The saga of Kingfisher Lake

2014-09-11 00:00

THE Plane Tree Avenue, established in 1908, and proclaimed a National Monument, the soaring cathedral-like space widely admired as the central feature of these old and much-revered gardens, leads at its culmination to the Kingfisher Lake, another jewel of this conservation area, proclaimed in the brochure as “a haven for many water-loving birds” — where, in the past, generations of birds have found attractive breeding grounds. But, alas, no more!

Two floods in early 2008 brought huge quantities of debris, old car tyres, and silt rushing down the Dorpspruit which runs through the gardens, to settle in the Kingfisher Lake.

During 2012 thousands were spent in dredging the lake ostensibly to remove alien vegetation, a much-needed exercise. But because of no follow-up to this costly exercise, the weeds grew back, and the silt built up, so that approximately six months later a channel was cut allowing the water to run straight through the lake, circumventing the weir. This has resulted in extensive overgrowth and further silting, with no evidence of any breeding Egyptian geese which usually have several broods there every season. Nor is there any sign of the moorhens, black ducks, giant kingfishers or the usual herons and cormorants, all treasured features of this part of the park. This is also home to toads and frogs, and numbers of small mammals such as otters, spotted genet, and water rats.

During the course of last year, numerous letters from the Maritzburg public, an article in The Witness written by me in February, as well as a leading article in The Witness (July 9, 2013), expressed considerable public concern and dissatisfaction at the management of these Botanical Gardens. A meeting in August 2013 with Christopher Willis, CEO of Sanbi (South African Biodiversity Institute), Allen Nene, curator of the gardens, and various concerned citizens, satisfactorily resolved the contentious issue of the proposed banning of dogs in the gardens. The issue of the degradation of Kingfisher Lake was raised at that meeting and Willis assured us that plans were on track to commence rehabilitation at the end of the rainy season in 2014.

In March 2014, I wrote to both Nene and Willis congratulating them on agreeing to provide space to the Saturday Farmers’ Market on the grounds just outside the entrance gate. This very attractive venue has drawn large crowds every Saturday, and with free entry for the morning has attracted a number of visitors not normally familiar with this lovely garden — although it does not appear to have increased support for the restaurant, another matter of concern.

In this letter I expressed the hope that plans were proceeding for the commencement of work on the lake, and was assured this was on track.

However, the rainy season for 2014 is now about to commence and no movement has been detected in the vicinity of the lake. So, once again, I wrote asking for information. Now, I am advised of a litany of problems encountered with plans made last year with the original contractors for the complicated dredging, rehabilitation and aftercare of the project. This means that the process has to be reinstated, with new tenders advertised. GROUNDTRUTH has apparently been reappointed, and I am assured intend to start work shortly.

But, requests for a specific date for the commencement have not produced firm answers, with Willis even suggesting the possibility of a delay until May 2015 because of the imminence of the rainy season.

And so the saga continues, with no foreseeable speedy resolution. It is very sad that, apparently through lack of sufficient maintenance, this lake was allowed to deteriorate so far before remedial action was decided upon. Concerned and regular visitors to the gardens, particularly keen birders, are dismayed at the lengthy dithering about restoring this beautiful and treasured feature of this ecological area.

Established in 1874, these gardens have provided citizens of Pietermaritzburg with more than a century of pleasurable tranquillity from the bustle of the city, and generations of students with study opportunities. In fact, they belong to all the citizens of this city and country, as an irreplaceable aspect of our environmental heritage, along with the nine other carefully-tended National Botanical Gardens extending over the wide range of geographical and biodiversity areas of this country.

It is, therefore, vital that the present custodians continually remind themselves of their responsibility to maintain what they have inherited.

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