Thukela and Spioenkop

Posted by Doug Morton on Wednesday, 04 February 2015

No traveller on the way between Durban and the hinterland of South Africa makes the trip without crossing the Thukela River, whether driving on the main N3 track, the secondary road through Winterton, Bergville and the Oliviershoek Pass, or along the North Coast on the N2.   Formerly known as the Tugela, this is the largest river in the province of Kwazulu-Natal.   Its name comes from the Zulu for “sudden” or “surprising” or “shocking,” referring to the rapid changes in mood and character of this lovely, wild river.   Its catchment area is huge and mostly steep, resulting in sudden surges in the flow of water, or even flash floods in the summer months that see the great thunder storms that are part of the territory.

This mighty river rises in an area called Mont-aux-Sources on the lip of the Drakensberg escarpment, the beautiful Amphitheatre of the Royal Natal National Park.   The river, there just a stream, plunges 948 metres down the face of the Amphitheatre, making it the tallest waterfall in the world, eclipsing even Venezuela’s Angel Falls.   The flow is arrested by the cold in the winter months when the stream freezes, becoming again the beautiful Tugela Falls as the following summer rainfalls begin to feed the little torrent.  Many little streams join the Thukela and increase the volume of water thrusting down the landscape toward the coast and sea, the people and livestock that depend on the flow happily accepting the eternal presence of the gift of the river’s water.

This flow is interrupted by the Woodstock Dam, and arrested by the Spioenkop Dam, both providing changed environments that have become integral parts of the course of the Thukela.   Spioenkop Dam boasts a substantial game reserve administered by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, home to many species of African fauna, including the mighty, threatened Rhino.   Here the Zebra and the Blue Wildebeest frolic and feed, sharing the land with Impala, Kudu, Eland and smaller antelope while troops of giraffe strut about, feeding on foliage that only they can reach.   Here and there a large rock turns out to be a rhino resting in the shade or grazing quietly in the grasslands.   The birdlife is varied and prolific, populating all the biomes of this unsung reserve.

Brooding above this dam is the legendary Spioenkop, site of one of the fiercest battles in the annals of the British Army and of the Boer Republics, and below the dam the river makes its usually placid way through farmlands and bushveld on its way to the Indian Ocean.   It was here that a group met for a weekend of photography and leisure this past weekend.


Tugela River Lodge crouches on the Eastern bank of the river, close to the road linking the towns of Winterton and Ladysmith.   The thatched chalets with their walls of stone quarried and collected locally blend into the landscape whatever the season.    This was to be the venue for the weekend outing for members of the Finding KZN folks.   In the event the numbers were not what they could have been, but those who arrived found that the trip had been worth the effort.   Very soon everyone was adequately accommodated, and the main deck was festooned with tripods and cameras.   Most of us did some exploratory walking down to the river below the deck, but this was limited as the river was flooding after some heavy storms up-country.

Lee and Claire Fuller who operate this lodge had taken our bookings and made sure that all was well as we arrived.   There were one or two tiny glitches, quickly resolved, and soon the chilly beers were on their way down the hatch, and some were wondering what time Wine o’clock arrived in that part of the world.   New acquaintances were made, and the air bristled with talk of lenses, camera bodies, settings and the intricacies of digital photo editing.   The scene was set for the weekend as the weather threatened to close in and give us a grandstand view of a Drakensberg thunderstorm.   It didn’t arrive.
After the gloom of the almost storm the evening sunshine burst onto the landscape for a short time before a different gloom took over, and evening had arrived, the air already redolent with the aroma of beef stroganoff and other culinary wonders.   The conversations gave way to dinner and then resumed, topics ranging widely.   There was an easy atmosphere, everyone having slipped into relax mode as some of our number made sure the rest of us were fed.

As is usual where photographers gather, there was a flurry of sunrise shooting before the plod back to the establishment for breakfast and that second mug of coffee.   There were cereals and fruit on offer, everyone sharing from his stock, and the previous evening’s conversation topics were taken up again.   The weather gods were smiling on us, and Andrew, Grant and I set off up the densely wooded hill, following cattle trails and stopping often to record flowers, insects, birds and, of course, cattle.   Progress in the heat wasn’t rapid, and before reaching the top we’d been overtaken by Deryk, Elise, Terri and little Claire.   We went on together from there, enjoying the sight of many giraffe a short distance away, and inspecting a stone ruin with a derelict wagon embedded in the ground.   It was a good opportunity for some family portraiture.


We parted ways again, Grant, Andrew and I deciding on the long route around the hills and back home along the tarred road while the others went home by the way they’d climbed the hills.   There was always something to see, and again progress was very pedestrian.   We saw birds, cattle, people, huts, dogs, a cyclist and even a dead Mfezi, or Mozambique Spitting Cobra.   We reached home base in time for a few very cold beers and an informal lunch, finding that Mike and Bev Husband had arrived while we’d been out.   It was good to see them after a long break.


Lee Fuller had been composing his Spioenkop talk for some time, and had agreed to us being his guinea pig audience that afternoon.   First, though, most of us went off in the opposite direction to the steel lattice bridge across the Thukela that winds its way across the countryside.   The bridge offers endless photo subjects for alert photographers, and the camera clicks rivalled the chuckling of the waters of the swollen river below.   The bridge was inspected and assessed, then recorded in detail from many angles as the early afternoon sun beat down.   A passing farmer wore a gratifying expression of surprise and consternation at finding normal looking folks clambering all over a worse-for-wear structure in the oppressive heat, some lying on the ground squinting through viewfinders, others gathered in twos or threes discussing details that the farmer had never seen nor ever would.

Then it was time for Spioenkop and Lee.   My navigating skills proved poor and we made several three-point turns before finding the link road, arriving at the hilltop monument after a steep climb to find a patient Lee gazing across the land he loves.   Mike and Bev arrived hot on our heels and Lee led us to the first vantage point to begin his rendition of the Battle of Spioenkop, possibly the most hotly contested acre of land in the entire South African War.   By now Claire had joined us, and Grant, Andrew Brown, Mike and Bev and I were treated to a discourse on that battle such as I’d never enjoyed before.   Lee’s description of the events that had occurred there one hundred and fifteen years before was descriptive to the point of being graphic, and all that was missing was the sound track of the gunfire and the screams and cries of the soldiers and Boers as they vied for the Kop.   He captured the enormity of the engagement, introducing cardinal figures who’d been there like Mohandas Ghandi, Louis Botha, Deneys Reitz, Colonel Edward Woodgate, Winston Churchill and several others, some of them to have a profound influence on the affairs of the world in years to come.


The weather had been gathering and rain began to fall across a nearby valley as we took our leave of Lee and Claire after they’d agreed to being photographed.   We were in a sombre mood along the road back to the lodge, wondering if our braai would happen.   As had happened the previous evening though, the skies cleared, the fire was made, and the course of the Thukela treated to the unmistakable aroma of the braai.   By now Andrew and Irene Harvard had joined us and we were able to become acquainted with more characters who until then had existed for us only on Facebook.  It was as near to a gala occasion as could be arranged by a small group of like-minded people in shorts and tee-shirts, paying scant heed to formalities or social constraints.   It was a grand evening in the bushveld.


There were some early departures on the Sunday morning, the remaining few taking short easy strolls around the immediate territory, returning soon to pack up and leave for home.   We ran into rain and mist just beyond Mooi River, the precursor of cold weather that was to bring summer snow to the Southern Drakensberg.   It had been a good weekend of forging new links and friendships and cementing existing ones, of finding new places and being exposed to different interests.   Terri and I dropped Grant off at his home in Merrivale and shivered in the Midlands chill, arriving home a little later to dig out some winter clothes and to speculate on the amount of water in the rain gauge at home. 


I wish I had been there! What a beautiful description for a beautiful place, in both words and photographs. (It brought back memories of a decades-ago weekend spent at Spioenkop Dam, and an unexpected meeting with a rhino. Our guide on the walk was taken by surprise as well, but the unforgettable picture was of a large panic-stricken lady desperately seeking shelter behind a much smaller man.) Thank you for the lovely picture you have painted.

By: Deb Williams on February 6, 2015

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