Just a half-hour from the beach, in the Durban Green Corridor that follows the Umgeni River, is a stunning wilderness playground.
Words: Andrea Abbott
Pictures: Andrea Abbott and Supplied
Valley of a Thousand Hills is an evocative name for a deeply incised valley where pleated hills and forested cliffs edge the uMgeni River that, by turn, tumbles over rapids, feeds dams and plunges down precipices on its 230 kilometre journey to the Indian Ocean. It’s a valley of dramatic natural beauty and exceptional biodiversity but, except for those who live there and the intrepid participants in the annual Dusi Canoe Marathon, relatively few people know of this splendour.
I numbered among them, my experience of the valley – which is in my backyard – limited to glimpses from the rim at view sites along Old Main Road, the route the Comrades Marathon takes. Holding me back was the impression that it’s just not safe down there. But after a couple of forays into the area, and further downstream with members of the Durban Green Corridor (DGC) project, my perception changed and I discovered how much I’d been missing.
The brainchild of Gary Cullen, project manager for tourism at eThekwini Municipality, DGC is a multifaceted initiative by the municipality in partnership with the Duzi-uMgeni Conservation Trust (Duct). An inspiring example of responsible tourism, the project seeks to conserve critical biodiversity while empowering less privileged communities along the river through skills training and the creation of employment opportunities.
“It was my love for Durban that started it,” Gary says. “We are very fortunate to have so much green space, but it’s under a lot of threat from urbanisation.” The best way to protect and conserve those vital open spaces, Gary realised, was to combine the needs of society with tourism. “Durban’s green river corridors linked with the coastline present an amazing environment for outdoor recreation, leisure and eco-tourism.”
And so, working with communities along the river, DGC offers a range of adventure, cultural and leisure activities at four centres: uMgeni Adventures at the uMgeni River estuary, also known as the Blue Lagoon; KwaDabeka some kilometres upstream; eNanda Adventures at Inanda Dam; and iSithumba Adventures, deep in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Visitors can go there unaccompanied – each centre is secure – but trained guides are available and highly recommended.
My first DGC tour is to iSithumba with Anna da Graça, DGC’s marketing and business development manager. iSithumba is a traditional Zulu village that hugs a slope rising gently from the uMgeni River. Giant rocks behind the village were the scene of deeds that gave the place its name. “iSithumba means kidnapping,” our guide, Scebi Zondi explains. The area’s first settlers lived among those rocks but village wars and the disappearance of two chaps while searching for their cows resulted in people quitting the highlands.
Walking through iSithumba today, it’s hard to imagine a time of terror. The village seems safer than our suburbs: no electric fences, high walls, or security patrols. At mid-morning, everyone seems ‘chilled’ – the shebeen is in full swing, locals gather on the stoep of Mr Mgazi’s spaza store, the spiritual healer Mr Mchunu awaits a patient, and the headman Mr Shelembe studies a notebook inside his rondavel. We weren’t there for lunch but visitors can book a traditional meal served in the home of the cook.
Aside from the cultural tour, iSithumba offers MTB and running trails along the river, and hiking into the surrounding hills. Site manager, Jeffrey Buthelezi says DGC has brought positive change. Economic spin-offs of tourism aside, there are benefits from projects such as MTB coaching and swimming lessons for children, and environmental education for local residents and schools. This is consistent with projects at other DGC sites.
My next experience is a day of birding in the company of guide, Wandile Thembu and bird fundi, Bart Fokkens, DGC’s environment manager. We start at KwaDabeka bridge, an engineering marvel spanning the uMgeni Valley and from whose heights you can watch multitudes of birds swooping below or soaring above the cliffs on the north side of the river. At once, we spot a Little Sparrowhawk, Yellow-billed Kites, Trumpeter Hornbills, and a Spurwing Goose on a cliff edge, while far below Jacanas and Black Crakes plod about on invasive water weeds that Bart is working to eradicate.
Down at the KwaDabeka site we meet the dynamic manager, Susan Dlamini. “This is a sustainable site,” she explains. “It’s about giving back to the community.” A group of happy toddlers surround her. “We run a day-care centre, and a feeding scheme and youth programme for vulnerable and orphaned children.” It’s not just about handouts. “Eco-tourism is a great platform,” Susan says, “but the other aspect is Vuku Zenzele – Do It Yourself.”
As we make our way to the MTB and walking trails along the river, we see the DIY in action: people tending a vegetable garden, a fish farm, a pig farm. Sadly, we have to pick our way through patches of litter and building rubble, the latter from the bridge project. But Susan intends to change the dumping mindset. “That’s my goal for 2015.” Having met this feisty woman, I have little doubt she’ll succeed. What a difference that will make to an already magnificent site that’s close to town yet could be miles from civilisation.
Bird sounds constantly echo, bouncing off the cliffs or from the massive bridge struts. I’m hardly aware of the traffic racing overhead. In front of me, a slender mongoose darts into the undergrowth, and a monitor lizard plunges into the river. Bart has a busy time pointing out birds and alerting us to their calls. About 100 species have been recorded so far in that area. We see about 50 in an hour. But the one we seek – the African Finfoot – stays hidden.
Next stop is eNanda Adventures at Inanda Dam. The route goes via an especially pristine section of the uMgeni corridor. We stop below the dam wall to search for the Finfoot. Bart has seen it there in the past. There are cormorants, swallows, swifts, Giant- and Pied Kingfishers and lots of other birds but no Finfoot. Bart has another appointment so has to leave us.
“Let me know if you see the Finfoot,” he calls as he drives away. It’s not long before I send him an SMS. ‘Finfoot sighted!’ It’s not a great sighting – the bird quickly vanished – but at least I glimpsed it.
At the picturesque eNanda site next to the dam, Wandile and I greet the manager, Nhlanhla Sibiya. He and several tour guides are working on a shade-cloth structure. “We’re endeavouring to make a plant nursery,” says the very jovial Mr Sibiya. This is in line with the ethos of sustainability that characterises DGC’s rural sites. Adventure activities at eNanda include canoeing (great chance to spot a Finfoot), hiking and excellent MTB trails. Cultural tours are also an option.
We have our picnic lunch – local catering is still being organised – then set off for one of the interesting attractions the area offers: the Rasta Cave above the uMzinyathi River. A precipitous path takes us down to the cave, a broad shelf protected by a massive overhang. Wandile and eNanda guide, Gabi Ngcobo, make sure I don’t break my neck. If I had, the resident Rasta at that time wouldn’t have been surprised.
Unlike others whom Gabi has dealt with at the cave, this man isn’t happy to see us. He emerges, bleary eyed, from a rock ‘hut’ and upbraids us for not wearing white garments and not removing our shoes. We’re ordered to switch off our phones and not to take photographs.
Above us, swallows wheel, their cries resonating eerily. “The highest angels on Earth,” we’re told. “They’re destroying the evil spirits you brought.” (Gosh, sorry about that). Barefoot, we take our leave. “You can take photos,” the man calls out to us. The laws are always changing.
- uMgeni Adventures at the Blue Lagoon offers guided birding, walking, running, MTB and canoeing tours along the estuary trails. Those without bicycles can hire them at the Green Hub at uMgeni, as well as at iSithumba.
- Canoes are available for hire at uMgeni and eNanda. Or you can take your own.
- MTB trails throughout DGC add up to a total of 150 kilometres but are not continuous. About 20 per cent are considered ‘technical’.
- All sites offer picnic facilities and safe parking.
- Guided tours need to be booked in advance. 031 322 6026/7, 073 088 9874; [email protected], www.durbangreencorridor.co.za