The great wall of Mpophomeni

By Thembelani Mkhize

Where I’m from there’s a really thin line between legend and reality. The township of Mpophomeni is infamous across the Midlands for its violent history and tribal wars that raged on the hillsides during the apartheid era. But within the township itself the superstitious stories of majestic flying snakes that live in Howick Falls and evil wizards that used the mountain as ritual sites are what make the history of our home so interesting.

A view from the hills above Mpophomeni, with Midmar Dam in the distance. Picture: Garth Johnstone

When Pha Mabaso, a friend of mine, took me on a hike for the first time I must admit my chest (unused to such exertions) was ready to blow halfway up the hilltop behind the township, but when I looked back at the view, boy, was I encouraged to go even higher. The view of Mpophomeni and Midmar Dam was breathtaking, with a solid blue-sky reflection giving a misty look to the horizon and definitely worth the 25-minute hike up the hillside.

The first thing he drew my attention to was a structure unlike any I’ve seen in a while. A long wall stretching about five to seven kilometres, as far as my eyes could see.

A section of the wall, which runs for kilometres and varies in height at different points. Picture: Garth Johnstone

You could tell that it had once been longer and higher, but had been worn down over time by vegetation, the elements and people sitting and walking on it. My first question was, why would someone need to build a wall that long. I mean, what were they trying to keep out?

Many believe the wall is not a man-made structure. Some elders say the wall, which they call Idwala, used to stretch throughout the Midlands and had been “created by God”. The story of the wall is one of great disappointment and violence, as many believe that God himself was meant to come down and occupy the wall and watch over his people from a great height on judgment day.

Unfortunately, all the violence through the years desecrated the structure, the elders say, meaning they have defiled a holy monument and God cannot make use of it any more.

Mystical

A more mystical story about the wall involved the great serpent known as the Inkanyamba,the great horse-headed snake believed to reside in the gorge at Howick Falls. Many believe that the water spirit used to travel following the path of the wall and, since people had built homes in its way, they would get swept up by strong storms. It is known by locals that when there is a heavy storm “the Inkanyamba is travelling through the land”.

Taking a breather… an awesome spot for a bit of lunch or to contemplate the universe. Picture: Thembelani Mkhize

I consulted a local tour guide at the Zulu Mpophomeni Tourism Experience and it was interesting to find out that the wall was used during the apartheid era by the Inkatha (IFP) and ANC “soldiers” in conflicts during the 70s and 80s. The wall had strategic advantages for both attack and defence for both sides. When you look at it, its location and elevation, you can certainly see how it could have been used in battle for cover and as a barrier to anyone wanting to advance their position.

Rocks used in the structure of “the wall”.

According to some of the elders in the township, the wall was built by the farmer who owned the land before it was turned into a township in the 60s. During a recent hike up a mountain in Impendle, my homestead, I found a similar structure on one of the hilltops near a farm. Could it be as simple as a farmer demarcating their land or controlling livestock? This story seemed to have more evidence to it and the locations seem to support this suggestion.

I’m still intrigued by the mystery around the great wall and will continue investigating until I find a solid origin story.

For now, Pha and I offer a hike up the wall trail to a picturesque waterfall, with a view of Pietermaritzburg, with lunch included. We are on the lookout for campsites and should start camping later this year.

Contact: Thembelani, 081 418 9357; email mkhize.thembelani@gmail.com

*If you have info about who built this wall and why, please email us: meanderchronicle@gmail.com