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Villains, heroes – and a lot of mud

When your spirit is strong, nothing can get you down. Just ask our Water Heroes who braved rain, mud and alien invasions on the first day of the Journey of Water, writes Andrea Weiss.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
Our Water Heroes lend a helping hand to cross a river.
Taking it in

“Over there is suspect number 1,” remarks Rodney February, gesturing to a spindly tree with fine dark green leaves growing next to the Gobos River just outside Greyton in the Overberg region of the Western Cape.

We stood huddled under the bridge that leads into town as a steady rain fell around us on our first stop on the #JourneyofWater 2019. Inclement weather notwithstanding, the theme of heroes and villains had captured our imaginations.

The villains were invasive alien plants and Rodney, a member of the WWF freshwater team, was pointing at one of the most pervasive of them all - a black wattle. Also in the picture were pine trees, Port Jackson and long-leafed wattle (suspects 2, 3 and 4). All suck up valuable fresh water and destabilise the river banks.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
A group of Water Heroes pass a Port Jackson tree, one of the common alien invasive plants in this area.
Getting caught in the flow

The heroes here are all those that we will meet over the next three days, working to reverse the damage that has been done to these river systems over the years.

Earlier, the first good rain to fall in the area for three years did little to dampen the spirit of our hardy walkers. With umbrellas aloft, we set off in laughter through the leafy streets of Greyton – pausing only to take off our shoes as we negotiated our way across a strong flowing stream of the Gobos River.

After the opening walk, a short drive to Genadenal, a historic mission town nearby, brought us to the community hall. The heavy rain that had fallen overnight (some 120mm in three days we heard later) had made the access road to a community nursery inaccessible to ordinary vehicles. So instead of going to the nursery, the nursery came to us.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
Nursery staff put together a variety of the indigenous plants they cultivate.
Making the case for best business

In the middle of the hall, nursery staff had laid out a display of indigenous plants. Lumka Madolo, who is helping the nursery to become an independent small business, held aloft a fibrous root of a plant, palmiet.

“Palmiet has a special place in my heart,” she said, explaining its remarkable properties. Palmiet prevents flooding, stores water in its sponge-like roots, and releases it again in times of drought.  

The nursery, an SMME project, is working to cultivate palmiet and other plants to re-establish the natural vegetation in the damaged rivers once the alien plants are removed and in so doing creating jobs for an impoverished community.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
Logistics leader Quintin Smith helps DJ Doowap navigate a hill in the rain.
Following the muddy trail

After the demonstration, our Water Heroes saddled up on bicycles to make their way to the next stop – the Meulrivier where restoration work is already under way. It was a muddy, slick and slightly tricky ride for those with rusty cycling skills but it was all smiles as we sloshed and smashed our way through.

By the time we got to our final destination at Middelplaas, everyone was ravenous – whetted by a delicious lunch prepared from the fresh vegetables grown at the nursery.

Here we were on the banks of the Riviersonderend itself – at a restoration site which showcases what can be done when enough energy and money are put into clearing aliens and restoring river systems.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
Tutu Malinga celebrates removing an alien tree.
Getting our hands dirty

As a final exercise for the day, everyone rolled up their sleeves to do a bit of follow-up weeding, pulling out alien saplings that were beginning to grow on the banks amid cheers whenever a large specimen was pulled out.

Before heading to the rest stop of the first day, our Water Heroes gathered on the banks of the river, waving the uprooted alien plants and singing a traditional wedding song – “Ntab’ezikude” (which means “Far away mountains”). Actress Pearl Thusi, who was the leader of the song, said the surrounding mountains and being in nature had brought it to mind.

© WWF South Africa/Rob Tarr
The Meulrivier is an example of a river under restoration.

Tomorrow’s adventure will bring us even closer to the river – on canoes.

Andrea Weiss Photo
Andrea Weiss, Media Manager

Andrea is a former journalist and travel editor and now a media manager with WWF who wants to save the planet. Don’t we all?

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