Flying above Falling Waters of the Wild Coast - Cybernetics

Sinking Roots by Spreading Wings
Flying the Falling Waters of the Wild Coast.
By John GI Clarke
How many places are there on
all the coastlines of the world
where rivers plunge straight
into the sea as waterfalls?
If this question was put to
AmaMpondo children on the
Wild Coast the clever kids
“thousands”. Because along the
5.5 km stretch of Wild Coast
coastline known as Waterfall
Bluff they can count two – three
in the rainy season. Given that
the total length of coastline of
all continents and islands of the
Earth added together comes to
783,724 km’s, they would have
thought 5,000 was probably the
right order of magnitude. But if
The Bateleurs were able to fly
three amaMpondo youngsters
around the coasts of all the
continents and islands of the
world to actually count the real
number of ocean-plunging
waterfalls they would only find
about nine other ocean-plunging
presumably wiser, they would
return after two years of flying
to tell their classmates that such
natural wonders are in fact
extremely rare, and hopefully
implore those born within sight
and sound of Waterfall Bluff to
treasure the wonderful coastline
which created them.
The Bateleurs’ pilot Barry de
Groot recently took three youth
leaders from the Wild Coast,
Mnyamana and Mzamo Dlamini
(pictured in clockwise order
from top in photo-collage
opposite), and on an expedition,
not around the planet, but around the particular world
that they loved- the stretch of the Wild Coast known as
the Amadiba Tribal Area between Port Edward in the
north and the Mntentu River in the south. All from the
Sigidi community, which is the northern most of five
coastal communities that fall under the Amadiba Tribal
area, they had already graduated from Wild Coast high
schools some years ago, and as young adults facing the
challenges of trying to create a future, were working to
revive and develop community based eco-tourism
initiatives where desperately few job opportunities exist.
Mzamo and Zeka had worked for Amadiba Adventures,
one such initiative which was now struggling due to
plans to mine the coastal dunes area for rich pickings of
titanium and heavy minerals. But undeterred Mzamo
was courageously spearheading a new proposal, the
Phakamisisizwe Tourism Project.
the community can generate income from hosting
When operational it would offer holiday makers an
exclusive opportunity for horse riding, hiking, canoeing
and fishing while they experienced the rural hospitality
and kindness of the AmaMpondo villagers.
Barry de Groot’s reputation for precision flying preceded
him. While awaiting his arrival at Margate airport
another Cessna happened to land. I warmly welcomed
the pilot as he entered the terminus, with an outstretched
hand and a “Hi… Barry?”
My own agenda was to enable me get a ‘birds eye view’
of the area, to enrich the ‘worms eye’ picture I had
formed after six
responded with a
meetings and
‘Hi… Tony.
before” he said
assisting them
“Not that I recall”
I replied “My
name is John”.
capacity as a
social worker,
“Oh I thought you
said your name
was Barry”.
initiatives and
“No” I replied “I
to gain access
am waiting for
Barry de Groot
activities and
The Red Desert. Photo Stephan Hoffstetter
thought you were
interference of
company in the dynamics of the community was proving
“No, I am Tony Gooch, but I know Barry, and am
highly contentious however, and increasingly I had
flattered to be mistaken for him. Do you know he has
found myself called upon to ensure the community
his Springbok colours for precision flying?”
received reliable information about the proposed dune
mining and to challenge injustices – a role that
To finally resolve our confusion of mistaken identities
professional social worker are expected to perform in
the real Barry de Groot arrived in his Cessna ten minutes
terms of our code of ethics and values, when
later to meet me, the Sigidi three and two other expectant
circumstances required it.
passengers who had come along for the ride.
Phakamisisizwe roughly translates as ‘we lift the
Old acquaintances renewed and new friendships forged,
community up’. The Bateleurs had come to ‘lift up’
the first group of three passengers, Mzamo, Stephan
three of the community members, in both spirit and
Hoffstetter (a journalist) and Richard Spoor (an attorney
body, so that they could better represent the project to
from White River), climbed into Barry’s Cessna and
potential investors.
took off into a strong North Easterly headwind.
Mzamo explains: “We have approval for our plan to
build six ‘rondavels’ (round huts with thatch roofs) for
Our collective mission was to get an aerial perspective of
tourist accommodation on the Mnyameni estuary so that
a phenomenon known as the ‘Red Desert’, for, besides
hosting three ocean-plunging waterfalls, the Wild Coast
also happens to contain “the tenth largest known deposit
of titanium and heavy minerals in the world” according
to the John Barnes - a geologist with the Australian
Mining Exploration company Mineral Commodities Ltd
(MRC). MRC is hoping to receive a mineral licence for
what it calls the Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project, which
takes its name from one of the five villages associated
with five large coastal dunes which lie exposed along a
22km stretch of coastline between Port Edward and the
Mntentu River Estuary. Stephan was on assignment for
the Financial Mail to report on the contentious issue, and
Richard, a human rights attorney, had been invited by
the Sigidi community to advise them on their legal rights
and options as occupiers of the contested land.
Barry was reportedly eager to please his passengers, and
proudly showed what his 1965 Cessna 172 was capable
of with sharp turns and
returns for his passengers to
study the scenes below, and
facilitate the best possible
angle to enable Stephan to
capture images of the Red
Desert in the context of
exceptional scenic beauty.
“It’s an old plane, but
upgraded with a 180 hp
motor, which accounts for
its goods performance” he
told me, modestly giving
credit to the machine rather
than his skills as a pilot.
A waiter happened interrupt us to give Tony a telephone
number he had requested for a taxi driver to fetch him
and take him into Margate. Sufficiently persuaded of his
integrity and honesty, I offered to let Tony rather take
my car instead. “Since you know how to fly a Cessna up
and down the Wild Coast, I assume my Nissan X Trail
will be in safe enough hands for the three km drive into
Margate and back”.
“That is very kind of you. But in exchange why don’t
you let me fly you down to Grosvenor Bay and back to
return the favour” he said.
Somehow it didn’t seem quite fair. A 150 km return air
flip in a Cessna down the Wild Coast doesn’t quite
match a six km round trip to the Margate hardware store!
But the offer was tempting, because I have yet to visit
my father’s war time flying
base to take pictures.
Barry had by then safely
returned with his first load
abundance of options, I
reluctantly turned down
Tony’s extravagant offer,
and went to meet Mzamo,
Richard and Stephan as they
stumbled out of the plane
with mixed expressions:
relief to be safely back on
the ground, but regret that it
was all over.
While we waited for our
Mnyameni Estuary Photo JGI Clarke
turn over breakfast Tony
Gooch explained to Nonhle,
It was now our turn.
Zeka and me that he was just dropping in to Margate to
collect some plumbing supplies to fix the water supply
of his seaside cottage on Grosvenor Bay, just north of
Waterfall Bluff.
Never having had the opportunity to fly in a small plane,
Nonhle and Zeka nervously climbed into Barry’s four“Do they still send telegrams by carrier pigeon to
seater Cessna to be quickly taken aloft to get a
Grosvenor?” I asked, recalling a wartime anecdote told
Bateleurs-eye view of their homes, cropfields, pastures
by my father who had been stationed for part of his
and beaches.
training as a bomber pilot during World War II at the
Lambazi airfield where Tony lands his plane. My father
“It looks so beautiful and peaceful from above” Nonhle
tells of a love letter he received from his girlfriend in
remarked after she had finally yielded to Zeka’s
Durban. The absence of postal services to such a remote
prodding to overcome her nervousness and look down
place meant that the telegram had to travel for its last
below to see if she could pick out her own homestead.
‘leg’ strapped to that of a carrier pigeon for a 20 km
overland flight from Lusikisiki to Lambazi.
She knew that, in sharp contrast to the serene beauty
when flying over the area, inside the scattered homes
He laughed, intrigued at the story. “I have a friend who
below there was bound to be much perturbed – perhaps
was also a WW2 pilot who would be interested in that
even angry - conversation taking place. For the previous
story for a book he is writing. I must put him in touch
morning 75 residents of her village had crammed
with your father.”
together in a classroom at the local school to hear
Richard explain to them what they could expect if the
planned dune mining was allowed to go ahead.
Based on his experience as an attorney representing
mining affected communities in the platinum-rich areas
of Limpopo and North West Provinces, Spoor explained
that mining, even thought it produced some benefits and
jobs, could also be extremely destructive to the
traditional way of life. “The influx of outsiders and
destruction of the traditional means of subsistence and
industrialisation have damaging and irreversible
consequences for traditional communities,” he warned.
Flying over the large expanses
of exposed red earth we could
see why they were dubbed the
Red Desert. Two opposing
theories exist as to how it
came to be.
The one favoured by the
mining company is that the
exposed sand is due to wind
erosion following overgrazing
by too many cattle (some say
this dates back to the time of
the Mfecane when herds of
cattle were herded together to
hide them from Shaka’s
marauding armies).
mining company argues that
its interventions will in fact
rehabilitate the pre-existing
‘degraded environment’ once
they have exhausted the sands
of their mineral wealth after
the estimated 22 year
‘lifespan’ of the deposit.
When the environment is harsh it produces greater
diversity to increase the evolutionary options available
for life to prevail through the process of natural
He argues that given enough time and left to itself,
nature will eventually find a way of returning indigenous
vegetation to the Red Desert.
With a perhaps intuitive sense of this process, local
villagers had expressed fears that if the ‘heavy minerals’
were taken out of the sand,
this would turn their land into
nothing but dust, to be blown
away by the strong North
Westerly winds, such as the
gale Barry was having to
contend with during our
Richard Spoor with Sigidi Villagers
Photo Stephan Hoffstatter
Whatever the outcome if this
indisputable fact that all agree
upon: the dunes are pregnant
with other signs of life –
human life dating back some
300,000 years.
Dr Kathleen Kuman of the
Witwatersrand School of
Geography, Archaeology and
Environmental Studies, has
significant samples of stoneage tools and artefacts in the
But Tony Abbott, a local
‘Red Desert’. She has
farmer and amateur botanist,
identified them as stone picks,
believes the exposed sands are
core-axes and choppers used
Stone age artefacts in Sikombe dunes
by pre-historical humans from
phenomenon resulting from a
Photo JGI Clarke
the Sangoan era which she
combination of wind, drought
and erosion. “The sands are
after all coastal dunes, with heavy deposits of minerals,
about 200,000 years ago”.
which, in such concentrations are not exactly favourable
to organic processes of growth. We should appreciate
Kuman explains that “Only during the late phase of the
why only alien species have been successful invaders,
Earlier Stone Age did humans begin to make more
with few indigenous species managing to survive there”.
specialised toolkits and inhabit new, more challenging
Tony has five rare endemic plant species named for him
which he found in the ravines and gorges of the Wild
The question that occurred to my Bateleurs enhanced
He explains that the incredible botanical
perception was, ‘perhaps it wasn’t the threat of Shaka’s
biodiversity found in the river gorges is paradoxically
marauding army that was responsible for overgrazing,
due partly to the relatively stressful natural
but Sangoan settlers deforesting pre-existing forests with
environmental conditions of poor soils, strong wind and
stone tools?’ This thought was prompted by Jared
unusual geology. “Nature is marvellously adaptive.
Diamonds book, Collapse: How Societies choose to fail
or survive which tells how the Easter Islanders, the
Mayans and many other ancient societies, caused their
own demise by so doing.
Although my theory may be highly speculative, Kuman
believes there is definitely research and educational
value in making a systematic collection of artefacts.
“The more interesting and diagnostic artefacts could then
be used to create educational displays on the Stone Age
heritage of the era, and this would undoubtedly add
value to the eco-tourism potential for the region. The
richest concentration of artefacts could also be preserved
as a national monument, and hiking and horseback trails
to see the dunes archaeology at such sites could provide
employment to community members and guides and
curators” she recommends.
These need to be investigated more thoroughly however
because her research efforts were hampered by
interference from pro-mining elements in the community
when she took a research team to the area in August last
Zamile Qunya, a powerful and much feared
member of the community stalled Kuman’s efforts to
meet with local tribal leaders. She was seeking their
approval for her research, but Qunya decided that she
had to go through the structure he controls known as the
Amadiba Coastal Community Development AssociationACCODA. She had a permit from South African
Heritage Resources Agency obtained in November 2005,
but still awaits written
community leaders.
However, Kuman did
manage to get enough
information to confirm
that the contentious dunes
are indeed rich in
Sangoan era artefacts, and
important heritage value.
The only other known
Sangoan site in South
Park along the border
with Botswana.
photographed it from the upper reaches of the gorge on
the Mkambati side. However Mnyameni has no such
natural vantage points and we needed good photographs.
While the Mntentu Estuary Management Committee
may yet manage to ensure their unique charge escapes
negative impacts from any dune mining that may take
place, having flown over the area, it is inconceivable that
the Mnyameni estuary will remain unaffected, no matter
what mitigation measures are taken. The relatively
smaller river runs straight through the middle of the
Xolobeni Mineral Sands mining tenement area, ending
in a beautiful blue stretch of water surrounded by
Coastal Dune Forests.
However his first effort to attract potential private sector
investors in his Phakamisisizwe Tourism Project failed
after the mining prospecting licence was granted to
MRC by the Department of Mineral and Energy and the
investor he had been courting withdrew. There is no
doubt that mining will require vast quantities of water
for slime dams and settling ponds. Although MRC
insists that the sands will be piped out of the
environmentally sensitive area before processing this
will still require a constant stream of water, as well as
electricity to run the pumps.
Dr Stefan Cramer, a mining geologist with the Heinrich
Boll Foundation says that sea water cannot be used to
carry the sands in the pipeline because the sea salts
would upset the chemistry
and make the titanium
impossible. MRC has yet
to explain where it hopes
to get sufficient quantities
of fresh water, other than
by tapping the rivers that
run through its tenement
Clearly to do so
would absorb fresh water
before it reaches the
pushing the fresh water/
salt water balance in the
estuary above the limit for
the eco-system to survive.
Sikombe River Estuary
Photo JGI Clarke
Flying over the area, besides getting a fuller perspective
of the Red Desert I was particularly interested in the
Mnyameni Estuary (where the proposed Phakamisisizwe
tourist camp is planned) and the Mntentu Estuary (which
already has a lodge and campsite that my family and I
had regularly visited).
If MRC believes it can revegetate the Red Desert
after it has taken the mineral wealth away, it has yet to
explain how it hopes to prevent a ‘Blue Desert’ forming
in the Mnyameni estuary – and indeed in the other
smaller estuaries on the Mphahlana, Mtolani, Kwanyana
and Sikhombe (pictured above) Rivers – as a
consequence of their planned operations.
I knew Mntentu Estuary well, as it forms the northern
border of the Mkambati Nature Reserve and I had
When one adds to this, the news that private sector
partners Ufudu Fly Fishing Enterprises and Wilderness
Safaris pulled out of the Mntentu lodge and campsite
(depriving tourists of a chance to enjoy the spectacular
setting pictured below) because of the conflict induced
in the community between mining and eco-tourism
interests, one can understand why potential investors
were wary of risking their money in the Phakamisisizwe
Tourism Project.
Like the invasive black wattle and eucalyptus trees that
are such a threat to Southern African river systems, once
mining interests take root in a money-poor community
they tend to spread very quickly, and become hard to
eradicate once established. Mining companies have
largesse to offer, and sophisticated tactics which some
may consider immoral but are not illegal, in order to win
over well-meaning community members.
Spoor explains. “Corruption is illegal and to sustain
such a charge one has to provide
evidence that proves corruption beyond
reasonable doubt. But where there is a
relationship between mining companies
and rural communities the mining
companies don’t have to break any laws
to co-opt elements of the community to
support their mining agenda regardless
of the impact on the broader community.
Often even a relatively small incentive –
a job or a few hundred rand offered to a
hungry man or woman - is sufficient to
persuade a community member to put
his own and his family’s interests before
those of the community as a whole. It’s
as simple as stealing candy from a
This is exactly what MRC has done,
operating through its wholly owned
South African Subsidiary TEM Transworld Energy Minerals (Pty) Ltd.
A company known as Xolco an
abbreviation for Xolobeni Community
Empowerment Company, - has already
been registered to channel 26% of the
anticipated profit from the mining
operation, in accordance with BEE and
Mining Charter regulations. Zeka was
himself being wooed to serve as an
interim ‘director’ of Xolco to represent
the Sigidi community on the assurance
that five ‘community trusts’ – one for
each of the five communities areas
which will be directly affected by the
mine (Sigidi, Mnyameni, Xolobeni,
Mphahlana and Mntentu)- will be set up
as channels through which local benefits
will flow.
All this has happened even before MRC
has been awarded a mining licence or
submitted its bankable feasibility study.
Why should such effort be made if the
company didn’t even have a licence?
Facets of Mntentu Estuary
Photos JGI Clarke
My interpretation is that by so
doing they pre-empt the
possibility of the government
refusing to award it, since
governments can only survive
by keeping popular electoral
support. By ‘hook’ rather than
by obviously illegal ‘crook’
the agents of the mining
proposal spread rumours and
people are isolated by
illiteracy and lack of access to
Flying upstream on the
Sikombe river Zeka– who
thought he knew the area
better than most having been a
tour guide for Amadiba
Adventures for many years –
discovery. “I have never seen
that beautiful waterfall there.
I didn’t even know it existed!”
he said pointing to a waterfall.
But for all the complexities of
the ‘local’ realities, the
Xolobeni Mineral Sands of
emblematic of the global
challenge that faces human
society as a whole.
Nonhle told how their
manipulations of the mining
intensifying with discouraging
rumours circulating that “the
As we surveyed the expanse
community had no power to
of the Xolobeni area, I
stop the mining if the
became self-conscious of my
government decided to award
a mining licence.” Another
Sikombe Waterfall Photo JGI Clarke
Although a beneficiary of a
rumour was “that the late
technology that now afforded
Nkosi had signed approval for the mining to take place,
us the ability to do what the Stone-age Sangoan’s would
and this decision couldn’t be changed”.
have found unimaginable, - flying like a bird in the sky –
as we flew further I was perplexed by the thought that
Spoor had explained in the community meeting that
two centuries of technological progress has in fact
while it was true that the Mineral Resources and
brought us no guarantee that we will prevail as a species.
Petroleum Act of 2002 had nationalised mineral wealth
On the contrary it has induced a false confidence in our
and that mineral rights were no longer owned by those
technological prowess.
Human society is again
who owned surface rights, “but no one has the right to
vulnerability to climate
push people off their land and destroy their agricultural
to technologies
production in their quest for mineral wealth”.
that have enabled us to extract other, energy producing
substances from the earth’s crust which have produced
He advised the community to challenge the Department
unimaginable wealth for some but left the whole planet
of Land Affairs to do their job which was to “ensure that
seriously out of its natural equilibrium. The poorer
communal land rights were protected and not
populations, such as those living and depending on land
compromised or sold for a fraction of their real worth”
we were scrutinising below, are most exposed to
and the Department of Environmental Affairs to “ensure
resulting natural consequences and corrections, such as
your constitutional right to a environment that was is not
rising sea levels, extreme climatic conditions, and the
harmful to your health or well-being, and to protect the
environment for the benefit of present and future
“Before the Department of Mineral and Energy awards a
mining licence, it has to be satisfied that the mining
company has an acceptable social and labour plan, and
an environmental management plan that doesn’t violate
the constitution”, he explained, urging the gathering not
to accept any promises made by the mining company
until they have received independent legal advice.
The past year has in fact brought un-seasonally heavy
rainfall to the Wild Coast. Whether or not scientists (or
politicians like George Bush) may doubt if this is due to
human induced climate change, the local villagers are
convinced it is.. In every meeting I have had with local
community members since becoming involved in their
plight, I have been told they fear that the heavy rains are
falling because the ‘Great Animal in the Earth’ has been
disturbed by the drilling and prospecting operations of
the mining company. George Cilo, an induna from the
Baleni area told me “My people believe, and I believe
too, that all this rain is falling because the Great Animal
in the Earth is angry with the interference by the mining
For all the apparent superstitious character of the
warning, it is in its own way, a strangely prophetic
message for humanity to heed. Although he may have
connected the local events of ‘mining’ and ‘rainfall’ too
directly to be scientifically plausible, and, although he
may have used the language of religion and myth rather
than science, the essential truth of his prophecy should
not be denied. It is the same “inconvenient truth” that Al
Gore is trying to tell the world – extreme weather events
now experienced are due to
global warming induced by
acceleration of the natural
mineral cycles, notably the
carbon cycle by the burning of
fossil fuels.
Global warming happens
because the earth’s natural
carbon cycle has been
abnormally accelerated and
emissions from fuel derived
‘animals in the earth’)
Low flying
compressed in the earth
below. Left to run its natural course, the carbon cycle
normally takes millions of years to revolve, since it
involves subduction of organic matter by the complex
and massive dynamics of tectonic plate movements into
the earths crust. Human energy demands have
accelerated this process to what amounts to nanoseconds in terms of geological time scales. To use fossil
fuels at a rate that is ‘sustainable’ means that we should
only use them up at the same rate that it takes the earth’s
geological systems to create them. Clearly we are
seriously out of balance.
Accordingly, if we have the far sightedness of Bateleur
eyes with which to see it, the educational value of the
Sangoan heritage buried in the Xolobeni Red Desert for
300,000 years has to be more important than the
monetary value of the minerals left by retreating oceans
millions of years earlier.
It is by understanding the past that we build our future.
A strong North Easterly was blowing, which added to
the “fun”. Returning against the strong headwind, to
provide us with an experiential understanding of the
word ‘rollercoaster’, Barry descended to fly within a few
feet of the beach. Demonstrating his precision flying
skills in the turbulent winds swirling around the dunes I
understood why Tony Gooch respected Barry’s flying
talents. We were about the same altitude above the
beach as a rider would be on horseback. In fact I had
indeed galloped across that very beach on a horse five
years ago in an impulsive race with a close friend. But
the prospect of crashing a 180 horse-power plane on a
sandy beach is not the same as falling off a one horsepower horse! Mercifully, with expert touch Barry pulled
back the euphemistically named ‘joystick’ and gunned
the motor as we approached the rocky outcrop ahead.
The nimble plane soared heavenwards to winds less
gusty. Looking back at Nonhle and Zeka in the rear seat,
I saw similar expressions of
Upon landing and reflecting
on the experience it took a
while for the contents of our
stomachs to settle. But the
contents of our mind will
remain for as long as we are
alive - images of deep gorges,
high waterfalls, sparking
rivers, white beaches, blue
sea, green pastures, neat huts
and verdant maize fields.
The Red Desert Dunes are
also part of that kaleidoscope
of colour, posing searching questions and containing
hidden secrets of a distant past.
Photo JGI Clarke
For Mzamo, Nohle and Zeka the key question they want
to ask Mineral Commodities shareholders is “why do
you only see the heavy minerals buried within and not
the story of ancient settlements?”
“Why do you only want short term profits and not longterm, sustainable returns from nature based tourism?”
Richard Spoor had another question “Would you turn
Ayers Rock into a quarry for Granite? Or the Great
Barrier Reef into an undersea mine for calcium
If not I would argue they have no business mining the
Wild Coast for titanium.
John Clarke is a social worker and freelance writer
investigating the inter-connections between humanitarian,
development and environmental issues for the Southern
(,) and other concerned bodies. He is a founder
member of the Sustaining the Wild Coast Association.