Where the wild things go

2010-05-20 00:00

BISLEY Valley Nature Reserve’s 350 hectares of bush and grassy hills makes the summer-green or winter-brown southeastern backdrop to Pietermaritzburg­. A sun-trapped bowl of valley bushveld, Ngongoni grasslands and riverine thicket, Bisley­ Valley is one of our development-hungry city’s last truly wild places. Its wildness has drawn me back again and again since I came to Pietermaritzburg nine years ago.

When we were still new to the midlands, the reserve’s municipal trails and hides were enjoyable destinations for my family to explore. How magical to walk along the Fox Hill stream well before dawn to get to one of the last places in our city where you still hear the bushbaby call. We also discovered the whereabouts of a local glossy Aloe pruinosa hiding in the thickets on the upper slopes, a species found only in Mkhondeni and Mpushini and nowhere else on Earth.

In Bisley Valley I have spent many fruitful work hours with colleagues, children and teachers in outdoor education, or with adults leading early morning meditative walks. Small wonder that I associate so many memorable happenings with this wildest corner of Pietrermaritzburg: a close encounter with a soaring giraffe­; dashing for shelter with overseas guests in the fury of a sudden electric storm; eating venison potjiekos under the stars; a never-to-be-forgotten weekend with hyperactive teens from Sobantu Secondary.

This April holiday when the first sunny, but cool day came, I distracted my sons and their friends from the lure of computer games, inviting them to spot giraffes and butterflies in Bisley. Their pre-adolescent thumbs-up for a bit of spontaneous adventure was heartening.

In just 12 minutes from our Scottsville front door we tumbled out of the car onto a dung-littered track in the reserve. When we came across a trio of University of KwaZulu-Natal students­ working on a soil erosion project, our first question concerned the giraffes.

“Yes,” the students pointed, “up the John Pringle Trail”. On more than one visit to Bisley’s miniature wilderness I have not caught even a distant glimpse of the herd, but small is beautiful when giraffes don’t magically disappear. And so within seconds we had them in sight and were grateful for a down wind. Seven beauties browsed unperturbed among Paper-bark Thorns.

We stalked for 10 minutes in rare silence for my gang of day trippers. I couldn’t decide which creatures were more interesting to photograph, the six-metre royal beasts of the nature­ reserve or my troop of wildlings tomfooling behind me in the grass.

Vary the stimulus! is the seasoned teacher’s motto for keeping children involved, so we were soon seated at the Bird Club Hide listening to jokes and quenching our thirst. My idea to walk the Ukulinga Link to Bisley’s highest trail floundered when our path petered out and we fell among brambles and infinitely more irksome blackjacks.

The Msunduzi Municipality’s miniscule­ budget for conservation obviously­ had not stretched any time recently to maintaining the path to my favourite vantage point.

Before my ankle-scratched company’s trickle of complaints could become a torrent we were distracted by a spider larger than a R5 coin sitting just above our heads on tight strands of web as if clutching at the clouds — the Bark Spider with zebra stripes under its legs and two rhinoceros-like horns on a woody abdomen.

The best way out, I believe, is always the way through. Besides, it would have been more painful to turn back than to wade through our onslaught of weeds.

We persevered through the morass of invading black wattle, Barleria and bramble to the shorter grass on Ukulinga­ Ridge. What a reward for endurance. We rested, taking in the sprawling panorama­ of Msunduzi’s dusty autumn­ valleys as far as Swartkop and Otto’s Bluff.

My mind returned to the phalanx of invader black wattle and the challenges of conserving Bisley’s natural wonders for the future of Pietermaritzburg’s sustainability.

Imagine our city without this last southern green horizon, say that it became wall-to-wall white tin-roofed industries and busy strip-malls flanking Bisley suburb. Pietermaritzburg would have sold its soul.

Since our ramble with zebras, butterflies­ and brambles, a colleague expressed his quite attainable dream. What if just one percent of Msunduzi’s annual budget were dedicated to effectively managing our city’s wild places?

His words put a head, heart and hands and rands and cents to my hope for stewarding Msunduzi’s wilderness.

Choosing to cherish our wild places will ensure that our children and theirs, will never reach a time when all the wild things have gone.• Allen Goddard is director for Theology & Citizenship, A Rocha South Africa.

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