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A group of committed conservationists recently teamed up for a six-day walk from the source of the Karkloof River to its confluence with the uMngeni in KwaZulu-Natal.
Their goal: to sample and document river health using the River Health Audit and Mini-SASS (which samples the invertebrates living in river as an indicator of water quality) with a newly customised smart device app called GeoODK, and to report on their results to the landowners in the catchment.
On day 1, locating the actual source of the river amongst a thicket of riverine vegetation was quite a challenge. But soon a trickle became a stream and the river began it’s journey. Very soon after its start the river encountered the first of many water-thirsty, alien-invasive vegetation infestations and concerning sites of severe erosion that explained a matching decline in the originally pristine water quality.
On day 2, the #KarkloofC2C team, joined by Sappi representatives, encountered the first signs of human dwellings and activity accompanied by signs of litter, use of the river for washing and small-scale dumping, which matched poorer river health scores. After this the condition of the river improved noticeably for the rest of the day through the Sappi plantations and past wide-open waterways which are being kept clear of invasive species with grassy banks and natural vegetation.
A slightly weary group of walkers set off on day 3, but they drew inspiration from pockets of ancient riverine forest with giant forest bushwillows, cabbage trees and cape chestnuts. Inspiration was followed by a hint of sadness at the sight of green algae in a slow-moving section of the Karkloof River.
The presence of dense, vast thickets of alien vegetation (including the new emerging invasive Formosa Lily), severe erosion on exposed river banks and bulldozer activity showed how much work is required in this area.
As the walkers entered the Karkloof floodplain on day 4, they reached the first farm. Here cattle became a common sight, along with their associated impacts close to watercourses. At a tar road bridge over the river, signs of illegal and irresponsible dumping of waste tar into the river appeared. It was another day of contrasts between natural beauty and the unfortunate degradation arising from human activity.
On Day 5 the walkers were delighted to be joined by Sappi's Mbuso Khambule and Mondli Goba just in time to pass through some of the SAPPI Shafton plantation areas on the Karkloof floodplain.
While pushing through sections of wetland rehabilitated by Sappi, 2 Grey Crowned Cranes flew over with their characteristic “mahem” call. In total 11 Grey Crowned Cranes and 4 Wattled Cranes had been seen on the walk, iconic species that are hallmarks of the Karkloof and why the area is well known for birding.
The next section of river above the Karkloof Falls was noticeably poorer in water quality. The riverine buffer was highly compromised due to pastures historically established very close to the river’s edge or due to high levels of invasive species. Having followed every twist and turn of the river now, the walkers felt a certain sadness at the deterioration of the river’s health.
On day 6, the team was very excited to embark on the final leg of the journey from below the Karkloof Falls to the confluence of the Karkloof with the uMngeni River, all of which traverses the Karkloof Safari Spa property, a private game reserve with restricted access.
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 Spar. Once back out of the forested boardwalk section, the valley opened up into more savannah-like vegetation with thorn trees and grassland and natural river banks which gave the river an opportunity to heal itself.
Near the confluence, a young spotted necked otter peeked its head out of the water with curiosity. This was an encouraging sign as these otters are only found in extremely clean water.
The team celebrated the end of the six-day walk with sundowners at the top of the Karkloof Falls at the Sappi picnic site with members of the Karkloof Conservancy and WWF staff. Here they made a toast and thanked all the sponsors and partners who had contributed to the project as well as 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?