Into the valley
Once, it would have been unthinkable in South Africa: a white woman and two black men strolling, companionably, along the banks of a river. Equally preposterous would have been that the woman was not on home turf but had ventured into the no-go zone of a ‘black township.’ Attitudes, though, have softened since those bad old days of separateness. And so no one gawks judgmentally at the three of us as we explore a section of the deeply-incised, evocatively named Valley of a Thousand Hills, a place where pleated hills and forested cliffs edge the important uMngeni River that tumbles over rapids, plunges down precipices, and feeds dams on its 230 km journey from source to sea. Still largely a Zulu domain for much of its length, the uMngeni Valley is practically on my back doorstep but, until recently, I’d only glimpsed its splendour from the safe confines of view sites at the edge.
My companions are Wandile Thembu, a qualified nature guide and Cyprian Ntuli, the leader of a team tasked with clearing invasive alien plants hell-bent on swamping the valley. We share a common goal - to find the elusive African Finfoot, a handsome aquatic bird that’s been spotted on rare occasions within this peaceful area just a short hop from the buzz of a major metropolis. But I’m also on a bigger mission and that’s to experience aspects of that metropolis - my home town Durban - that in December 2014 was named one of the world’s New 7Wonders Cities.
Challenges of urbanization
According to its website, the New7Wonders Cities campaign seeks to ‘encourage debate about how cities should respond to present and future challenges.’ To my mind, that’s a vital discussion in a time of massive urbanization. More than half the world’s population lives in urban areas and the figure is rising. The trend is most marked in developing countries where people set up home in informal settlements often lacking in fundamental facilities like sanitation and potable water. Such dire circumstances must inevitably trigger a host of social and environmental ills.
The burden then is on city planners to devise strategies to ensure that urban development is sustainable. It’s an imperative echoed in one of the criteria for participants in the 7Wonders Cities campaign: Cities with current strengths and/or potential for sustainable growth, in terms of cultural, environmental, economic and tourism potential.
Losing the plot
Durban is a rapidly growing city on the east coast of South Africa. It’s the busiest container port on the continent, and a year-round holiday destination thanks to its balmy climate, sandy beaches, and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Not commonly known though is that the city is in the middle of the Maputoland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot, one of 35 such Biodiversity Hotspots that conservationists have identified in tropical and temperate regions around the world. Home to extraordinarily high numbers of plant and animal species but losing habitat at a shocking rate, biodiversity hotspots are considered ‘the last of nature’s treasuries.’ As one source puts it, ‘the most remarkable places on Earth are also the most threatened.’ Threatened, that is, by the ever-increasing footprint of humans who, but for those treasuries that supply free ecological goods and services like clean air and water, could not survive. You could say we humans have lost the plot.
How to return to the plot is a topic in line with the 7Wonders Cities ethos. It could also be the sub-theme of a bold new venture within the greater Durban region. The Durban Green Corridor (DGC) project is a model of responsible tourism in that it partners with local communities in ways that enhance their living standards while also fostering environmental awareness through education and river clean-up programmes.
DGC was the brainchild of Gary Cullen, Project Manager within the city’s tourism development department. “We have so much green space and important biodiversity here, but urbanisation threatens it all.” Gary realised that Durban’s green river corridors, linked with the Indian Ocean coastline provide an extraordinary environment for outdoor recreation. “I wanted to bring these elements together by promoting nature based tourism as a means for conservation and economic opportunity to benefit less privileged neighbouring communities.”
Today, with the support of the Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust (DUCT), an NGO that champions the health of the uMngeni River and whose motto is Healthy Rivers = Healthy People, Gary’s vision is a reality. Four sites alongside the stretch of the river within the municipal boundaries offer adventure, leisure, and cultural activities. The sites are separately located and all are staffed by people from the surrounding communities. Amenities vary depending on the location. For instance, canoeing, cycling, and bird watching are the main activities at the Blue Lagoon estuary where the uMngeni meets the sea within sight of the city skyscrapers.
It is within this context that I am in that valley, searching for the Finfoot with Wandile and Cyprian. Our quest begins at the DGC’s KwaDabeka site. Here, a built environment comprising thousands of low cost houses and informal dwellings seems intent on spreading to the erstwhile waterworks site that the DGC project occupies. It’s early morning, the work day just beginning. The township pulsates. Pedestrians, taxis, buses, dogs, goats, chickens vie for space. So much life; so much pressure on the remaining open space along the river. And in the lushness of that green corridor exists another world: an unspoilt wilderness that, too, pulsates with life. But this is life more delicately in harmony with the nature that sustains it. Constant birdsong forms a musical background in syncopation with the rustlings of terrestrial creatures like the mongooses we glimpse darting into the undergrowth. Swooping past cliffs, great raptors, among them Africa’s most powerful eagle, the African Crowned Eagle, demonstrate flight skills that mankind can never hope to emulate. Apex species, they’re indicators of the ecological health the DGC project aims to conserve.
We meet site manager, Susan Dlamini. “This is a sustainable site,” she says. A gang of energetic toddlers surrounds her, some tugging affectionately at her arms. “It’s about giving back to the community. We run a day-care centre, and a feeding scheme and youth programme for vulnerable and orphaned children.” Perhaps this appears as yet another instance of hand-outs; of the begging bowl scenario so often associated with Africa. Susan pre-empts any such comments. “The eco-tourism aspect of DGC is a great platform but we also emphasise vuku zenzele.” That’s Zulu for ’do it yourself.’
An ugly scar
On our way to the walking and biking trails that edge the river, we see vuku zenzele in action: people busily tending vegetable gardens, a fish farm, a pig farm. Hugely disappointing are heaps of garbage that mar the pastoral scene. In parts it resembles a DIY landfill site and is an ugly scar that mocks notions of sustainability and environmental awareness.
Wanton dumping is the scourge of South Africa and many other countries, and is another manifestation of humanity losing the plot. With vast amounts of rubbish entering rivers, the world’s oceans end up bearing the brunt of this uniquely human trait. There are frequent reports, for example, of floating islands of plastic trash that threaten marine life such as pelagic birds and turtles that either ingest or are entangled in the toxic waste.
Environmental agencies are in a constant battle to keep rivers clear of rubbish. DUCT, for instance, has erected a trash boom to catch solid waste in a major tributary of the uMngeni river. But this is fire-fighting at best. Simply put, people must act responsibly. Susan agrees. “My goal for 2015 is to change the dumping mind-set in this community.” She speaks with a gusto that encourages me as we continue up the valley, in search of the shy finfoot.
Finding the finfoot
Our hunt takes us to an area of outstanding natural beauty below the wall of the Inanda Dam that supplies water to thousands of Durbanites, me included. Humble, brightly-coloured dwellings festoon the valley slopes but Nature has drawn a line and all development stops where the land abruptly rises to become vertical walls of rock. I feel somewhat at home here, and indeed I am for my suburb is beyond the escarpment to the south, and within the same river system.
A myriad of birds make a good living here. We see swifts and swallows, darters, ducks and geese, LBJ’s and raptors, several Kingfisher species. I focus on a movement in the reeds on the far side. A red beak… finfoot! We three are jubilant. A pity there’s no champagne.
Place of kidnapping
My next visit is to the most outlying site at iSithumba, a traditional Zulu village alongside a boulder-strewn section of the river. iSithumba means ‘kidnapping.’ My guide, Scebi Zondi points to giant granite rocks looming high over the village. “The first settlers lived up there. Village wars and the disappearance of two herdsmen made the people flee the highlands and settle near the river.”
Today, it’s hard to imagine a time of terror there. Doors stand open, children play in the street, the shebeen (pub) is in full swing. Locals gossip outside Mr Mgazi’s spaza store and next door, the spiritual healer, Mr Mchunu prepares for his first patient of the day. Entering the hut of the headman, Mr Shelembe, we observe strict protocol - women sit on the floor to the left of the door; men on stools to the right. It’s to protect the women from intruders, I’m told. The headman represents the Chief and the community defers to him in all cultural matters. At iSithumba, I find a world far removed from my own.
The highest angels on Earth
My last journey into the Valley is to DGC’s eNanda Adventures at Inanda Dam. I arrive to find the jovial manager, Nhlanhla Sibiya and his team making a shade-cloth structure. “We’re endeavouring to build an indigenous plant nursery,” he says. In a portable pool, young children are learning to swim. A group of MTB cyclists returns from a gruelling ride through the hills. Their guide, Gabi Ngcobo discovered a passion for the sport when he was employed to build the trails. Sponsors enabled him to go for training and today, he has high hopes of winning a championship race. Gabi offers to take me to one of the area’s attractions: the Rasta Cave. I’m interested. Except for the associations with Bob Marley and ganja (‘dagga’ in South Africa), Rastafarianism is a mystery to me.
We pick our way down a precipitous cliff path to an expansive ledge high above the uMzinyathi River, another tributary of the uMngeni. As we approach, a man and woman and two toddlers look at us in stony silence. I try to break the ice, remarking on the view. No one responds. And then, from a rock ‘hut’, a white-robed figure emerges. He makes sweeping gestures as if to brush Gabi and me away and berates us for not wearing white. We’re ordered to switch off our phones, remove our shoes, not to take photographs. Swallows wheel above us, their cries bouncing off the walls. “The highest angels on Earth,” the priest says. “They’re destroying the evil you brought.”
We apologise and make our barefooted retreat. Gabi is perplexed. “I’ve never met him. Others have always welcomed us. They’ve never expected us to know Rasta traditions.”
We pause to look once more at the stupendous view. “I never realised what a special place I live in,” Gabi remarks. “And I didn’t care about the natural environment. DGC has changed all that for me.”
Later, his words return to me. I think of the motto of the New 7Wonders Cities campaign: “Our heritage is our future!” My travels in a once out-of-bounds green corridor have exposed me to heritages far removed from my own. But there’s one that’s common to us all: our natural heritage. We are, in a way, all part of the same river system. Without it, we have no future.
The six other finalists in the New 7Wonders Cities campaign are: Beirut, Doha, Havana, Kuala Lumpur, La Paz, and Vigan.
For more information on Biodiversity Hotspots go to:
Photograph: Courtesy Durban Green Corridor