth and Dr. Hans Grobler who is the specialist environmental and wildlife conservation advisor to Mr Worner (the landowner).

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From left: Jenna Taylor, Dr Hans Grobler and Sue Viljoen.

The highlight of the day was reaching the base of the Karkloof falls (normally only seen from above) via a winding wooden boardwalk built by the Karkloof Spa.


The boardwalk that leads to the base of the Karkloof falls

The team enjoyed the lush mistbelt forest with the many flora treasures within, expansive cliffs that tell an incredible geological story, and the damp spray of the waterfall with misty clouds rising above the falls.

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The magnificent Karkloof Falls

In this sacred place where time stands still, and one gets to just soak up the majesty and beauty of one of nature’s natural wonders, no one would guess that we were just 30 minutes from civilisation and the town of Howick.


A team selfie at the base of the Karkloof Falls, which is the starting point for the final leg of our journey.  From left: Twané Clarke (Karkloof Conservancy), Jenna Taylor (GroundTruth) and Sue Viljoen (WWF-SA)

Although the team could have stayed at these magnificent falls all day, they knew they had a journey to complete. Once back out of the forested boardwalk section, the valley opened up into savannah with thorn trees and grassland, with a wealth of indigenous species tracking the river’s course through the reserve.


Dierama sp.

A Buffalo stood watching us quietly from behind a large rock at the river. For at least 8km, the Karkloof’s last stretch before the confluence enjoys natural habitats all along its path, which gives the river an opportunity to heal itself of any impacts experienced higher up in the catchment. Water clarity noticeably improved as well as the levels of dissolved oxygen due to the regular riffles, rapids, and general fast flow of this section.

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Fast flowing river through a natural area.

It is interesting to note that Lantana camara was absent along the entire stretch of river from the source to the falls, but was prolific throughout the last day’s journey. We could see that work was being done to combat this invasive alien plant, as well as many others.


Dr Grobler taking the water clarity reading at the weir for us. The clarity test tube is a brilliant citizen science tool which can be purchased through GroundTruth.

While taking water sample readings near the confluence, a young Spotted-necked Otter peeked its head out of the water with curiosity to see what we were doing. Spotted-necked Otters require clean, good quality water with clear visibility in order to catch fish. It was an encouraging sign to have this sighting at the end of our journey and certainly a highlight for the team.

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Spotted-necked Otter just above the confluence at the end of our 64km journey,

The team were amused to see that hippo also rely on the Karkloof River as home. Have you ever seen a hippo in a natural flowing river in the KZN midlands? A rare sight indeed. We were also treated to sightings of Eland, Giraffe, Zebra, Bushbuck, Warthog and many more game species.

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Hippo enjoying the tranquility of the Karkloof Safari Spa

The river walkers were indeed extremely privileged to have experienced the wildlife and scenery at the Karkloof Safari Spa and are very grateful for being afforded access in order to complete the journey and collect the necessary data along the full stretch of the river.


Identifying water invertebrates to obtain a miniSASS score

Very soon after the confluence where the Karkloof river joins onto the uMngeni, we could see the quick deterioration of water quality and the first signs of invasive water weeds on the uMngeni river at Morton’s Drift. Fortunately the Karkloof River is free of aquatic invasive weeds, and will hopefully remain that way.


Mortons Drift. Just below the confluence on the uMngeni River.

The team celebrated the end of the 6 day Karkloof River walk from Catchment to Confluence with sundowners at the top of the Karkloof Falls at the Sappi picnic site, joined by members of the Karkloof Conservancy and WWF staff. A toast was made to the river walk accomplishment and conquering the 64km journey through hill and vale, rain and shine.


Cheers! To a successful journey.

There is keen interest to see the official results of the river health sampling and the video that is being made of the C2C Karkloof River Walk journey, sponsored by Woolworths. Both of these will be shared at an upcoming Karkloof Conservancy event to be announced.

A huge note of thanks to all the sponsors and partners that have contributed in both cash and kind towards this project, and to the landowners who so willingly allowed access to their properties.

So which river is next? And who else is going to raise their hand to get to know the river in their own catchment?


Great to see the Goble family at the end of our journey. The support from landowners has been fantastic. We look forward to sharing the results with them. From left: Ros Lindley, Fuzz Goble and his mum, Carolyn Goble.

Finally the Falls!

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On Day 5 of the Catchment to Confluence Karkloof River Walk the team was thrilled to be joined by 2 fresh pairs of legs, Mbuso Khambule (new SAPPI Environmental Officer) and Mondli Goba (SAPPI Communications Officer), just in time to pass through some of the SAPPI Shafton plantation areas on the Karkloof floodplain.

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Team setting off. From Left: Nduduzo Khoza (EWT Eco-Ranger), Mondli Goba (Sappi), Mbuso Khambule (Sappi), Twané Clarke (Karkloof Conservancy), Ayanda Lipheyana (GroundTruth) and the photographer behind the camera is Sue Viljoen (WWF-SA)

Our destination for the day was the Karkloof Falls, starting at the pumphouse on Gartmore farm, which as the crow flies did not seem all that far. But we now knew by experience that following the meanders of a river over rough terrain or tall vegetation where there is no path is not likely to be a walk in the park.

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Sue Viljoen (WWF-SA) pushing through the tall vegetation in the wetland

As we pushed through the wetland, we stopped to gaze at the distant Karkloof mountains, home to the river’s source where we had come from 5 days earlier, feeling pleased with the distance we had conquered so far.

We started up there

The team felt a sense of pride as we gazed upon the distant mountain

We were excited to see 2 Grey Crowned Cranes fly over us, with their characteristic “mahem” call, en route to one of the bird hides at the Karkloof Conservation Centre. What would Karkloof be without its treasured cranes? We had been treated to sightings of a number of cranes on the previous days as well. In total 11 Grey Crowned Cranes were seen and 4 Wattled Cranes. And it was only fitting that most of these cranes were spotted on farms belonging to “Crane Custodians”.

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Nduduzo Khoza (EWT Eco-Ranger) and Twané Clarke (Karkloof Conservancy) excited to see these custodianship signs.

Custodians are landowners who are formally recognised by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) for their voluntary contribution to the conservation of threatened species on their farms, such as crane, oribi or blue swallows. (Download “Guidelines for Custodianship in SA” here)

By tea time, we had traversed the Shafton wetland and reached the Karkloof River bridge which crosses over the road to Cramond.

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Karkloof River bridge along the Cramond road. From left: Ayanda Lipheyana (GroundTruth), Mbuso Khambule (Sappi), Twané Clarke (Karkloof Conservancy), Sue Viljoen (WWF-SA), Nduduzo Khoza (EWT Eco-Ranger) and Mondli Goba (Sappi)

Mbuso reminded us of the extent of SAPPI plantations that had been removed from the Shafton wetland a number of years ago and allowed to rehabilitate back to natural vegetation – some 186 ha were not replanted due to the existence of this important wetland system.

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Looking back at the rehabilitated wetland beyond the bridge.

The next section of the river was slow moving, noticeably poorer in water quality and showed signs of being at the bottom of the valley’s catchment area, which ultimately receives all the nutrient rich runoff from the various activities along the way. The water colour had changed to a more murky greenish colour, there was a type of sludge on the rocks, in some quieter corners, traces of foam was seen on the surface and the sewage weed could be seen in many places along the river’s edge.

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At the first set of large, impressive rocks above the falls, we did a Mini-SASS test, which showed the water was “critically modified”, confirming our impressions that the river’s quality was now compromised. At this site, a dead bushbuck was found between the large rocks, leaving us wondering what happened here. It looks like it lost its footing while trying to have a drink.

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Doing a miniSASS before heading off on the last section to the Karkloof Falls

The condition of riverine buffer along this last stretch was also compromised due to high levels of alien invasive vegetation (such as the big clump of bamboo shown below, poplar saplings, elderflower and all the other commonly seen invasives we had seen higher up in the catchment). Pastures were unfortunately established very close to the river, and therefore without a wide section of natural vegetation to act as buffer and filter for the runoff, the river is all the more impacted.

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A clump of bamboo at the river’s edge.

Having followed every twist and turn of the river now for 5 days, we felt a certain sadness at the deterioration of the river’s health. However, the sight of the picnic site for the Karkloof falls picked up our spirits. Destination at last! Hooray for being able to pull off our boots and take a break in the shade! Here we were spoilt with orange ice-lollies by our videographer, Jayne Symes, who is putting a video clip together of the river walk. What a welcome gift! Thank you Jane!

Jane Symes

Jane Symes (Black & White Studios) was our hero that day. These ice cold treats were welcomed after a day of scorching heat and little shade.

While catching our breath over lunch, we chatted at length about the problem of litter at a public picnic site like this, and how increasingly popular the Karkloof Falls had become. Would new signage saying “litter free zone” and removing the dustbins help to change people’s behaviour so that all rubbish is taken away by visitors?

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Karkloof Falls picnic site along the river could be the perfect setting for a litter free zone

There was just 1 section left to walk down to the actual Karkloof falls viewing point and lower picnic site, our end point for the day. We said “bye for now” to the river, with the very last leg of the river’s journey to be continued the following Thursday, 6th April. A team photo in front of the falls was a fitting way to exclaim “WE MADE IT!”.

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We made it! The Karkloof River Walk team have reached the Karkloof falls

A Winding Watercourse

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After difficult and long days, Day 4 promised to be less strenuous as the team were now truly in the Karkloof floodplain, where the terrain was more open and the river starts its characteristic meanders.


With Sue Viljoen (WWF) unable to join us for day 4, Simon Bruton of GroundTruth stepped in as a substitute for the day.


Day 4’s river walk team. From left: Twané Clarke (Karkloof Conservancy), Simon Bruton (GroundTruth), Ayanda Lipheyana (GroundTruth), and Nduduzo Khoza (EWT Eco-Ranger)

Given the open terrain, by tea time we could see in the far distance the start of a line of trees, the end of which marked our finish point for the day. However, we knew there was still much walking ahead, given the many meanders, oxbow lakes and fences we would still need to navigate.


On the floodplain cattle became a common sight, along with some of the impacts and risks they can introduce in proximity to watercourses. Eroded cattle crossings, drinking and feeding points (with associated cattle dung and trampling) contributed to water which showed gradual but increasing visual signs of change such as cloudiness, froth and abundant growth of nuisance vegetation, possibly thriving on an increased nutrient load. It will be interesting to see if the laboratory water quality analysis sponsored by Talbot & Talbot confirm the visual observations.


Sewerage plant along with other signs of deteriorating water quality

Days 3 and 4 were the days of fence crossings. Given the fatigue setting in, humour was found in the different ways each of us may tackle a fence in the least strenuous manner, given our different loads and skills. Some would prefer to vault over and leave pack and kit intact, while others would disrobe all kit, squeeze through and kit up again.


Ayanda negotiating yet another fence

Given the many meanders and fences, a tree trunk footbridge was a welcome but tricky crossing to negotiate.


Negotiating the log bridge

Twané showing the muscle required of a river walker.


After lunch we made a poor call on which side of the river to take, ultimately resulting in the need for a detour around a large mosaic of impenetrable wetland vegetation, which separated us from the river for some distance. Once re-united, water quality samples were again collected.


At the tar road bridge over the Karkloof River, illegal and irresponsible dumping of waste tar material into the river was noted, posing a significant constriction to flow, and perhaps even affecting flood risk to the bridge, with one of the two culverts effectively barricaded.


Waste tar material dumped off the Karkloof tar road bridge, introducing river impacts and potential flood risk

In the early afternoon Ouhout, Leucosidea sericea, was again found for the first time since the headwater sections. Numerous alien plants still made their presence felt (particularly bramble and bugweed), but not in the same densities that had been experienced on day 3. Having said that, some large isolated patches of bramble required some cautious retreat and detour.


Nduduzo taking a water clarity reading at one of the last water quality sites of the day.


As dusk approached and each camp fence was crossed, the team were joined by relays of inquisitive river walkers who call this beautiful area home.


Source Seeking and Catchment Clambering

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Clamber (verb): to climb or move in an awkward and laborious manner, typically using both hands and feet.

This sums Day 1 up quite adequately, especially whilst we were trying to find the source of the Karkloof River! The source proved to be well hidden within a thicket of Ouhout, Leucosidea sericea, mixed with some other indigenous shrubs and trees such as the Nana-berry, Searsia dentata, and a few ferns and creepers.

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The river walk team at the source of the Karkloof river

The river walkers were ready to start their intrepid journey of the first 10.6km of the Karkloof River at 7am, with a light misty drizzle – typical of the Midlands mistbelt. Our team comprised of Twané Clarke of the Karkloof Conservancy, Ayanda Lipheyana from GroundTruth who do routine water quality monitoring for the Karkloof Irrigation Board, Sue Viljoen of WWF-SA who have been working on a number of Water Stewardship initiatives in the Umngeni catchment, and Nduduzo Khoza an Eco-Ranger for the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).

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Off we go… From left: Sue Viljoen (WWF-SA); Nduduzo Khoza (EWT); Ayanda Lipheyana (GroundTruth); and Twané Clarke (Karkloof Conservancy)

The team followed the stream until they reached a sight with sufficient water to begin the first set of water quality sampling techniques. These methods will be repeated down the length of the Karkloof river to build up a better picture of the river’s current status quo.


MiniSASS – identifying the invertebrates to determine river health

Tests included a miniSASS (using aquatic invertebrates to determine river condition), a Riparian Health Audit (RHA) and taking water quality readings such as pH, clarity, dissolved oxygen and temperature. All results have been captured on smart devices using a new app called GeoODK, which GroundTruth have customised for river monitoring purposes.


Testing the clarity of the water

Most miniSASS tests indicated good condition, with one site boasting near natural conditions. The highlight of the day was finding an elusive Stonefly at this site which is known to be the most sensitive invertebrate to river impacts.

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Yes folks, that little insect made our day!

The site that only had a fair condition was possibly indicating the impact of erosion, invasive alien vegetation and log jamming.

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An example of log jamming. Removing these obstacles in the river will make a world of difference.

We were all fascinated by the abundance of Ouhout growing  along drainage lines, gullies and riverine areas. We’re particularly interested to find out from the locals about the history of this area and whether these trees have always been here or if it has gotten denser through the years – ideas welcome.


Overall, we were quite surprised by the extent of the impacts so soon in the river’s journey. Wattle, Bramble and Blackjack are prevalent and will require large scale and carefully planned clearing, with assistance of other organisations, if the vision of an alien free Karkloof river is ever to be realised.

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We were also treated to some of the most beautiful scenery,

Panoramic view

unique flowers,

purple flower

spoor of what we suspect to be a Brown Hyaena that we followed for a while,

Hyaena spoor

and lots of frogs.

Ndu Kisses a frog

As the sun began to set over the picturesque hills, we realised we were chasing the clock to reach our final point before dark. The flying ants glistened in the dusky light and the temperatures began to drop.

sunset flying ant photo

The team finally reached the end at 6:30 pm where we were warmly greeted by Charlie MacGillivray who is both a landowner and the Chairman of the Karkloof Conservancy. Let’s hope Day 2’s stretch of the Karkloof river is kinder to us.

Our sincere thanks to all landowners who gave us permission to walk on their properties today. We thoroughly enjoyed exploring your part of the Karkloof which set the tone for the rest of the journey.

Mpofana in Peril

Members of the Midlands Conservancies Forum gathered in Balgowan recently to explore Milestone Forest and learn more about the fate of the Mpofana River.

It was the ancient Yellowwoods of Milestone that inspired the first Conservancy in South Africa – formed right here. Walter Addison shared some of the history of how they came to be here (survivors of the last ice age) as we gazed in awe at the giant trees that form the ‘Cathedral’.

r mcf balgowan roadshow 013Balgowan Conservancy hosts a guided walk in this forest on the first Friday of each month. It is well worth a visit. Contact Marilyn on 082 427 3365 to book.

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As we drove back to Michaelhouse we passed the spot where the water release/outfall from the new Spring Grove Dam will enter the Mpofana river. We had invited Kate Fenenga of TCTA to address our meeting on the impacts the Spring Grove water release will have on the Mpofana, but she was not able to unless we submitted all the questions we might ask beforehand.

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Instead we had Kevin Meier from Umgeni Water share their operating philosophy of Spring Grove Dam.   This was really interesting.

He told us that the uMngeni river catchment is now completely utilized and that we cannot build any more dams on these rivers. Their job is to supply water to the municipalities. They pump as much as possible to keep Midmar and Albert Falls dams full and watch the weather closely to stop pumping when rain is imminent.

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Obviously, we were most concerned about the impact of more water on the Mpofana river as the Mooi Mearns Transfer Scheme (MMTS) had already had a negative impact according to some of the landowners present.

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Kevin said “We believe we can release 4,5 cubic metres per second without impacting the environment.” Currently they transfer 3,5 m3 in the wet season (about 3 months of the year). Once the new pipeline is in they will increase transfer to maintain continuous minimum flow of 4,5m3 although pipe capacity is 5,4m3. The thinking is that the river will adjust from minimal basal flow to 4,5m3 over the first year or two of operation. We were aghast to hear that this release will continue throughout winter when the normal river only has about 1 cubic metre per second of water. No doubt this will impact negatively on the health of the river.

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Balgowan Conservancy members whose properties have already been affected by the raised levels of water in the Mpofana (from the Mooi Mearns Transfer Scheme) asked questions about their causeways, river banks and bridges. Kevin suggested that most of these concerns needed to be addressed by DWAF, not Umgeni Water. Apparently the Dept of Water Affairs is about to conduct a survey of the entire Mpofana and Lion’s rivers. It appears that their main focus is on erosion of the river banks, not the ecological health of the riparian zone. They assume that the river will realign itself. SASS surveys will be conducted four times a year above and below the outfall to monitor the impact.

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Kevan Zunckel was up next. Kevan has done extensive research the negative affect of dams in general and the importance of keeping our rivers intact and shared some fascinating information with us, relating to the points Kevin Meier had raised.

It is currently costing Durban R100 million to treat water – Durban’s current water treatment bill is approximately R100 million per month and based on the findings of the uMngeni River Walk where the water quality improved from extremely poor to natural below the Albert Falls Dam as a result of riparian vegetation restoration, it can be calculated that it will cost 10% of the monthly water treatment spend to replicate this restoration work along the entire length of the uMngeni River’s main stem. This would lead to the creation of hundreds of jobs and a reduction in the treatment costs.

Both the Lion’s and Mpofana rivers do an excellent job of assimilating impurities. These tributaries are highly sinuous, i.e. they meander extensively, with associated flood plains and oxbows. This gives them the potential to assimilate both sediments and impurities as the actual length of the channels is significantly longer than the direct distance between a source of pollution and Midmar dam (as the crow flies).

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The nutrification of the big dams – this would be “eutrophication”, i.e. the artificial or accelerated increase in nutrients coming from intensive agriculture. We know that the Lions is not in good condition and has a dense concentration of intensive crop and animal production activities along its banks and in the catchment, and now that the MMTS-2 is coming on ‘stream’, the added impurities from the Mooi system will exacerbate this situation. Although Umgeni Water’s water quality monitoring suggests that the Mooi and Lions are in pretty good shape, it is possible that with a little more intensive monitoring a different picture will emerge. Penny’s walk of the Lions showed this to be true. Without the MMTS-2 I have been told that the prediction for Midmar’s eutrophication to similar levels as Hartebeespoort Dam, was between 15 – 20 years. Now with the MMTS-2 adding to the system, it is predicted that this may happen in 10 to 15 years.   Inanda is already showing signs of algal blooms in the upper and mid sections, but its depth and convoluted shape allows for this to be dealt with by the time it gets to the lower end where the raw water is abstracted. So it is not a water quality and treatment problem as yet, but in drier years when the concentration increases, it could well reach the threshold from which it tips across to the Hartebeespoort type of situation.

Ecological infrastructure has the capacity to do wonderful things with our messes, but if we push the systems too far, then we will exceed this capacity and lose the ecological services. Intensive agriculture can work with ecological infrastructure if it recognises the value of the services and respects the thresholds, otherwise that is when the R100 million/month bills begin to emerge.

It turned out to be a truly interesting afternoon, with plenty of food for thought. MCF has raised funds (from N3TC) for the DUCT River Walkers to explore the Mpofana this month, Balgowan Conservancy is helping with the organisation and generously providing accommodation. Follow the journey on their blog: www.umngeniriverwalk.wordpress.com

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As we left, a Spotted Eagle Owl nest with a couple of chicks was pointed out to us in the car park – beside the busy rugby field! Despite the handy ledge that was built especially for them, the noise must have annoyed them after a while – or perhaps the heated debate at the MCG gathering was the final straw? They have now all moved to the Rectory garden where they are thriving. Nature certainly is resilient and adaptable, but as Kevan Zunckel said – it is about thresholds, sometimes we push Nature too far. Then we will all suffer.

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Boophane and Bushman’s Tea

Boophane and Bushman’s tea – not words one would normally associate with suburbia. However, on a recent walk through the steep north facing grassland in World’s View Conservancy, these were just two of the interesting plants we found.

worlds view leonotisThe Conservancy hosted other members of the Midlands Conservancies Forum to show off their work and the treasures that they have uncovered in the area. First stop was the View Site which they help to maintain by doing regular litter clean ups. This is also the spot where their popular Carols by Candlelight event is held. “Last year it was quite magical” Elli Hamilton says “the mist was really thick and the bagpipes playing created a wonderful atmosphere.”

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We explore the area, chatting about the Voortrekker road which passed this way hundreds of years ago. There is still evidence of that in the grooves the wheels gouged in the rocks and this “brake rock”. Apparently the wagons were tethered to the rock as they descended to slow them down. Howard Richardson is a mine of interesting information about the Heritage Site.

worlds view brake rockAt this time of year, the aloes are all about to burst into bloom and it would be well worth visiting the area in a few weeks’ time.

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Then, the real treat – a patch of untransformed grassland perched precariously between the R103 and the pine plantations on top of the ridge.

worlds view ellie in grasslandAlthough nothing is in flower at the moment, we found all sorts of interesting plants including the above mentioned Boophane disticha and Bushman’s tea – Athrixia phylicoides.

worlds view boophaneRead about some of the other treasures to be found in a recent blog post World’s View is Worth Conserving. After searching for the splendid specimen of Boophane in the long grass, Len carefully hid it again as it is popular medicinal plant and might be at risk from muthi gatherers. “This is our jewel” he said proudly as a Red Admiral butterfly flitted past and three Long-Crested Eagles swirled overhead.

worlds view buddleja

Then we headed into the green desert  which comprise 80% of the Conservancy area – the plantations – along the old abandoned railway line, passing through a 100 year old tunnel. This line, known as the Townhill Deviation, was abandoned in the 1960’s when the Cedara Twin Tunnels were built (still in use today).

worlds view tunnelWe came across an old station platform – the Teteleku Station, now completely overgrown. The foundations of the Station Master’s cottage and an enormous avocado tree still bearing fruit are remnants of a life long gone.

worlds view avo treeAmongst the invasive plants, a few indigenous species cling on bravely, like this pretty pink Pavonia.

worlds view pavoniaThe Conservancy is justifiably proud of the work they have done uncovering parts of the Teteleku Stream and original wetlands. This will be an on going project, but is already having a positive impact on the amount of water flowing down the hill.

worlds view teteleku and plantationWe come to an area where the DUCT River Care team are hard at work clearing the banks of a tributary of the Dorpspruit. The banks have been infested with Ginger and Bugweed, but the water is now visible and we can hear it as it cascades over some rocks out of view. “Now that is a special sound” says Elli.

teteleku stream alien clearing

Back at the Girl Guides Hall on top of the ridge, welcome and delicious refreshments await. Howard and Pat Wilkinson do interesting presentations on the area and the efforts of the Conservancy to protect the natural heritage – animals (including caracal), 98 species of birds and endangered plants – and cultural heritage for posterity. Well done, World’s View Conservancy.
worlds view committee

Hawu we ma!

There were so many astonishing moments during our Cobham weekend that “Wow” simply couldn’t do them justice. “Hawu we ma!”  became the exclamation of choice.  Stars, streams, mountains, waterfalls, caves, flowers, food and friendship ensured the experience was utterly magical. Four students about to start Matric at Shea O’Connor School in Nottingham Road had been looking forward to the adventure for weeks. The weekend was organised by MCF with funding from N3Toll Concession.

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The journey began on a cold, wet Midlands morning. There was little point rushing to the mountains where it was likely to even colder and mistier, so we explored along the way. First stop, the Nokulunga Gumede Memorial in Mpophomeni, where we chatted about the violence which lead to her death, the origins of the township and the Mpophomeni Conservation Group initiative.

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We popped in to tell the friends we had made on the Hlatikulu trip recently, Zamambo and Bulelani, about our planned adventure – back to the mountains.  They were green with envy.

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We visited the Yellowwood Church in Bulwer, it was too wet to walk in the forest to see the real live Yellowwood trees. The headstones with dates from the early 1900s had everyone astonished. “Unbelievable” quipped Nkulu, shaking his head.

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After crossing the uMkomazi river, we stopped at Pucketty Farm Stall to stock up on fresh bread, local cheese and chocolate brownies, and stroke the cat. As the mizzle was really thick, we spent a few hours exploring the Himeville Museum crammed full of fascinating artefacts before heading through the mud to Cobham.

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On arrival at Pholela hiking hut, we were thrilled to find a big wood pile (invasive wattle) and set about building a fire to snuggle around. Wendy made some new friends and headed out in the rain for a swim!  “What a wonderful weekend – a fabulous thing that I have never done in my life.”  She said.

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After a good night’s sleep in absolute darkness the really astonishing moments began… Breakfast on the verandah included happy eggs donated by Aloe Ridge Farm and discussions about the day’s possibilities. Christeen Grant, an experienced Berg Guide, had joined us and made some suggestions about where to walk.

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Despite the damp, grey weather we wandered through the Ouhout scrub – following jackal prints along the path – to make the most of our few precious days.

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Undeterred by the weather, the deep pools in the river enticed us to swim, taking our breath away at first.

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Soon we were used to the cold,  and no one wanted to get out.

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The exclamations and laughter faded as we spent time in quiet contemplation of our surroundings.

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Finding a spot to be entirely alone.

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Listening to the water and the birds, feeling the breeze on our skins and just being still.

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With both Nikki and Christeen passionate about plants, there were many stops to admire the floral treasures in the grassland.  Everyone taking a turn with the camera to capture their beauty.  Polygala hottentotta.

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The cliffs beckoned and we climbed up to a waterfall

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We explored a hidden cave, filled with animal prints, that looked out across the river valley. “We had a whimsical experience with you. Thank you for showing us the beauty of nature.  I loved learning about the many wonders the mountains keep dear to their hearts. Wonders that we will now keep dear to OUR hearts.” said Vusi.

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We stopped often to chat about rocks, admire insects, discuss scats. Christeen’s enthusiasm and knowledge of the area, adding depth and a special dimension. “Christeen, thank you for being with us this weekend. We wouldn’t have done it without you. You gave up your time, family and everything for us and we love you for that.” said Nkulu.

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After the invigorating exercise, lunch on the verandah went down well.  “Hawu we ma – izingane zidla kakhulu!”  said Nikki.  Everyone competed to make the most interesting sandwiches – startling combinations of ingredients which elicited lots of exclamations! Banana and beetroot anyone?

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A herd of horses joined us for afternoon tea.

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On Sunday, we walked part of day two of the Giant’s Cup trail.  We packed plenty of snacks and our water bottles and headed for the hills.

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How exciting when the clouds lifted and Hodgson’s Peaks and the Drakensberg emerged.

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Every possible moment was spent quietly, watching Cape Vultures circle, the shadows on the mountains move and relishing being almost alone in nature.

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We drank fresh, cold water from the streams.

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As the sky got bluer, we climbed higher and higher,

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We crept through the forest to discover a beautiful, cool cave where Qiniso magically pulled nougat from his backpack.

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This was Bath Plug falls – water rushing in from above, but no sign of it leaving the deep pool.  “I loved the waterfalls” said Qiniso, “we visited six this weekend.”

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We walked back to camp in silence. Vusi particularly enjoyed the quiet moments. “Thank you, you have made this experience a Moment for Life.

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After lunch, we packed a watermelon and headed to the river to swim and wallow and bask in the sunshine. Nkulu said “What a wonderful afternoon. I enjoyed the swimming and diving with you and I really enjoyed the floating lesson you gave me.”

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Early evening was spent chatting and playing cards in the outdoor boma before building a fire to cook our colourful kebabs. After tucking in, Wendy said “We must be happy for the food we eat because it is given to us with an opened heart.”  Ever mindful of our carbon footprint, all our food was local and organic and we took all the peelings home for the compost.  We collected all other packaging materials to recycle  – this filled only half of a plastic Woollies bag. We left no trace of our adventure at all.

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Then as the darkness grew and the stars sparkled in the moonless sky, we lay on the swing bridge across the Pholela River, the water rushing below us. No one had ever seen a sky quite like it – absolutely crammed with twinkling lights, and shooting stars galore.  Qiniso “I had so much fun watching the stars at night. It was wonderful.”

cobham 441.res We crossed the bridge again the next morning on our way to yet another lovely waterfall, tucked between steep cliffs with a deep dark pool at the bottom.

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We met the Reserve Field Rangers and joined them on their patrol. This provided a good opportunity to chat to them about the animals in the area, their jobs and the training they had received, and to take advantage of their experienced eyes pointing out baboons and buck and birds.

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After another dip in the Pholela, we said our goodbyes “What a fabulous trip we had. The things I learnt from each of us is that we must share our knowledge and we must not leave our group members behind when we are walking in the mountains.”  Wendy said.

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On the way home we stopped at Marutswa to walk in the forest and picnic on leftovers, enjoying the protection of the cool canopy after the heat of the grasslands.

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The journey home to Mooi River, Rosetta and Nottingham Road provided opportunities to compose text messages:

“Thank you for each and every support that you’ve been giving to us and it was such a wonderful experience.”  Qiniso Zuma

“The walk to the cave and the stars were so amazing. I have never had a great weekend like this ever, but I didn’t like washing dishes.   Thank you for everything. Lots of love” Nkululeko Mdladla

“It was a great weekend. You have given me hope and strength and washed my worries away. Ngiyabonga. Love” Wendy Mkwanazi

“I remember our trips to the river and enjoyed learning to float, but the really amazing part of this trip was the time we spent on the suspension bridge looking at stars.  I even got to see a shooting star (I made a wish, but I can’t tell). I can’t explain how much fun I had, this was truly a time to remember and in the words of my favortite artist ‘I wish that I have this moment for life’.” Vusimusi Mvelase

Christeen Grant “Thank you for the privilege of spending an inspiring time with you, Wendy, Vusi, Nkulu and Qiniso over the past few days at Cobham! Your commitment and dedication to inspiring, caring and nurturing these young lives is awesome, a very real motivation as you guide, not impose ideas and experiences in their lives. For me it was a real and heart-warming pleasure to share the mountains with all of you!” 

Nikki concludes: “Sidlalile, sifundile kahle ePholela. Sobuya futhi.”  Thank you to Penny Rees for the inspiration.

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May the sun bring you new energy by day

May the moon softly restore you at night

May the rain wash away your worries

May the breeze blow new strength into your being

May you walk gently through the world and

Know it’s beauty all the days of your life.

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