Well-fed River Walkers

Dargle Food Heroes and the Dargle community made certain that the team walking from the source of the Mngeni river to the sea were well cared for as they passed through our valley.

Day One

Kobus Kruger and Greg Martindale led us up the fire track to the source of the uMngeni near Drinkkop (part of the uMngeni Vlei Nature Reserve). At an elevation of 1904 meters we headed down to the spring which the mighty uMgeni flows from – starting at a little trickle.

The most amazing aspect was the fresh cold water that was available as soon as you put your hand in the water. It was refreshing and the best water I ever tasted pure uncontaminated and nourishing. Astonishing that in a few days we will not be able to do this simple act with such abandon and trust as the river’s condition steadily declines. We headed on rushing to beat the dark following the amazing river across dolerite boulders, fantastic pure lakes that begged to be swum in and friendly landowners who were always helpful and obliging.

Although not much was seen in the way of wildlife, we found plenty of otter, caracal, civet and porcupine scats, and others reported seeing oribi. We saw some kites, a secretary bird, jackal buzzard and fish eagle and towards evening the howls of jackal mates surrounded in the stillness and beauty of the vlei.

We descended on the dirt road, with the spectacular indigenous forest to our left, the trees fading into the dusk, the sound of the water below us rushing over rocks and waterfalls. We ended at the edge of New Forest. We have the privilege of staying in Greg and Wilma Martindale’s beautiful house and eating the delicious vegetarian supper Yvonne Munk made for us.

Day 2 We went through a fairy forest margin where we spotted baby Yellowwood trees in a cluster of Guarris, Ouhout and other indigenous trees species. We continued our walk hopping on boulders upstream, as our support vehicle couldn’t get to the top.

We hit sections of the river where the young wattles, pine and bugweed trees were way too close to the river bed but then there were other sections where there were signs of otter, mongoose, baboons and certain antelope. We carried on rock hopping/ skating upstream then we got to a section where the river forked and to the left was a two metre waterfall and to the right was just more rocks, we all went up the waterfall side and realised that hey! we had lost the river! It was a huge dry boulder bed, no flow whatsoever. Confusion. We ventured finding three dry boulder beds with the river thundering underground.

We eventually found the main stream and followed as it twisted west climbing steeply into the gorge. Huge boulders lay piled on top of each other, taxing our agility at the end of a long hard walk. All day we had stunning indigenous forest on our right bank, Yellowwoods and various other tall forest trees filtering the sunlight through them, the river course alternating between boulders and clear still pools, often lined with mossy banks. We met with Delia Ferguson whose father had farmed in the area for 80 years and his father before him. Back at ‘home’ Greg offered us some beer and Merrill King had made us a fabulous supper.

Day 3 The trek continued downriver. Rock hopping was again the order of the day. I, wisely, decided to bramble hop on the bank, but at times, reverted to said river rocks, when the bramble won. Today, let me tell you, we suddenly came down to earth with a bump. The riparian zones are no longer beautiful as per the first two days.

On the north bank you have some really pristine indigenous forests, with a nasty band of exotics starting to encroach from the riverbank. Some areas are almost impenetrable and we are only about 35 km from the source! Some areas today can only be described as heavy infestations. Inexpert control methods have obviously been used in the past, which have exacerbated the problems. Please don’t slash down any alien plants without follow-up herbicide treatment! Overgrazing and road works have also impacted on the riparian zones, at various times.

Day 4 This morning we hit the Highway to Hell at 07h30. A landowner has been playing around on a caterpillar bulldozer, and with no regard to anything has bulldozed a road. The alien wattles alongside have been bulldozed and stumped, it looks like Armageddon – nothing remains alongside the road, bare earth, loose earth, even the steep bank of the river – one rainfall and all this soil will wash into the clear, clean river! Much of the day was spent finding a route through patches of bramble, and negotiating thickets of wattle trees along the river.

All day, Nhlosane Mountain stayed in our view, and although probably 80% of the river banks were lined with wattle trees, we passed through some beautiful grasslands, the slopes dotted with dolerite boulders, stunted protea bushes and vibrant red everlasting flowers.

Lunch was alongside the river with beautiful rapids and a swim revived us all. Eventually, after 15 kilometers, We arrived at the most beautiful, tranquil thatched cottage at Beverley Country Cottages. The moon shining above, spotted Eagle Owl calling. Kate Kelly had made us a delicious pasta dinner too.

Day 5 Today the river is wider and deeper. Today is perfect. We are in the heart of the Dargle. The Mann’s dogs have accompanied us on the first part of today’s journey. They are so happy to see us. There is a little brown and white smudge digging frenetically in the bank. In a blur of snapping jaws and gyrating paws, a great mound of earth piles up. I’m really surprised when I round the bend to find that instead of a weir, a natural rock shelf holds the waters back in a long lazy stretch. Then in a noisy tumble, a rocky cascade takes the river down to a new level. We startle a francolin into a hasty, flight. Here there is much activity along the banks. A friendly couple, the Van de Post’s tell us about their efforts to clear the alien invasive species that they inherited when buying their new property. They offer us tea. ‘We’ve a long way to go’ we say. We do a Mini SASS and find minnow mayflies; stout crawlers; planaria; tiny life forms all working to keep the river healthy. Turbidity test clear again.

The Dargle is beautiful and the people equally so. Such overwhelming generosity has greeted our walking expedition, we are really grateful for the support. We tip toe past a sick cow on Gill Addison’s property Antheap. We have been told not to disturb Phantom from her bed of straw.

We are at a secret place along the river, so special, so stunning. I’d say sacred. I’m sitting refreshed and content on a rock ledge, water cascading over my cool body. Now, surrounded by silvery white gums I hear a thousand bees. There is a strong smell of honey here. Butterflies, bird song, basket shaped spider webs, a myriad of much that is new to me claims my attention, and I long for the wisdom of this wilderness. We pass another large hole. I put a stick down. One and a half meters. This one is definitely warthog I’m told. I’m reclining against my backpack, the late afternoon sun behind a young wattle sapling. The river is gurgling alongside on my right. ‘All I’ve got left to eat are rubber gloves from the first aid pack and suntan cream’ says Mike. ‘I’ve got some spaghetti from last night’s supper’ I say. And lots of boiled eggs donated by from Vicki and Craig Alison of Highveld. On the far bank, a forgotten copse of indigenous forest is a beacon of hope amidst pines, wattles and gums. We got to Tanglewood Country House on time for our special dinner. Thank you so much to Tanglewood and the Dargle Conservancy for a wonderful evening, a delicious meal and gracious company. To the people of the Dargle, thank you for letting us into your heart!

Nicky Mann showed everyone to their lovely, luxurious rooms. “I’m too filthy to go in here” quipped Mike, but after a few sips of cold beer, settled right in. Penny was desperate for a bath, so was delighted when Nicholas arrived at the door with a drink for her to enjoy while she soaked away the grime. Nicky Mann, a great supporter of the Dargle Local Living initiative, has gathered ingredients all grown in the Dargle (thanks Kathy and Wayne and Nikki) for our supper. “Delicious” pronounced Penz, the herbivore, tucking into celery soup, ratatouille and roasted crescents of pumpkin. Between courses, the smokers headed outside under the almost full moon to chat about their adventures.

In appreciation of the enormous contribution which the River Walk team are making to conservation in the area, they each received a Dargle Dassie Adoption Certificate. With their commitment to the catchment, we believe they will make wonderful custodians of our precious Rock Hyrax. Thank you to the River Walkers for reminding us just how special the uMngeni is.

Day 6 The days are beginning to blur into each other and being able to walk this amazing river every day for the month of Mayday feels like a blessing not work. That said its Saturday and there is nothing else I’d rather be doing today than meandering down the uMngeni. After a wonderful dinner/reception last night at Tanglewood (I actually became a father last night to a family of dassies courtesy of the Dargle Conservancy) we were inspired all over again by the spirit of the Dargle and its gracious hospitality and warmth, we woke up to a misty typical midlands morning.

Today is a very special day as well. It is Connect  the Dots for Climate Change Day. Each one of the team members wore black dots while we did our bit for this planet that is being threatened by unchecked human development and greed. The ever energetic and organised Nikki Brighton made a banner for us with the words “All Water is Connected” emblazoned on it.

The river was feeling better and we found her in good condition with the presence of water beetles, minnow mayflies, crabs, dragonfly nymphs, water striders and boatmen, limpets and stout crawlers. Every day I look forward to seeing these little guys who are indicators of the rivers health and wellbeing and the river does look and feel better when we find so many of them. Then it was time to beat a path along the inside of the river and we met our first obstacle of mealies and blackjacks. We left the rivers inside track and decided the going would be better along the outer edge. It was, and we were amazed by the well managed farm plots and landowner sites and the easy accessible roads next to the river.

If the previous few days reminded me of “Wind in the Willows” with the presence of otters, porcupines and ant bears, I suddenly felt like I stepped into the American Mid West with 200 year old Plane trees growing along the river bank. Then pastures and forestry gave way to an indigenous forest topped hill with thicket running down to the river and we were suddenly surrounded by birds and their sweet music filled the afternoon air.

There were sightings of Jackal Buzzards, African Black Duck and Scimiter Billed Wood Hoopoe and many other birds. After passing through pastoral scenes we did encounter heavy infestations of bugweed, bramble, wattle and of course blackjacks, with some areas better managed than others. We came to journeys end at Haybury’s farm who sponsored many wonderful chickens and eggs for our journey.  After 10.5km we are again welcomed by that splendid Dargle hospitality as Dean de Chazal has a braai going for us with his Dargle Ducks and Eidin Griffin and and Malcolm  Draper welcomed us into their lovely warm home for the night.

Day 7 After a night of tasty, poly unsaturated fat from like twenty ducks courtesy of Dargle Duck at Wit’s End, we had to set off back to the river that we all know and love. The highlight came during the first few minutes when I realised that we had hit a stretch of Ziziphus mucronata (Buffalo thorn) trees along the banks. As most of you know, the Buffalo thorn trees are very significant in African-Nguni culture in the sense that we use the branches to communicate with and collect estranged spirits and lead them to their peaceful, final resting place. I found a mighty big one around the river bend that begged me for a hug, and to tap into that ancient energy was the most amazing feeling. We then crossed the river and hopped over another fence and were greeted by scree slopes where the dassies dwell, which was great because we were made part of Adopt a dassie campaign by Dargle Conservancy.

So we spent ten minutes quality time gazing at them from across the river, at that very moment the Jackal Buzzard was circling above and that was one of the most pleasant stretches we had today. We had a lazy Sunday – dawdling through veld grasses, crossing swamps, passing the most pump stations that we have encountered on the walk so far. The great thing is river health wise, things are still great and the water is still pleasant to drink according to the locals. I made a habit of chatting with the farm workers and asking where we were and how everything was going. I then saw a strange bird which the worker said was called an ‘Intshe’ and was told it laid ‘amaqanda aluhlaza’ (blue/green eggs) so that was suprising though I don’t think I’d like to eat any. We walked 12.8 km today through the most beautiful scenery of the Dargle arriving at the home of Gavin and Kathryn Coulson, our hosts for the night. The team would like to thank them for the lovely dinner and gracious hospitality. We were sad when we heard that we had missed the fresh scones that Lucinda Bate had baked for us, but pleased to hear she went down to the Dargle Market and sold them there.

Day 8: Today we walked 13km from the Coulson property to Midmar Dam, arriving at about 5pm. Total to date is about 90 km. The first highlight today was crossing the river on a homemade pont to the King’s property.

Since the first couple of days, the walking has been relatively easy, as we are into general farm land.

Andrew Anderson sat on the bank of the uMngeni river waiting for us. Chris Slater, of Croft Farm (who donated lots of chickens to keep us well fed) was scanning the valley when we crossed a well maintained pasture at the bottom of Ralph Correia’s property. After a lively greeting from Vico (Andrew’s dog) we fell in step for about 3kms from the King/Correia boundary to Lane’s End property passing the Slaters, Robartes, Hebron Haven Hotel and the Taylors. Along the way Andrew pointed out where, in the old days, wagons crossed the uMgeni as pioneers made their way into the interior of the greater midlands.

A couple of new aliens cropped up: mulberry in a big way, stinging nettles and an as yet unidentified thorny tree. Pandora collected a few samples of alien plants to show her school kids at Midmar tomorrow. She carried a sizeable bunch on her shoulders, which created a lot of interest with a large herd (+-50 ) of Nguni cows. They obviously thought “grub was up” and followed her closely, attempting to sample the wares, for about 2km. We had to close a gate on them otherwise they would have followed us to Main St, Howick.

Some species seen today include common reedbuck, birds – fish eagle, African black duck, blacksmith plover and crowned cranes.

Onwards to the Indian Ocean!

Dargle Conservancy intends  to have Dargle uMngeni Walks along the river very soon. Watch this space.  Perhaps entirely Dargle picnics to accomany the amblers?  Of course!  Should you be keen to assist in setting these up – please contact Nikki 083 473 3074.

you are cordially invited to join the River walkers at Blau Lagoon on Sunday – see invitation below.

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