It was a sad fact. The Umgeni was going to be dammed. Again. The fourth big dam on its course from the Dargle to the sea. Many people love dams. I hate them. They ruin the valleys and change nature for ever. Dams wipe out species – many before we even discover them; they flood huge areas of wetlands, riverine forest and grasslands; they displace people and affect everything living downstream. Large dams hold back not just water, but silt and nutrients that replenish farmlands and build protective wetlands and beaches. If you love rivers, dams are the enemy – the disease that kills. Dams don’t just change the river valleys in our waterways, they obliterate them. Yet people love them.
So the Umgeni was going to be dammed and damned; and I wanted a last paddle on that part of the river which was destined to be for ever gone.
So I rounded up some boats and some non-paddling friends in August 1988. Come and paddle a part of the famous Duzi Canoe Marathon course, I said. And the suckers fell for it! Geoff Kay, Mike and Yvonne Lello, Pete Stoute, sister Sheila; and wife Trish joined me in the valley. Some brought some kids, and some valley kids joined us.
We launched the boats with fanfare, breaking a bottle of champagne on each one’s hull (OK, not really) – AND:
They didn’t float! The river was so shallow they hit the bottom, even thought their draft was like two inches!
Oh well, it turned out to be not a paddle but a trudge. And – literally – a drag. But fun nonetheless!
I stared at the banks and the valley walls as I trudged. Soon yahoos would be racing outboard motors here. Soon this life and interesting variety all around us would be drowned forever.
An optometrist friend of mine is a bit scatter-brained at times. He wouldn’t argue with that. He got a phone call once while seeing his last patient of the day. He had fitted him in late and told the staff “You go home, I’ll lock up”.
Halfway through the test the phone rang and he went to the reception desk to answer it. He listened carefully, said “Yes, Yes” and agreed to get home soon.
He then left the office, locked up and went home – a twenty minute drive.
After he’d been home awhile he suddenly remembered!! Omigawd! He leapt into his car and roared back to the practice, unlocked and walked in to where the man was still sitting in the chair.
The poor man was the first to speak: “Doctor, I hope you don’t mind, I moved the machine away from my face a little”.
Ahem, “Not at all” said my man and carried on examining the poor humble guy’s eyes.
Man, was he lucky with WHO it was. He coulda got ROASTED! His staff told the story for years afterwards!
Geoffrey Kay, birding optometrist, put together a trip to Namibia in 1986.
We landed in Windhoek, picked up a VW kombi and rigged it up with a nice big hebcooler in the back. Ice, beer, gin & tonic. Now we were ready for any emergency.
West to Daan Viljoen game park where a lion’s roar welcomed us that first night. On through the Khomas Hochland into the Namib Desert. Then on to the Atlantic Ocean at Swakopmund. On to Spitzkoppen; Usakos; Erongo Mountains; Karabib; Omaruru; Otjiwarongo; and Outjo;
Then up to Etosha: Okakuejo, Halali and Namutoni camps. In Etosha we saw a very rare night ‘bird‘; Seldon seen .
Then on to Tsumeb; the Waterberg; Okahandja; And back down to Windhoek.
Geoff Kay, Jurgen Tolksdorf, Jill Seldon, Mick Doogan, Me & Aitch; Three optometrists and three normal people.
We spotted 200 bird species that week! Also a new mammal for me: The Damara DikDik.
Jurgen Tolksdorf newbie birder spotted many birds for us with his keen eye. “What’s that?” he’d say. In Etosha one night we woke up to the b-b-b-b-bhooo of a white-faced owl near our tents. We shook everyone awake and grabbed our torches and binocs and went to look for it. Except Jurgen. He said “A WHAT?” and rolled over and went back to sleep. We searched in vain and got back to bed very late, disappointed.
Next morning after a short night’s sleep, on our way back from breakfast we met Jurgen who had risen late after a long night’s sleep and was now on his way to eat. While we chatted he looked up in the tree above our heads and said “What’s that?”.
While we were birding in Namibia in 1986, a comet buzzed past us.
Englishman Edmond Halley, in his 1705 Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets, used Newton’s new laws to calculate the gravitational effects of Jupiter and Saturn on cometary orbits. He realised that a comet that had appeared in 1682 was probably the same one that had appeared in 1531 (observed by Petrus Apianis), and 1607 (observed by Johannes Kepler). Halley concluded they were the same object returning every 76 years and predicted its return for 1758. He died in 1742 before he could observe this himself, but his prediction of the comet’s return proved to be correct! It was seen on 25 December 1758.
And then – significantly – again by us in Namibia in 1986, thus conclusively proving Halley was no poephol even if he was an Engelsman.
Petrus Apianis in 1531
Johannes Kepler in 1607
Edmond Halley in 1758 if he hadn’t died away – and . .
Petrus Swanie in 1986
We lay on our backs in Etosha on a beautifully clear night with our birding binocs and telescopes and had a good look at a tiny little fuzzball* far away while a white-faced owl went b-b-b-b-bhooo in the near distance. If the truth be told, our view of Halley’s looked more like one of the tiny dots in the right of this picture rather than the swashbuckling zooming thing on the left. But it did have a tail, so we convinced ourselves we HAD seen it. Halley’s Comet!!
*Even the keenest astronomers said the view of Halley in 1986 ended up being underwhelming in observations from Earth. When the comet made its closest approach it was still a faint and distant object, some 62 million km away. However, we humans did send a few spacecraft up which successfully made the journey to the comet. This fleet of spaceships is sometimes dubbed the ‘Halley Armada.’ Seven probes were up there looking, with the European Giotto craft getting closest – to within 596km. The Challenger space shuttle would have been the eighth but it blew up two minutes after it launched.
The Giotto got this pic of the 15km X 8km X 8km rock:
Halley’s is due again on 28 July 2061. I’ll be keeping a 106yr-old eye out.
1990 saw the completion of Inanda Dam on the Umgeni River. As always, a dam profoundly changes the river and the valley. Yet another river tamed to serve our insatiable thirst. Drown a valley to water lawns. It also changed the Dusi Canoe Marathon, inundating the Day Two sandbanks and creating a 10km flatwater haul to the new overnight stop at Msinsi Resort.
For old times sake I wanted to go down that section before it got flooded, so I took all my boats and borrowed a few more and invited a few non-paddling friends – my partners and optometry friends – to accompany me. For me a nostalgic trip, for most of them a first look at a section of the Dusi course.
We launched all the craft at a low level bridge and started laughing: They didn’t float, they just plopped onto the sand under a millimetre of water. Talk about LOW water! We dragged the boats the length of the dam-to-be to take out about where Msinsi campsite is now, hardly getting our shoelaces wet. About 6km, Sheila said.
For me a lovely walk in the river bed, for them, I suspect, a bit of a pointless mission – and certainly not the ‘paddle’ I had enticed them into! I think they enjoyed it anyway. They did enjoy teasing me! Mike & Yvonne Lello, Pete Stoute, Geoff Kay, sister Sheila. And then some tag-along kids who lived in the valley.
An idea of ‘Before & After’: (better pics needed!)
Dams destroy biodiversity. You lose a lot to waterski.