One recent Saturday morning we decided to go cycling ̶ hardly a thing to write home about except for the fact that our 30-year-old bikes hadn’t seen the light of day for more than two decades. You know how it is. Dangerous roads, busy lives, too hot/cold/windy/wet, and the truth – just plain lazy. Anyway, I’d heard about the ten-kilometre mountain-bike trail in the Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve (KSNR) in Yellowwood Park to the south of Durban.
Described as a ‘moderately challenging but not exhausting’ trail, it sounded just about doable, even for infrequent cyclists like us. Add the likelihood of pedalling past resident wildlife such as zebras, and it promised to be a nice day out. So we packed a picnic, pumped up the tyres of our vintage bicycles, loaded them onto the back of Farrokh (our Landy) and set forth.
Proclaimed a nature reserve in 1963, KSNR is one of the lesser-known of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s reserves, yet is arguably among the most important, as it’s an oasis in a region transformed by urbanisation and industry (like the huge factory not far away). That this 250-hectare haven of biodiversity was spared such ‘progress’ is thanks to the farsightedness of the late Mr Kenneth Stainbank, who donated the land on condition it remained a nature reserve.
Further emphasising the nature reserve’s importance is that its part of the extensive Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D’MOSS) that comprises areas of high-biodiversity value in the wider eThekwini region. In the case of KSNR, the biodiversity includes southern moist coastal lowland forest and coastal belt grassland, both critically endangered vegetation types, along with a section of coastal belt thornveld. As expected, those zones provide refuge to all sorts of flora and fauna. The birdlife is particularly impressive, the list numbering around 200 species.
Entering the reserve is like being transported instantly back in time to when the entire region resembled the mosaic of forests and grasslands we found ourselves in that morning. A map at the entrance details the bike and walking trails (which occasionally overlap for a short distance) and indicates where the three picnic sites are.
We drove up to Top Picnic Site through a magical forest that echoed with birdsong, and where red duiker tripped daintily through the undergrowth. It was a nice surprise to find the site well maintained and equipped with water, benches and braai facilities. We staked our claim at a spot privately situated in a glade across the road from the other sites and got on our bikes to explore.
The trail took us across undulating grassland, where we encountered a group of five bushbuck. Normally shy animals, this lot barely batted an eyelid as we approached. It wasn’t until we were about ten metres from them that they retreated to the forest on the edge of the grassland.
Next up was a herd of zebra that had been infiltrated by a gang of impala. Again, no one seemed too perturbed at the sight of us, and the zebras even staged a crossing. How accommodating they were, sharing their space with strangers so that we didn’t feel we were intruding.
We freewheeled happily down dale and puffed our way uphill (I admit to getting off more than once to push my bike) and, just when a rest was due, we came to a path that led us to a tranquil dam, where we could have spent hours watching the to-ing and fro-ing of birds.
On a collapsed, deck-like structure in the middle of the water, cormorants rubbed shoulders with weavers taking a breather from the business of constructing or, at the behest of females, tearing down nests in the trees that overhang the wetland. From somewhere in the reeds, a Burchell’s Coucal predicted rain, but its bubbling song was upstaged when the inimitable call of a passing Fish Eagle claimed the airwaves.
We glimpsed a Black Crake duck vanish into the reeds and watched a Woolly-necked Stork poke about in the shallows to spear a frog or fish for lunch. Luckily it didn’t notice the little painted reed frog we’d seen crouching on a reed.
Back on our bikes, we cycled past another grassland, where stands of Leonotis leonurus were still putting on a grand show, even though they should have brought down the curtain some weeks before. The track merged with a road that led us to Coedmore Castle, the Stainbank reserve family home that Kenneth’s father, Dering Lee built on his farm in the late 1880s, with the help of two Scots stonemasons who used local stone quarried on site.
Dering’s daughter, Mary was a sculptor whose work is considered to have been the start of modern sculpture in South Africa. A gallery inside the castle houses her work, but we discovered only belatedly that tours must be pre-booked. However, just as we were about to pedal on, we bumped into another artist, Bhekazi Ernest Ngcobo, who works in a space inside one of the old farm buildings.
That same room, he told us, was Mary’s studio. He invited us in and showed us some of his work, such as the huge masks he’d made from strips of old tyres. Bhekazi explained that his mentor, Andries Botha, who is famous for his sculptures of elephants, uses the same material in some of his works.
Later, while strolling around the farm compound, we entered a courtyard where two life-size elephant sculptures (an adult and a calf) stopped us in our tracks. A notice pinned to the wall explained that Andries Botha, Sbu Mazibuko and Siya Madlala created the elephants out of recycled truck tyres. The adult is Nomkhubulwane – in Zulu culture, the goddess of Earth and fertility – and she is the well-travelled ambassadorial elephant of the Human Elephant Foundation, established to initiate global conversations around the critical state of our planet.
How fitting then that she and the calf, Ispethu (Zulu for a freshwater spring), stand in a nature reserve that is home also to the Wilderness Leadership School, an NPO that legendary conservationist Dr Ian Player founded in 1957 to facilitate wilderness experiences for people from all walks of life, and reconnect them to nature.
Having been on a wilderness trail in iMfolozi some years ago, we have experienced the power of the wild in resetting priorities. But at KSNR we also saw Nature’s power manifested in many ways, such as in the fig trees that are claiming abandoned farm buildings, their roots gradually constricting the bricks and mortar. With all the bad news about mankind’s impact on the planet, it’s encouraging to see Nature step in when humans step away. Also impressive are the giant indigenous trees that dominate a lawned area adjacent to the castle and must surely be over a century old too. Standing beneath them is a humbling experience.
Feeling somewhat reduced, we climbed onto our bikes and pedalled back to Farrokh, passing more hoofed friends en route. Admittedly, we hadn’t completed the full ten kilometres, but the day was hotting up, the saddles were getting harder by the minute, and our picnic called. The trail could wait. But after lunch, the mere idea of pursuing that ‘moderately challenging but not exhausting trail’ exhausted us (our vintage bikes only have three gears) so, instead, we strolled through another section of forest, encountering a hard-surfaced path that provides access for disabled people.
Later, on our way out, we drove along a road lined with the tallest of yellowwood trees whose canopies meet to create a tunnel effect. We surmised the road was probably the original driveway to the house and that, envisaging a shaded avenue, Dering Stainbank might have planted those yellowwoods. Today, those magnificent trees are more than a welcoming statement. They’re part of the vital green lung that is the Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve, a little remnant wilderness whose value in conserving biodiversity on the edges of the urban jungle is immeasurable.
Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve
060 355 7088 Open 06h00-18h00