Loyal guardian of Howick river

By Nikki Brighton

Many years back, when driving past Howick, Bill Speight would say to his wife Liz, “That looks like a nice place to live”. Thirty years ago they bought a recently flooded house in Moonwalk Drive and settled in.

“The best thing about our property was the wild wetland and veld right next door,” he remembers.

Ever since, Bill has been the man behind the wonderful river path and the uMngeni River Conservancy. Initially there was just a small footpath winding along the banks and during winter runaway fires burnt everything, including the trees.

“Keen to encourage more people to use it, we started mowing with a hand mower, but that took forever.”

The ‘grub generator’

Funds were raised to buy a ride-on mower and once a week Bill spends a few hours cutting the grassy path during summer. Most days he has a loyal entourage – Fork tailed Drongos that sit on low branches waiting for disturbed insects and guinea fowl that follow him enthusiastically.

“I’m the Grub Generator!” he laughs. “Once we saw three baby otters playing on a log, that was a treat.”

Bill and Liz remember seeing buck grazing in the wetland and coming across a bush pig, but nowadays there is a lot less wildlife as development encroaches.

Community of volunteers

Community service has always been important to Bill, so being able to contribute in this way gives him great pleasure. When he needs advice on anything, there is an abundance of skills in the area to call on – farmers wives who know their plants, wetland ecologists, invasive species specialists and tree experts – and the small committee of volunteers who keeps the river path a much-loved feature of life in Howick.

“It is a treasure,” says Bill. “In other parts of the country, homes in an area like this would cost millions.”

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Late afternoons are the most popular walking time when dogs, pensioners, young families and teenagers gather to wander amongst the River Bushwillow (Combretum erythrophyllum) trees, red-hot pokers and reeds. Bill also walks every day armed with his yellow poop scoop to clean up after dogs whose owners have (unfortunately) not done so.

If you enjoy the river path, please make sure to pick up any litter you see and take it home. Contributions to the cost of maintaining the path are most welcome.

Bank Details:

uMngeni River Conservancy;

Standard Bank;

Acc No: 53608151

Picture: Bill Speight beneath his favourite River Bushwillow (Combretum kraussianum) tree