“Have you ever been to Thurlow?” I asked my photographer friend Nola.
“Never heard of it,” was her reply. “Where is it, and what’s there?”
“It’s behind the dam,” I said, “and there’s not much there this time of year, but it’s still worth a look.”
The ‘dam,’ is Midmar Dam, near Howick in Kwazulu-Natal, and Thurlow is a nature reserve along the shore of the end of the dam opposite the popular Midmar resort. It’s a favourite haunt of many anglers in the region, and is home to a small selection of game, including Blesbok, Impala, Red Hartebeest, Black Wildebeest and a good variety of grassland birds. The terrain is typical KZN Midlands grassland, lush and green in the summer months, but crackling dry once the rains have gone. I’m often surprised at how few local residents know of these places that are just about on our threshold.
Getting into Thurlow is a bit of a mission. There’s no payment facility at the entrance, so unless one has a Wild Card that gains free entry, it’s a case of driving the long way around to the main entrance to the dam resort, buying tickets at R30-00 per person and then trekking all the way back to the Merrival exit, onto the Underberg road and the few kilometres to Thurlow. It puts many people off visiting what is a great place to spend a morning birdwatching, photographing, cycling, paddling or walking.
We had some trouble buying our tickets that morning, as the stamp at the main gate wasn’t working and we had to go to the reception office. There we were told that Thurlow was closed, but I was ready for that one. I’d checked the week before, and it wasn’t closed. There’s been this ongoing dispute with KZN Wildlife for a few years now, and many people have been turned away needlessly. We got our tickets and off we went.
The security fellow at Thurlow looked very suspicious about anyone wanting to take photographs. Fishing he could understand, paddling and cycling were okay, but photography seemed to worry him. How difficult does it have to be to visit a local reserve? We filled in the forms and left him meditating in a light trail of dust, and Nola was in new territory.
The usual suspects were nearly all in attendance apart from the ones we particularly wanted to see. The Black Wildebeest were nowhere to be found. We negotiated the one section of the track that’s in very poor condition, and had the place to ourselves apart from a few cyclists. The low water level meant that the anglers were trying their luck elsewhere and paddlers were having a late breakfast somewhere.
There’s always something to be seen, though, especially with a camera in hand. What we saw all too clearly was the echoing emptiness. Our province is battling its most devastating drought since the 1980’s and the dam now stands at just 45% of its capacity with the dry season in full swing. There are wide expanses of arid, crack-crazed mud flats that are normally the bed of the dam, exposed for many months now to the unrelenting sun. The small breeze hoisted puffs of dust from a surface that should have been some ten metres under water. A few Blesbok trudged across the bleak surface to slake their thirst at the receded water’s edge while a gaggle of Spur-winged Geese, close inshore, swam where the middle of that part of the lake would have been.
A herd of cattle seemed glued to the landscape on a neighbouring farm, searching for sustenance in the dry, dusty grass. Otherwise, all was still.
Overhead a lone Black-shouldered Kite lay on the air, scouring the thick grass cover for insects. The bird put on a wonderful display of its characteristic hovering as it searched, giving us a grandstand view of a specialised feeding technique while it slowly drifted across the width of the reserve, following the edge of the grass that traced the line of the dimly remembered high water mark. And then the sky was empty again.
We found a spot where fence lines looked interesting enough for a few shots, stopped and parked like KNP visitors in the middle of the road, hauled out cameras and began to prowl. Looking at the environment the overall impression was one of thirst. There was a coat of dust on every blade of brittle grass, and the usual range of colours even in winter grass was muted and dull.
Some yellow fruit lay on the gravelly roadside while other plants displayed their despair. The only green in evidence came from a line of tall eucalyptus trees that were able to extract their water from far below the surface of the ground where they stood.
In the distance the Blesbok and Hartebeest stood silently and still, waiting as we did for the rain to come, rain to refresh this place and this province, to wash away the greys and browns and replace them with succulent greens. They waited to hear the trickles of the little streams that drained the grassland into the again brimming lake, the drone of insects and the calls of the birds as they embarked on a new breeding season and the inevitable cycle of life. They waited for the promise of bulging leaden skies, the bright flashes that lit the clouds and were followed by the crashes and rumbles of thunder that only Africa can produce. But on that day they waited in the dry sunshine. And we took our pictures as we waited with them.
No doubt the rains will come again one day and the dam will fill, and the residents of the towns and cities that depend on the Umgeni River system for their water can relax and set aside their many buckets and plastic basins. One day. For now, though, Thurlow, its plants and its animals, are on hold.