There are two river valleys I know in Trout country that cause me despair. There are two others that give me hope.
Let’s get the despair out of the way.
If you have ever driven up the lower Pitseng pass from the turnoff outside Mt Fletcher, up to Vrederus on the plateau below Naude’s Neck Pass , you may have noticed the stream running parallel to the road for a long way. Perhaps you did not. You could be forgiven for not noticing it, because if truth be told, you seldom see it. It is completely inundated with wattle trees. That stream is the “Luzi”, a Trout stream of not insignificant flow, which takes it’s size from the Bradgate Stream and the Swith that flow down from Naude’s.
Looking down the Swith….wattle trees barely visible downriver on the main river
From just below the confluence of the Swith and the Bradgate, just across from Vrederus, the wattle infestation begins. From there it persists for about twenty kilometers. Yes, you heard right 20! Twenty ‘kays’ of remote stream in a steep river valley, inaccessible and supposedly untouched. Twenty kilometers that could be a special, barely fished trout stream that could easily have supported a “trout fisherman’s lodge”, one can dream. But it is a disaster, and seemingly an insurmountable one.
Similarly remote and infected is the Inzinga here in KZN. As you drive through from Notties to Lotheni you cross first its two tributaries the Kwamanzinyama and the Rooidraai, and then the river itself. The main river is shrouded by life sapping wattles, well into the mountains above the road, and a look across the drainage basins of the kwamanzinyama and Rooidraai reveals the same. It then goes through a relatively clear patch below the water fall. More dire is the stretch out of sight below that in a steep sided gorge were the aforementioned streams join the Inzinga. This problem is far from the view of any passer-by, and beyond the reach of any vehicle like a TLB or tractor that might prove essential in a clean-up job.
Looking up the wattle infested Inzinga valley, the Kwamanzinyama coming in from the right in the distance
The infestation continuing downstream…..
In all honesty a clean up job on the aforementioned streams would be of a magnitude that renders it impossible. I am trying not to be negative, but one has to be realistic. It doesn’t help that neither stream is upheld as a revered destination for fly-fishermen or anyone else for that matter. There really isn’t anyone who cares enough about these two, to even contemplate a clean-up on either. The human race has abandoned these once beautiful streams.
“A world of wounds” said Aldo Leopold…. Despair!
Onto brighter things:
The upper Mooi river once had a severe wattle infestation. The invaders had crept up onto private land within the Kamberg reserve. When that land was expropriated in the late eighties/early nineties, it was ostensibly to incorporate it into the greater park, and commence with the restoration of the landscape. (It so happens that my first job after the army was for a small company that was called upon to contest the valuation used by the state in the expropriation, and I therefore had occasion to visit the property , having previously done so as a school-child as early as 1983. I use the word “ostensibly” because looking back at my fishing photos to as recently as 2005, the area was still in a poor state.
Wattle infestation, Game Pass 2005.
Somehow, however, they got it right. Walking through there now, to go fishing, you wouldn’t know what it used to look like, or have any clue of the transformation, unless you happen to know your veld grasses. The landscape is restored!
Further downstream, farmers have worked to clear wattle of their own volition, and apart from one severe infestation of just over a kilometre of river bank, things are largely under control. The Mooi River is revered as a fly-fishing destination, and it is highly unlikely that it will be lost forever to a severe wattle infestation. As I write, the fishing club I belong to is mustering its resources to go and do routine wattle removal on the Mooi, before it gets out of control. The efforts of the fishermen are not in isolation. One farmer, who owns large tracts of land in the valley, has done an enormous amount of work to clear wattle across many square kilometers in the catchment. He has done this without threat of fine, or for a state subsidy, or any such thing. I don’t know him, but one of these days I am going to stop in there, shake his hand, give him a bottle of whiskey and thank him from the bottom of my heart.
A man whose hand I have shaken in thanks for similar work is Don McHardy. I still need to get him that whiskey! Don should be recognised as a hero. He owns a farm in the Dargle in the Umgeni River catchment, where for the last 6 years he has employed a dozed full time employees to remove alien plants. Gums, wattles brambles, and bug weed. I initially met Don on the roadside, when I stopped to introduce myself and thank him for work he was doing on the bank of the river opposite Chestnuts. It turns out it is not his property, but that he was clearing it for his neighbour…..seemingly as some sort of pro bono favour. Last week I went and had coffee with Don and had occasion to traverse his farm to get to the farmhouse. Wow! Just “Wow”! Hectare upon hectare of pasture and grassland, with the only evidence that it was once infested with scrub is the blackened tree stumps. Clear streams run strong through areas of thick grass cover. Don’s favour to 6 million inhabitants of the catchment lower down, is so far unrecognised.
Don and I discussed re-grassing and burning and spraying, and he divulged valuable information that will help the WWF work being done upstream of him on the Furth and the Poort…..two major tributaries of the Umgeni.
WWF work along the banks of the Furth stream pictured here on the 25th August 2017.
It will also be helpful to the Natal Fly Fishers Club work on the main river, which enters its second phase (#BRU2).
The Umgeni and the Mooi have already been variously transformed, and maintained, and they have strong advocates that will see that it continues.
Ok “Bru”, here’s the deal. I really don’t know why, but when it comes to the upper Umgeni River as a Trout stream, I am a bit obsessed.
I am obsessed with getting it back to, or maintaining it at, its former glory as a premium Trout stream. I have had this obsession since I was a varsity student. I conducted a sort of study of, and evaluation of the Umgeni as a prime fly fishing stream, when I was conscripted in the army. I visited farmers, asked them about their view of the river as a “trout asset”, photographed it, and wrote some or other report under my blankets at night in an army bungalow in far off Potchefstroom. In 1996, on a long car drive to a fly-fishing festival in Somerset East with Jack Blackman, Jim Read and others, I remember boring them all with my dream of the Umgeni as a well organised, conserved and revered fly fishers destination.
In years gone by I have put landowners and fishing clubs in touch, and put conservationists in touch with conservation minded farmers along the banks.
I am still not letting up.
Last year the Natal Fly Fishers club organised two work parties clearing wattle and bramble from river banks. Trout SA made a short video clip. Also, over the last year or two the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) has been working in the catchment to reduce the number of water sapping wattles. It seemed to make sense to get alongside that initiative while there is groundswell. Then at the same time Penny Rees and her DUCT team did “River Walks” blog about their walk from the source to the sea.
Penny has since walked most of the major tributaries of the Umgeni and journalled of her experiences on the blog. Like me, she is passionate about restoring this important river, her for her reasons, and I for mine.
This Saturday the NFFC is holding its third cleanup day. This time the club has thrown some serious resources at the task, hiring in a crew of professional tree-fellers, and with the landowner on board with tractors and staff. Here is a short clip on that: Video.
I have used the opportunity to create a hashtag (do you launch one, or create it……I don’t know. Maybe you hash it!)
Blue Ribbon Umgeni
What is it all about? It is about recognising and valuing the upper Umgeni River as a trout fishery. In this way we hold it up as something that has value. People look after the things that they value. So my “shout-out” is to fellow flyfishers here in the midlands of KZN to go and fish the Umgeni, catch its stippled beauties, photograph them, and tell people about it. Attend the NFFC work-party on Saturday 12th September, or the one on the 17th October, or next year’s ones.
While the internet has rightly been accused of ruining good fishing spots, I am going out on a limb here and guessing that there are few enough river fishermen in South Africa, that those we do have, practice catch and release, and that sharing my favourite fishing spot with them will do a LOT more good than harm.
So #BRU is also an invitation:
Come and fish the Umgeni with me bru!
I am also going to ask you for some money soon. Money towards wattle removal. But you will get something in return. More on that in coming weeks.
Some days will always be slow ones. There will be those days where a long week will catch up with you, and instead of heading out at 5 am, you will put your alarm on snooze, get up at 6:30, and have a decent breakfast, complete with a cappuccino. Driven as one might want to be to get out on the water, sometimes fishing days will turn out that way. The rigors of a business week will catch up with you, and your body will rebel and tell you to “chill”.
On Sunday, I obeyed. Egg, bacon, beans, toast, ended off with a good coffee and a resigned but satisfied sigh. The river would have to wait.
When we did get up to the Umgeni, it was off colour. We paused at the bridge where the tar road ends and inspected it. Unlike the slate grey of a mountain stream in spate, we got cheap weak instant coffee colour. As always, there was hope that further up it would be better.
Arriving on the farm we met Russell. “It was crystal clean yesterday” he said. There had been a storm. He didn’t get it, It happened up there. He gesticulated in the direction of the source.
We went down to the river anyway. We crawled under the electric fence and went down to the water’s edge. It was still cheap coffee coloured. Damn!
I always peer into dirty water, normally along a protruding stick or log, to try to get a sense of how far into the water I can see, and therefore what the visibility will be for the trout. This time the dark shades of a wet branch disappeared within a few centimetres. Not good. Often the Umgeni appears a little ginger beer like, but this was nothing like that. I always wonder how much muddy water a Brown Trout can tolerate through its gills in a season. There must be a red line somewhere.
We strolled down the river, looking into each pool as though we expected, against all odds, to suddenly find a clean one.
I pointed out the log jams of wattles, and explained how these and other alien trees were the major contributors to the water colour we were seeing. Not only do wattles (Acacia mearnsii) contribute tannins, which give the Umgeni its yellowy brown hue on the best days (see What makes rivers different colours), but on the worst ones like today, it is the clearfells and Allelopathy that give rise to erosion. Years of apathy have lead to widespread patches of wattle, and they are especially prevalent on the farms of absentee landlords, and in road reserves. They also predominate on farms where licensed commercial timber is grown, but where there has been scant effort to contain plantations within the approved plantation blocks. The farm opposite us that morning is one managed by a corporate poultry concern. Their lack of veld burning and the absence of cattle to devour small wattles has lead to a wasteland of weeds and increaser species (the precursors to afforestation which are associated with poor basal cover).
We walked back to the car, and drove up river, stopping at another spot higher up.
I pointed out a recent clear-fell on the hillside in the distance. The commercial timber plantation there had been felled. It is a very steep slope, and it could be argued that no timber should ever have been allowed to be planted there. But the deed is done, and now we should be looking at how to minimize the damage. When last I was up there in the clear-fell last year, I noticed that the timber trash had been laid in windrows lying straight up and down the hill. An opportunity to use that trash as a soil holding device, by laying it along the contours, had been missed. I shudder to think how many tons of topsoil this caused to wash into the Umgeni river!
The section of river we were looking at there within sight of the clear-fell was dirty too. No surprises there. The banks at that point are planted to pasture. The pasture land extends too close to the river bank, if one is to follow the law to the letter, but one has to be pragmatic about these things. The cows grazing in the field near us have devoured any small wattles. The ground is also secured by a mass of grass roots that bind it all together, and there is no sign of erosion on this well farmed commercial enterprise.
Driving further up the river we passed onto the tenement above. While it is now owned by the same farmer, its history is different. Maybe no cattle were around to eat the emerging wattles many years ago. Maybe a fenceline kept the cows from the river bank, which on the face of it is a good thing. I do know that this piece of land was not owned by a man whose elderly father was a fly-fisherman. On the farm below, where we had just been, this was the case. Derek used to run a tractor down near the river with a mower, so that his ageing dad would be able to fish it in the late summer without undue effort. Twenty years later, it shows! The farm below is relatively clear of wattle. The one we were looking at now has a ribbon of big wattles running up the river banks. They are big trees now. In my estimation the cost to remove them would run to about….let’s see: A conservative estimate: R500,000 ($50,000). That would be to remove them properly: cut, pull from the river, stack, burn, and do some follow up management. On second thoughts, my figure is way too low, and that is just for a few kms of river. There are many more kms above this farm with the same problem.
My mood turned. I became dejected. It was not because I was not getting to fish on Sunday. Sure, that was a pity, but it was bigger than that. It was about our apparent collective apathy in handling this conservation problem. The same type of apathy that had me ignore my 5 am alarm clock, is the very thing that is at play here.
In recent years I have witnessed wattle infestation high up berg rivers, and in other places, where no one has noticed, and no one is doing anything about it. In many places those trees are already large and the job of removing them seems insurmountable. In other places the trees are still small, but no one has noticed. The passage of time alone will surely multiply the extent of the problem to something beyond our grasp.
On the way out I witnessed freshly felled wattles along side streams, where a WWF initiative is underway. At other spots I saw an absolute mess where a contractor appears to have pillaged the useful timber and done a runner with the money, without finishing the tidy up job he was employed to do. It was an emotional see-saw in which I tried desperately to interpret the mixed results as an overall win. I am unsure if we are going backwards or forwards in this river valley at present.
We stopped for a beer and a pizza at il-Postino to cheer us up.
It worked. It was a relaxed Sunday, and it was pleasant to sit on the porch of what was our local trading store in my childhood. From there we pulled in at Steam Punk, a simply superb coffee shop in the most obscure of places, where I had a “Coppucino” ( a cappuccino made the Syrian way, with Cardamom, just the way I like it).
It is easy to just enjoy the beer and the coffee and forget about it all.