The line from the source of the Vaal River to the ocean via the Orange River is the largest continuous water body within the borders of South Africa with a distance of more than 2,500 kilometers. In January–March 2015, three adventurers—Troy Glover (Canada), Brett Merchant (Australia) and Franz Fuls (South Africa)—will follow this line from the source of the Vaal River to the mouth of the Orange River at Alexander Bay. The team will be engaging with local communities on river conservation, with a focus on education and biodiversity.
Rivers all over the world are impacted and affected by the presence of humanity. While we need development, commerce, industry and mining we must make sure that we do not destroy our most valuable resource, water, in the process.
A healthy river system demonstrates high levels of biodiversity. Polluted rivers have less species living in them. Key indicator species either migrate or die as rivers become polluted. It is therefore important that riverside communities monitor the water quality of their river and become involved in conserving its biodiversity.
Mini-SASS is a well recognised tool developed specifically to monitor biodiversity in rivers. It is cheap, simple and easy to use. Data is loaded onto Google Earth, from where scientists and laypeople can access and use this easy tool.
The team will engage with communities (mostly agriculture and schools) on river conservation, and hopes to start mini-SASS projects along the way while visiting already established mini-SASS sites. Learning the few skills required, farmers can start establishing a baseline of river health in their area using this recognised tool, and schools can start with long term education projects around natural science and conservation through a mini-SASS initiative.
The Vaal River starts close to Breyten, Mpumalanga. It passes through the Mpumalanga Highveld grasslands biome. The Highveld is a massive catchment feeding the Vaal, Usuthu, Assegaai, Nkomati, Crocodile, Olifants and various other critical rivers on which South Africa depends for its water security and sovereignty. Agriculture, opencast coal mining, heavy industry and municipal sewage systems have potential impact on this section of the river.
By the time the river reaches the Vaal Dam the river receives water from the Lesotho Highlands (Senqu and other rivers), Heyshope Dam (Assegaai River) and Usuthu River through a water network diverting water from other catchments to feed the water hungry and heavily industrialised Gauteng Province.
Around the Vaal Dam, which supplies water to Gauteng for personal and industrial use, petrochemical plants and heavy industry reside in the catchment, and just below the dam the Klip River brings water from municipal areas and the gold mining sector into the river.
By now the Vaal has become a big river. It enters the Free State Province, where various towns reside next to the river. This area is characterised by huge grasslands, resembling the plains of the Americas. Municipal Water management, agriculture and diamond mining can impact the water and biodiversity in this area.
By the time the river enters the Northern Cape the landscape has become more arid. Human survival depends on water, and as a result small towns and settlements congregate around the river banks of what has now become the Orange. Farmers irrigate arable land next to the river and some mining (mostly diamonds) occur close to the river in search of alluvial deposits.
Different cultures start to become more visible, where the Swazi, Zulu, Ndebele, Sotho and similar cultures are more prevalent in the East, the San and Khoi people are indigenous to the arid Karoo landscape. Languages change, and among common languages the dialect differs. With scarcity comes greater awareness for conserving water. Yet human settlements, agriculture and mining still has potential to impact the river system.
Fracking in the Karoo also has potential to impact the river. The scale of the impact will only be accurately verifiable if permission is granted and actual operations start its extraction cycles.
At Augrabies National Park a massive waterfall awaits, which will be a forced portage, probably the longest portage for the team. Entering the falls in a boat is certain death. This unique water feature in an otherwise barren landscape may soon be affected by hydro-power initiatives.
The river finally meets the border between South Africa and Namibia, entering desert area, and then exits into the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay (South Africa) or Oranjemund as the Namibians call it on their side of the border.
Troy Glover hails from Wemindji, Canada – Ice Road Truckers country. His spring hobby is to monitor pack-ice forecasts and when conditions are right he launches his ocean kayak into James Bay, dodging ice bergs on multiday expeditions. Troy is a teacher with a B.Sc. in a water related discipline and he is passionate about experiential education, especially with First Nations students. His education and science background with his passion for conservation will be invaluable on this trip.
Franz Fuls is the expedition leader. Based in Ermelo, close to the Source of the Vaal he has witnessed the slow deterioration of the environment along the headwaters of the Vaal River. Franz is an industrial engineer, freelance investigative journalist and adventure sport fanatic (rock climbing and white water kayaking).
Brett Merchant, a prospector from Adelaide, Australia with adventure in his blood. Brett did a source to sea expedition of the Murray River in Australia in 2013, mostly solo. His experience on this journey of similar length will be very valuable, and Brett will lighten up the trip with his home grown Australian humour and will maintain the balance between conservation and industrial growth needs with his career background.
WESSA (the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa) is a South African environmental organisation with a mission to implement high impact environmental and conservation projects which promote public participation in caring for the Earth.
With a remarkable 87-year history, WESSA has a strong track record of delivering human capacity development projects by working in strategic partnerships, thus enabling people to make more sustainable lifestyle and environmental management choices. Critical focus areas include life-supporting eco-systems such as water, energy, and biodiversity.
Learn more about the expedition at www.triwaterstour.com