Progress through my 59 Walks is steady, despite small challenges imposed by lockdown and distancing. Of course, they are all out of doors, groups are small and often, masks are worn anyway. This post features walks 41 to 49. If you missed them, you can enjoy the first 19, or the next 20 up to 39 by clicking the links. Curious about the whole idea? Then Walking will explain.
The final countdown to 59 will end with a flourish in late June on my 60th birthday. With just ten more to go, I am getting picky. My list of possible wonderful walks is still so long!
Walk 41 Wylie Park
I haven’t visited Wylie Park for years and years. In 1954, the 8-hectare garden was bequeathed to the City of Pietermaritzburg by Gertrude Wylie. As children, we often used to visit to run on the lawns and admire the azaleas. Nowadays, it is maintained by volunteers – Friends of Wylie Park – and is still a lovely place to stroll or picnic. Apparently, it has got incredibly popular since lockdown and now is teeming with happy picnickers over weekends. This morning, I spent some time showing neighbourhood residents what delicious weeds were growing there (favourites – broadleaf plantain, slender celery and pepper weed) and afterwards explored the grasslands above the park.
As expected, the area on the rim of the park is pretty invaded with lantana and other nasties, but there is a good remnant of grassland, which with better management, could be just as lovely as the Worlds View grasslands a bit higher up. I had intended to follow the old Voortrekker trail up to Worlds View, but it was very wet and misty, so there would definitely not be a ‘view’ of any description. If you are hot in the city, this green oasis is a treasure and links to the Linwood trail as well as Worlds View, so you could spend all day exploring.
Walk 30 revisited
I have counted a walk in Cumberland before, so won’t count this one again, but as it was special, it is worth recording.
Rocks of Cumberland
Rocks are the foundation of the landscape. Everything (flora and fauna) is affected by the underlying rock. At Cumberland Nature Reserve outside of Pietermaritzburg, three different rock layers are evident, making this an interesting and biodiverse Reserve. Our fabulous guide, John Roff, explained the various rock layers found in Southern Africa – granite (and Nice granite), sandstone, glacial tillite, dolerite (mostly intrusions), shale – describing how they were formed, and what to look out for if you are a fan of rocks. Besides observing what was under our feet, I was pleased to come across some plants that I didn’t know well – like the Secamone filiformis creeping through a Strycnos gerrardii (we got to taste the delicious monkey orange fruit – a first for me), Haemanthus deformis and Tenaris rubella. 737 plant species have been documented in this area. Other delights were the Rock Cape Ash on the cliff edges, a beautifully constructed Palystes nest, two tiny, just born impala and a single Tulbaghia acutiloba. As we left, we heard bullfrogs along a stream, a hoopoe and hornbill flew overhead and spotted some large Cyrtanthus obliquus flowering on the hill. John hosts a fascinating array of exploratory wanders at Cumberland which are well worth joining. One can then spend the rest of the day picnicking in the shade, birdwatching or walking on your own.
Cumberland is part of the Central Umngeni Protected Area, which is 3 318 hectares in extent and an absolute treasure. I have written about Cumberland here.
Walk 42 Minerva Nature Reserve
When a friend offered me her off-grid cabin beside the forest to stay in while I explored the Minerva Nature Reserve in Byrne Valley, I didn’t hesitate. This huge patch of mist belt forest clings to the southern slopes of a grassland plateau. The paths are clearly not well used, and the forest has a particularly primal feel with tangled undergrowth, fallen trees and a thick canopy. All my favourite forest creatures were here in abundance – samango monkeys, tree hyrax (they screeched for half the night!), turacos, spotted eagle owls, songololos and buff spotted flufftails.
The top of the plateau is shrouded in mist for much of the time, tendrils tumbling down to collide with mist rising from the green valley below – absolutely beautiful to watch. The nights were completely dark, with just a sliver of old moon sinking in the west, with thunder and wind shaking up the forest.
Finding lots of Gerbera aurantiaca (Hilton daisy) in the grassland was particularly special as I have never seen one before. They literally glowed in the post-storm light. There were all the usual November flowers in bloom. Blue cranes flew overhead calling, butterflies and bees and beetles were very busy amongst the blooms and I was in heaven.
Walk 43 uMhlanga Nature Reserve
The place of reeds. On the edge of the uMhlanga hustle, is a 26-hectare oasis of verdant calm. Swallows feasting above the bulrushes, weaver birds carefully threading strips of grass, monkeys eating Natal Mahogany fruit, a Goliath heron stalking across the mud and uFukwe calling insistently. Our delightful guide, Bongani Dlamini, shared such interesting information about this area which he is passionate about, that although one can visit the area without a guide, I would highly recommend engaging him if you do visit. This area is one of only 10 protected estuaries out of the 74 river estuaries in KZN, with over 300 recorded bird species and many endangered trees.
We encountered the Lagoon Hibiscus, with heart-shaped leaves and beautiful big flowers (starting yellow and turning apricot as they age). Bongani has observed that monkeys eat the calyx of the flower. Many of the trees appeared to be lying down. Growing in a sand dune is not easy, so sprawling is obviously an adaption to the challenges of the biome. Sitting in the embrace of a much-branched Ziziphus mucronata, Bongani explained how traditionally Chiefs are buried under or near these trees. umlahlankosi (Buffalo thorn|) is well known as the tree whose branches are used to gather the spirits of dead people and take them home to rest. However, not any tree will do, ideally the branch should be taken from a tree that the deceased has known and spent time near – breathing in the essence of the tree, connecting on a spiritual and cellular level. We loved Bongani’s vivid descriptions and first-hand experience from his rural childhood.
We knocked on the hard, dense Thorny Elm that is used for knobkerries and termite resistant fence posts, bent the pliable Natal Hickory (Cavacoa aurea) favoured for fighting sticks, gasped at the huge thorns on Dalbergia alata (Mhluhluwe vine) which Shaka reputedly made his warriors walk on the prepare for battle . Bongani is particularly fond of an old Celtis africana tree, which he beleives is the oldest tree in this forest patch. Traditionally, these trees were used as signboards as scratches on their bark last a long time. If someone walking to fetch water spotted a leopard, for example, they would leave a sign for the next passer-by to be cautious.
A boardwalk crosses the tidal lagoon of the oHlanga River (it should be uHlanga – a single reed – in Bongani’s opinion) into the pioneering dune scrub. The frontal dune acts as a barrier protecting inland areas – retaining sand on the beach by both trapping sand blown up from the beach and returning sand to the beach in times of erosion. We could have sat under milkwoods all day entranced by the stories.
Bongani travels each day to uMhlanga from KwaMashu and, while everyone else in the taxi is complaining about going to work, he gives thanks that he is heading to this forest sanctuary. Keen to explore the dune forests of uMhlanga and Hawaan? Bongani is your man. See Facebook or call 068 084 0811
Walk 44 Dolphin Coast
I haven’t been anywhere near the North Coast for years, so a few days exploring the overgrown paths through dense foliage, the beaches, and the farm roads was a treat. Walk 44 is a compilation of all these wanderings.
We stayed in Mount Moreland, famous for the annual barn swallow migration, so it was easy to walk down to Froggy Pond (where the rare Pickersgill Reed Frog occurs) or to Lake Victoria to watch thousands of birds swooping in the sky, eating insects, before dusk. They roost in Phragmites australis, common river reeds, that occur in these wetlands. Estimates run into millions of birds – who arrive from Europe in Spring and stay in the area until April when they set off again on their 12 000 km flight. This is a remarkable natural wonder to witness. Make a plan to visit this summer.
There are vervet monkeys everywhere – on the roads through the cane fields (also everywhere), in gardens, shopping centres, orchards, apartment blocks and in the patches of forest. The rampant development in the area has certainly squeezed their habitat, forcing residents to adapt to monkey-proof veggie gardens and keeping windows and doors closed. It appeared that most humans were co-existing peacefully.
We walked along numerous beaches and particularly enjoyed Umdloti and Sheffield Beach. While there are busy bits (like at Salt Rock and Ballito), most of the area is quiet with craggy cliffs looming over the beach and feels pretty wild. There are lots of tidal pools built into the rocks offering fabulous, sheltered spots to cool off in. Cafes and Bars pop up regularly, so quenching one’s thirst is easy too. I did find it disconcerting that vast stretches of beach appear to have very limited access for anyone who is not staying in one of the grand houses on the dunes – so in essence, the landowners have created private beaches of what should be a common resource.
The textures of the rocks were intriguing, and greatly varied. Not much life was evident in rockpools. Lovely to see African Black Oystercatchers foraging in the intertidal zone. These birds have powerful neck muscles and a chisel-shaped bill that is adapted to get between the partly open valves of mussels and scissor the flesh out.
There is lots of evidence of rough seas, with parts of boardwalks washed away, or damaged. One wonders when people will realise the importance of the dunes in protecting the hinterland from wild seas and sand encroachment, rather than all trying to be ‘in front’.
Dunes play an important role in creating and maintaining a stable shoreline. Without them, there is no protection from salt‐laden winds, wind‐blown sand, and high seas. Conversion of natural ecosystems to human‐dominated ecosystems (as homeowners have done here), means biodiversity is lost, ecosystem services are degraded and poverty for other groups of people is exacerbated. As climate change progresses, this erosion will get worse and soon there will be dismantled mansions at the bottom of the ocean.
I am intrigued by the origins of place names. Mdloti is apparently named for a plant that occurs on its banks. In the charming, ‘Where on Earth? Place Names of Natal and Zululand’ published in 1971, the description is: “emDloti – The River of the Bitter Wild Tobacco Plants, along the middle reaches of which lived the Zeldmu, a Debe clan of uncertain origin and curious habits – like eating their meat raw.” I cannot find the Botanical name of this ‘tobacco plant’, but perhaps someone reading can help me. The Mdloti river, I think, is a shadow of its former self, with the banks now crowded with invasive plants and in parts only trickling through the silt and sand. Upstream, towards Verulam, there is a spectacular railway bridge spanning the river valley, so I assume it was a once a much stronger river.
Our cabin was named Plane Spotting – and it certainly did have a good view through the trees of aeroplanes arriving and leaving King Shaka airport. Many places/holiday resorts/shopping centres honour this legendary ruler. Shaka’s Rock is one of the villages along here – named for the cliff with waves crashing below that Shaka is reputed to have marched many of his subjects over to their death in the sea. Fascinating to think we were walking on the same ground.
Walk 45 Doreen Clark Nature Reserve
Thick misty mizzle is the ideal weather to visit Hilton – it’s the usual weather actually. The tiny (7 hectare) patch of mist-belt forest that is the Doreen Clark Reserve in St Michaels Road was completely sodden today, even though the rain had stopped by the time I arrived. The escarpment here literally oozes moisture – it’s a giant sponge. One of the many streams that are tributaries of the Dorpspruit in Pietermaritzburg, flows through this patch of forest. Protecting this area from development and invasive plant encroachment is vitally important to secure the water resources of millions of downstream users.
The trees were sodden, many blooms littered the forest floor – dislodged by the rain, fungi sprouted everywhere, fallen branches on the slippery paths. I believe I might have found a velvet worm under the logs – but I didn’t disturb any to look. Overhead, we spotted a couple of raptors, a bleating warbler (or whatever it is now know as) chatted away all the time, with dozens of other birds flitting about in the tangled vines. We didn’t see or hear the Narina trogon, which would have been a real treat. This little forest is well known for the abundance of birdlife. It certainly is a lovely spot to while away a couple of hours if you are trying to escape the hot city – or even just relish the rain.
Walk 46 KZN Botanical Garden
I grew up alongside the Botanical Garden in Pietermaritizburg, so the gardens are very familiar to me. For this walk, I joined the incredible Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures team for a completely different perspective. Since international travel has been impossible, these bird experts who are usually leading tours in Costa Rica, Alaska or Papua New Guinea have been focussing attention close to home and offering bird tours in our own neighbourhood. Who knew there were over 200 bird species recorded in the Botanical Gardens beside busy Mayors Walk? Or that one could spot a Greater Honeyguide in the famous Plane Tree Avenue? That African Palm Swifts inhabit the trees behind the old restaurant?
Such delights for an ordinary damp summer’s day. Immediately, as we gathered, David and Glen began to point out tiny blobs in the top of trees and flashes of movement in the undergrowth. While a Golden Oriol called, we enjoyed Spectacled Weavers working on their nests (there are 90 species of weavers in Africa) and a Kurrichane Thrush dashing across the lawn. We looked closely at the Southern Black Flycatcher, working out how not to confuse it with a Fork tailed Drongo. There were African Dusky Flycatchers high in the trees. We were astonished at the guides’ expertise and ability to identify birds at a distance. If you have an opportunity, do join one of their excursions before they head off across the globe again. I gave up trying to photograph any, as bird photography is a serious skill.
The Lemon Dove evaded us in the forest, but we did see adorable Cape Batis and Chorister Robins and hear the Bleating Warbler (which has a new name that sounds like a dinosaur). A Mountain Wagtail foraging happily in the stream was a treat for most of us. At the Kingfisher Dam, three kingfishers turned out to greet us – a bright blue Malachite sitting serenely in the reeds, with the Giant Kingfisher doing spectacular fly pasts and good sightings of the Brown-hooded Kingfisher too. Egyptian Geese are abundant everywhere, so not that exciting, but fluffy chicks always are! In the rushes on the edge, we watched a Reed Warbler flitting about.
I wandered along the paths afterwards, greeting trees that have been there for my whole life – the Morton Bay Fig and Swamp Cypress, the grove of Churchyard Cypress, the 112-year-old Plane Tree Avenue (being chomped by shot borer beetle unfortunately) and the magnificent Cinnamomum camphora.
The Botanical Gardens is open from 6 until 6 each day and certainly worth the R35 entrance fee, particularly if you need a cool respite in the middle of a day of city errands. A recent introduction is the Tourism Monitors who are happy to show you around, point out things of particular interest and give you some insight into the gardens – just ask when you check in.
Walk 47 Dwarfs Dawdle
Today we did #Walk47 Part One. Dwarfs Dawdle is a lovely 5km walk in uMngeni Valley Nature Reserve that takes in a lot of what is marvellous about this nature reserve on our doorstep. A path along the top of the dolerite cliffs and then a steep descent to a forested contour path below the cliffs. We did the top part through grassland in the drizzle and mist, with swallows darting all around us, raptors gliding at eye level and the sound of the roaring river.
We are immensely fortunate to have this natural area ‘right in town’. Entrance is just R35 for day visitors or R300 per year for a season ticket. To access Dwarfs Dawdle – drive to Indulo carpark and head East from there. The views are usually incredible but today was all misty – because it is summer. I have recorded my wanders there during past summers – 2018/2019 and 2017/2018
Walk 48 Mount Gilboa
“Look it’s another of those pink ones!” It is always fun walking in flower filled places with friends who are not into flowers. Sightings are described as ‘a flat job; blue spike; smelly; twisted or an orange number.’
With an Emerald Cuckoo calling “Pretty Judy” in the background, we explored the grassland slopes of Mount Gilboa in Karkloof this morning. There were heaps of pinks, and blues and yellows too. Lots of butterflies added even more colour. There are spectacular views across to Rietvlei, Albert Falls and all the way to the Drakensberg from this vantage point, 1800m above sea level. Mount Gilboa is located at the headwaters of three important river systems – the Umvoti River, the Myamvubu River that flows into the Mooi, and the Mholweni River that flows into the uMngeni. There are extensive wetlands and many hectares of critically endangered midlands mist belt grasslands.
While we just wandered about admiring the flowers, one could go for a long, brisk hike if you wanted to. If you are really intrepid, you could hike up to Grey Mare’s Tail Falls from Bushwillow and then continue to the top of Mount Gilboa. But then you would be in a rush and not able to enjoy the flower, birds and beetles, which would be silly. Roads to the area are good, and while not signposted, Google maps will get you there if you ask.
A previous excursion to Mount Gilboa is recorded here.
Walk 49 Mpushini Valley
I won an accommodation prize in the Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancy (LMVC) raffle. Mpushini is Ashburton. Along with my companions Penz and Xola, I thought Ashburton was all chicken prisons and horse paddocks. How wrong could we be?
LMVC is around 3000ha of wild thornveld, crammed with biodiversity – including about a 1000 zebra (according to the Game Guard Lucky Makuyana aka Hardlife), masses of impala, nyala, kudu and an array of small mammals, birds, snakes and insects. It is hard to believe that this wild place is, as our host at Equestre BnB told us upon our arrival, “only 16 minutes from the mall”.
665ha of the area is proclaimed as a Protected Environment, under the Biodiversity Stewardship Programme – the first community BSP created in KZN. For decades, Pandora Long has lived in the valley and worked exceptionally hard to conserve this precious resource for all who live there. Her connection to the land, the diversity, the water and to individual trees is deep. Walking through the grasslands, scrub forests and exploring the rivers in her company is an exceptional experience, as anyone who has spent time at an environmental workshop at Galago Farm, will agree. All the wanders we enjoyed over three days spent in the area are combined for Walk 49.
We were already excited simply by the long empty roads winding down into the valley, crossing the uMsunduzi River and climbing up the other side – views of Table Mountain in the East and Pietermaritzburg to the West. Adding sightings of European Rollers, masses of beautiful butterflies, vervet monkeys, monitor lizards, giant green earthworms, unusual insects to the astonishing array of antelope we spotted turned this into an unforgettable adventure. Acacia natalitia was in full flower, punctuating the wooded slopes with cheerful yellow, while dainty Privia cordifolia flowered profusely on the ground below and Asparagus offering succulent berries to nibble on. We were enthralled by the tall Aloe candelabrum, many specimens towering 10metres above us, and the groves of Spirostachys africana (tamboti), but the most magical experience of all was visiting the forest of Euphorbia triangularis. It was truly astonishing to sit quietly surrounded by these sculptural wonders, with cuckoo, coucal and shrike calls echoing across the hills.
Pandora shared her favourite swimming spot on the Mpushini River with us – Python Pool – a welcome respite after steamy walks. Sadly, we didn’t spot the python, but a young striped monitor lizard eyed us from the banks, before disappearing downstream.
When the annual Ashburton Aloe Festival held each July comes around, don’t hesitate – head out there to explore. Special excursions can be arranged in this area at other times if you contact Pandora Long of Galago CEAE.
I have long admired the beautiful railway bridge, built by Italian prisoners of war, spanning the upper Mpushini valley from the highway. So instead of taking the quick ’16 minute’ route home, we drove out along the valley and had the opportunity to see the bridge up close. It is truly spectacular. Then trundling through Bisley Nature Reserve on the outskirts of PMB we spent ages in the company of a pair of giraffe. We could see nine scattered through the bushveld, but this pair, less than 10 metres away, were content with our company – twirling and entwining their necks in a delightful dance.
Walk 50 coming up this week…