Our Burning Planet

FISH TALES

Where kings swim: Fears N2 Wild Coast Road project will threaten giant trevally migration while paving over residents’ histories 

The Mtentu river in Mpondoland where the kingfish make their way upstream, 12 October 2021. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

Kingfish have been swimming up the Mtentu River every year for aeons, but some residents fear their migration may be under threat from Sanral construction, along with livelihoods.

Like most restless wanderers, the giant trevally has many names. In the Pacific Ocean, some call the mighty fish “ulua”. The Hawaiian Islands were said to be formed from the body of a colossal ulua, broken into eight. When one was pulled from the Red Sea in 1775, and became the first to be scientifically described, it was given the Latin name Ignobilis — ignoble.

One place where the trevally, which grow to the size of a person, received a new name was on South Africa’s southeastern coastline. There, it arrived every year, as the spring turned into summer, to swim up a wide river in Eastern Mpondoland with deep green banks, darker than dark. By the 19th century, the river, like the fish, was still waiting to be named. But that was about to change.

AmaMpondo soldiers, battered by their wars with amaZulu, had failed to find medicine along another river further north, which they called Umuthi awuvumi (“the medicine doesn’t agree”). Beleaguered and bone-weary, they stumbled into the lush valleys around the river where the trevally made their annual pilgrimage. The banks were abundant with the healing plants they needed to treat their wounded. Not yet aware of the fish religiously coming and going below, amaMpondo christened the healing river Umthethu, “our medicine”.

Local woman fetching water from a nearby river in the village of Sigidi, 10 October 2021. (Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee)

Since garbled in the mouths of governments and tourists, Umthethu became Mtentu. But, no matter the river’s name, the fish always returned. Every year, in the summer months, great shoals of giant trevally made their anonymous passage deep into the Mtentu’s fresh waters until, generations later, Mpondo fishers eventually baptised the fish for their ferocious fighting strength: inkohla — a name describing an aggressive cruelty.

Always punctual, inkohla have arrived every year since, bearing silent witness to generations of drama playing out on the hills around the Mtentu River. Now, a new highway might threaten the land and livelihood of many of the people living there, and, perhaps, even the fish themselves.

Coast of kings

Giant trevally, or inkohla, are now more commonly known as kingfish. If nature is governed by immutable laws, the annual odyssey of the kingfish up the Mtentu — one of the planet’s last great unexplained migrations — remains a bizarre oddity. Scientists do not know why the kingfish leave their salty hunting grounds every year for fresh water, although they suspect the fish may be cleaning themselves. They also can’t explain why it is the Mtentu’s fresh water that the kingfish seek out so faithfully.

Off the 100km of coastline between the Maputo River and Mozambique’s border with South Africa, thousands of the apex predators, with their broad, scaly flanks and torpedo-like dorsal fins, gather to spawn. They swim together in giant, pelagic spheres that weigh a combined 30,800 kg. Many of the kingfish that visit the Mtentu River every year begin their journeys in these fishy planets, suspended in the warm waters off the Mozambican coast, before negotiating the billowing mass of the Indian Ocean off South Africa’s Wild Coast.

A giant trevally spawning aggregation in southern Mozambique. (Photo: Ryan Daly)
A giant trevally spawning school in southern Mozambique. (Photo: Ryan Daly)

They have swum below that ocean when it was calm, and they swam below it when it became the Sea of Galilee; when breezes turned into storms, and gale winds above the water’s surface combined with the continental shelf and Agulhas Current below to create freak waves that towered more than 20m high. Some have called the deep spaces between those waves “a hole in the ocean”.

The kingfish will have also swum among the countless victims of those holes.

They swam beneath the São Bento, for instance, one of Portugal’s many colonial vessels overladen with loot from India, when it sank off Mpondoland’s coast in 1554. The fish swam among the 150 bodies who drowned around them, and they might even have seen the 322 (98 of them Portuguese crew and 224 who had been enslaved) who survived the wreckage to emerge, apparently amphibious, on the beaches of Mpondoland. (Only 20 of the Portuguese crew and three of the slaves survived their delusional walk back to Delagoa Bay, where they arrived so famished that they rushed to stuff live crabs off the beach into their mouths.)

Sometime in the middle of the last century, the kingfish swam by a young Vumelephi Mnyamane, face bunched in concentration as her mother taught her to dive for crayfish (never open your eyes underwater and always keep your shoulders outside of the sunken crevices where they hide), collect mussels (best when the moon is full or new), and make a curry with her shoreline spoils. Rinse the mussels of sand, boil them in a pot with no water (they will produce their own), fry together with onions and spice, and serve with pap.

Vumelephi Mnyamane was trained as an inyanga by her grandfather and finds an abundance of plants and roots in her village of Sigidi which she uses to help heal people, 10 October 2021. (Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee)

The kingfish have swum by lives filled with incident and texture. Past young boys and the wild bananas they eat while tending herds of cattle. Past suitors being told that their proposals are in vain until they can knot a blade of grass using only their mouths. Past partners being told they will only be given expensive gifts if they are able to catch a shadow in their hands. Past families united in marriage. Past others divided by disagreement and debt. They have swum by at night, when drunks stumbled the road home with nobody but the spirits, malign and benign, for company.

In the late 1970s, they swam past Mnyamane and her mother again. This time, their frightened faces stretched in devastation as they were forced from their home in Lurholweni to make room for Sol Kerzner’s garish new casino, the Wild Coast Sun. Now 70-years-old and stoic, with eyes black as a keyhole and wrinkles that run the breadth of her forehead, Mnyamane remembers the homeless aftermath of that eviction as a time she was “forced to sleep in the dirt” and wake “with soil in my mouth and in my eyes”.

Since being trained as inyanga by her grandfather, Mnyamane has rebuilt her homestead in the village of Sigidi where, to her eyes, the otherwise uniform, pea-green hills are alive in a thousand shades and shapes. There she sees svuba, which can be steamed and inhaled to help with a blocked chest. Here she sees plate, which has been the comfort of countless pregnant women and newborns. There are the yellow flowers of cikamlilo, which she prescribes for knee problems. And there is ibhulu, whose roots she administers for bad dreams and whose carrot top-looking leaves are burned to ward off lightning.

The home of Vumelephi Mnyamane lies in the path of the proposed N2 highway in the village of Sigidi, 10 October 2021. (Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee)

Old man and his sea

Soon after passing Mnyamane’s home in Sigidi, the kingfish reach eMalwalweni, a stretch of flat rocks that have always been happy hunting grounds for unomgqojana — the limpets with holes in their shells that make for the best crayfish bait. From there, they pass Shark Point, Pebble Beach and Skate Bay before eventually reaching Salmon Rock, where the Mtentu River flows into the Indian Ocean, staining it, like a water mark on a table.

The kingfish swim by the river’s southern bank where, in 1920, they may have passed families being forced from their homes en masse before the then minister of native affairs declared the land a leper colony two years later, robbing the villages of swathes of grazing land. A few decades on and they might have seen the same land being declared a nature reserve and turned into a holiday bonanza for white people.

It was near this point that the fish once swam by seven-year-old Kenneth Sonjica, where his father was teaching him the safest fishing spots, and to always tie on his sinker (back then, Sonjica used rocks) before his hook if he wanted to feel a fish’s bite. In those days, the Mtentu ran deep, from bank to bank, and the kingfish arrived as a tempestuous caravan, their many hundreds of heads breaking the surface of the water and causing such pandemonium that Sonjica and his friends would flee in fear.

Local resident and master fisherman Kenneth Sonjica at his his favourite place where he fishes almost everyday, 12 October 2021. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

When the young boy eventually plucked up the courage to cast his line in front of the marauding shoal, he was almost pulled clear off his feet. And he watched one summer as the river lapped at the chin of a despondent Matushele, one of the famous local fishers brave enough to fish for the kings. Robust as he was, Matushele had been pulled deep into the river by a powerful kingfish before it ran all the line from his reel and then snapped it.

Kingfish were not called inkohla for nothing, and Sonjica vowed never to be so foolish as to try catching one again. Ordinarily, kingfish gleam a metallic blue-white. But they have been known to turn liquorice black when they hunt. While there is something about the alchemy between fresh and salt water that turns them passive further upstream in the Mtentu, shoals in full flight in the open ocean are brutish to behold. Rapid and competitive, they work themselves into a frenzy — a pod of man-sized piranhas.

But Sonjica did try to catch another. In fact, he caught many. Once deadly afraid of them, Sonjica went on to become an expert fisher of kings, sometimes pulling in fish so big that their tails nearly dragged on the floor when he hoisted them over his shoulder (an exceptional measure, even for someone as short as Sonjica). He eventually guided fly-fishers who came from around the world to hook them.

Over troubled waters

As the kingfish pass Salmon Rock again this year on their way up the ancient river, they might find Sonjica, now 63, in his favourite place – that saline borderland where earth meets the sea, and all the world is behind him. He will likely be standing beneath banks of summer cloud, wearing rubber boots and carrying the rod and reel that have become as familiar to his personality as the way he points to the ocean whenever he speaks about it.

Since returning from a 15-year stint as a winch operator on the gold mines of the Witwatersrand, the old man has developed a reputation of fishing every day. All year around, bronze bream, galjoen and blacktail mull about the gullies off the coast near his home, while black steenbras and white musselcracker make their homes in the lightless pits of the deeper reefs. In winter and spring, garrick, shad, yellowtail and white steenbras make the journey from the Cape. Sonjica has caught them all. But the kingfish remains his most prized quarry.

Now, nearly a lifetime since he first ran at the sight of kingfish, Sonjica is worried that their migration may be under threat.

Local resident and master fisherman Kenneth Sonjica became an expert at catching the massive kingfish that swim upstream at the Mtentu river, 12 October 2021. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

A few kilometres up the Mtentu River, the aborted construction of a mega bridge, stalled by community resistance, lies dormant while the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) re-awards the contract. Once it is complete, the bridge will be South Africa’s biggest and will form a crucial link in the new and upgraded N2 highway running through Mpondoland, which, according to Sanral, is set to save the South African economy more than R1.5-billion every year. But some are concerned that the bridge’s construction is damaging the fragile ecosystem over which it will one day tower.

Since Sanral began building the bridge, its internal monitoring of the water quality in the Mtentu River has shown “no concerning trends” and found that what changes have happened to the water as a result of the bridge are “well within normal expected water quality fluctuations”. Sonjica disagrees.

During heavy rain a few years ago, which he says brought debris and silt down from the bridge, Sonjica apparently found many kingfish either dead on the river banks, or confused and dying on its surface. People from nearby homesteads were carting them off by the wheelbarrow-load. There were so many dead fish, he says, that he thought the river had been poisoned.

A few kilometres up the Mtentu River, the aborted construction of a mega-bridge, stalled by community resistance, lies dormant while the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) re-awards the contract, 11 October 2021. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

At Mnyamane’s home in Sigidi, concerns over the potential impact of the highway run deeper than the future of the kingfish. The inyanga, who says she has not been consulted by Sanral regarding the likely impact the N2 will have on her, is gripped by visions of the past. After she looked on as her mother was forced from her land without notice, Mnyamane has feared nothing more than losing her own.

Craig McLachlan, Sanral’s project manager on the N2 Wild Coast Road Project, does not believe that Mnyamane’s concerns “reflect the views of the majority of Sigidi residents”, where, he says, the roads agency has conducted “extensive consultations”.

The N2, however, remains a source of discord more than consensus in Sigidi. If the highway is yet to physically arrive, its spectre has cleaved deep divisions into many of the village’s families.

Sanral working on upgrading the N2 in the Eastern Cape, 9 October 2021. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

Some see the road as a herald for a future of opportunity — the “skills training, development of local construction goods, services and subcontracting businesses and … community-based businesses outside of the construction field” McLachlan claims will be the highway’s by-products.

For others, however, history is as much at stake. Mnyamane, whose entire livelihood depends on the lessons she learned from her grandfather, for instance, fears the N2 will turn her fertile land fallow. She is more concerned about what she stands to lose than what she might gain from the highway.

Many of the families who have built their homes for generations in Eastern Mpondoland, along with the kingfish who have quietly watched them build, are poised for fundamental change. The mega bridge over the fish’s migratory home, and the highway it forms a part of, will both eventually be built. But on whose terms remains to be decided. DM

A local homestead at the village near the Mtentu River mouth in Mpondoland, 11 October 2021. (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)

First published by New Frame.

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