One man’s journey highlights SA’s river pollution shame

Paul Moxley hiking up Die Leer from Die Hel.

A Hout Bay man has embarked on a journey across South Africa to raise awareness of the pollution crisis plaguing the country’s rivers.

Paul Moxley’s journey, called 4our4Freedoms, started last month and is a mix of cycling, paddling, running and sailing.

Paul, a member of the Hout Bay Yacht Club, says he has been passionate about rivers, the sea and water sports ever since his school days in KwaZulu-Natal.

The journey has four stages. The first was built around the Ride Across South Africa (RASA), a 2160km mountain bike race from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl that takes participants through the rural foothills of the Drakensberg, the Eastern Cape Highlands, the Karoo and the Hottentots Holland Mountains along the way.

For the second stage, Paul took part in the 240km Berg River Canoe Marathon, from Val de Vie in Paarl to Port Owen.

The third leg was a bike ride and trail run up the Umgeni and Umsindusi river valleys to Pietermaritzburg.

The fourth stage, which he is preparing for currently, will see him sail solo in a Hunter 19 sailing boat from Port Owen to the mouth of the Orange River, on the Namibian Border.

Paul was introduced to canoeing from a young age and did his first Dusi Canoe Marathon at 16.

“It came as an intriguing idea then to extend the RASA entry to one of a border-to-border and coast-to-coast journey and dedicate the challenge to the health of our rivers in SA as a whole,” he says.

Paul extended the first leg of his journey to include a bike ride down the coast from Kosi Bay to Richards Bay from where he paddled on a surfski to Durban

Paul’s journey, which will take in 39 rivers of significance, is raising money for Adopt-A-River, a Durban-based NGO that works to protect rivers across the country. .

“The first leg ride from Kosi Bay to Richards Bay stands out in my mind as one of the very special parts of the journey,” he says. “The coastline up there is surprisingly undeveloped being protected by the Isimangaliso Marine Reserve, it is mostly in pristine condition. “However, to my dismay, when one ventures up to the spring high-water mark then you find a line of debris for the entire 250km of coastline.”

He says some of the debris he found – mostly plastics and polystyrene – came ashore from ships at sea, but a lot of it also appeared to have been washed into the sea from rivers that discharge human waste and litter into the ocean.

Paul says the pollution problem was even more pronounced when he paddled his surfski 120km from Richards Bay to Durban, crossing the Tugela, Tongati and Mdloti river mouths.

“Floating in the brown river water pushing far out to sea, you see all the plastic waste that the river has brought down from the inland settlements and stormwater runoffs further up the valleys; it is quite disturbing.”

On his bike ride and trail run up the Umgeni and Umsindusi river valleys to Pietermaritzburg, through the increasingly populated Valley of a Thousand Hills, he found more disturbing evidence of humanity’s impact on the environment.

“This was, apart from all its natural beauty and stunning landscapes, unfortunately, an exercise in disbelief as to how our rural communities have such little respect for the environment and river systems.”

The roads were “littered from top to bottom” with plastic chip packets, dumped broken bottles and debris down the banks into the river along with the dumping of large quantities of used nappies along the roadways.

“These things are designed to absorb water and not degrade easily so will be spoiling that environment for years to come.”

Further upstream, the Umsindusi River flowed through a heavily populated settlement of Edendale before entering Pietermaritzburg.

In the city, Paul found a weir, which causes the river to dam up in the vicinity of Alexandra Park, but it far from being a pleasant feature of the city and park, he says.

“It is a standing sewer at the moment and the worst piece of water I witnessed on the entire journey.”

Tim Biggs, a campaigner for the cleaning up of Hout Bay River, invited Paul last week to meet with the Friends of the Rivers of Hout Bay who spoke to him about the problems plaguing the lower reaches of the river, including highly polluted stormwater entering the river, as well as litter and invasive alien vegetation threatening the river and the wetland.

“All across the country,” Paul says, “I met groups of people like these that are trying against the odds to do something positive about the plight of our rivers and I would encourage more people to get involved where ever they can.”

Paul can be followed on Instagram @4our4freedoms, and there is also a givengain page for donations.

Paul Moxley launching his surfski at the mouth of the Tugela River.
Finishing Berg River Canoe Marathon at Veldrift.
Paul Moxley stopped at the Pietermaritzberg City Hall on his travels.
Paul Moxley on the Umgeni Valley trail run to Pietermaritzburg.