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“Potholes for the next 5km” read the signs – threading together a stretch of tar road unworthy of the name.
“Potholes for the next 5km” said the sign, followed by another and another – threading together a long stretch of tar road that could no longer realistically bear that name.
Our five vans, loaded with water heroes who had signed up for the Journey of Water, were weaving their way along the scenic back route. This was the first day of our #JourneyofWater in the grassland bordering Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. Our destination: the Mabola Protected Environment, the start point of a 16km hike to illustrate the payoff line “Water doesn’t come from a tap”.
Although bad, this road showcased some of the last stretch of unspoilt grassland and rolling hills in north-east South Africa. The day before, driving down from Johannesburg, we’d seen the opposite – miles and miles of degraded landscape covered in coal dust alongside the highway.
Before cutting the start ribbon, WWF South Africa (WWF-SA) CEO Dr Morné du Plessis described these wheat-coloured, winter grasslands as a “sleeping beauty”, dormant for now but in summer able to spring to life and do their work as an important “water engine” feeding the streams that feed our major rivers.
Each new mine would be like "death by a thousand cuts"
Before setting off we were told about the plans for a coal mine area here – a project which could leave behind long-term damage, and decayed infrastructure, like the badly damaged, potholed road we had just negotiated. Christine Colvin, senior manager of WWF-SA’s freshwater programme, explained that each new mine would be a bit like “death by a thousand cuts”.
Our guide Quintin Smith promised “only” 5km of climbing to get to the top of the hill – as it turned out he made us slog more than 450m uphill (half the height of Table Mountain) to an altitude of around 1800m!
Soon we crossed the first river – where we were told we could fill our water bottles because the water was clean enough to drink. As we started to climb we came across a homestead where some women were doing some washing in a basin and a herd of cows were grazing peacefully, chickens pecking around between their legs. Two dogs from the homestead decided to go on their own #JourneyofWater with us, presumably lured on by the biltong snacks in our packs.
Hard to believe this pristine view might be lost forever
Around about now, Quintin (who was in a moonboot and not able to do the walk himself) radio called to explain the route – and we spotted a couple of figures far above us on top of the hill. Huffing and puffing, and collectively cursing him, we slowly made our way to the summit where we could gaze out over miles and miles of grass covered mountains.
There was a real sense of achievement as everyone flopped down for a rest in the shade of Quintin’s vehicle. Hard to believe that this pristine view might be lost forever! This was soon underscored when we came across some curious cylindrical stone-like objects – and were informed by Angus Burns, senior manager of WWF-SA’s land and biodiversity programme, that these were remnants of old prospecting activities.
As the group strung out, small conversations sprang up between fellow walkers – here one about favourite hip-hop artists, there about children and the joys of camping, and deeper ruminations about the “meaning of life”.
Legs were wobbly and shoes soggy (we had forged a few wetlands and rock-hopped some streams) when the welcome view of a picnic gazebo hove into view. The spot overlooked what must be one of the prettiest, unspoilt waterfalls on the Mabola River. Sheer cliffs, clad with beautiful indigenous forest, flanked the river where waterfall flowed freely into a deep pool below.
In theory we had another 6km to go, but what with all the chit-chat and breaks to catch our breath, the day had worn on, and the sun was shifting towards the horizon.
So Quintin made the call to ferry us all back to a main road for a rendezvous with the vans – leaving just enough time for the stalwarts to walk a few last kilometres in the golden grasslands.
Happily, everyone had made it without mishap: young and old, fit and not-so-fit, and it was with no small sense of pride that we hopped aboard our transport back to the Natal Spa. Tomorrow more stories about the journey of water and the Bivane Dam!