PADDLERS UNITE TO SAVE SHONGWENI NATURE RESERVE
For Hayley Nixon, the magic of Shongweni Nature Reserve hits you as soon as you lay eyes on it.
“There’s not many places where you drive in the front gate and you’ve got six or seven giraffes just loping down the road, and you have to give them space just so you can get down to the water,” she says.
“Then while you’re doing laps on the water, there’s zebras laying on the side… it’s really special.”
That striking image encapsulates the beauty – and the motivation – that led Nixon to join scores of paddlers in the Shongweni 67 on Sunday.
The Shongweni Nature Reserve is a sprawling slice of paradise.
Taking in 1700 hectares just outside of Durban, it boasts unspoilt vegetation and waterways home to a variety of South Africa’s greatest beasts – giraffes, zebras and buffalo among them.
But the upkeep of such beauty takes work – and money.
In 2018, the Shongweni Nature Reserve was handed to the local community of beneficiaries under the nation’s Land Restitution Act, but as Greg Vogt from Conservation Guardians explains, the infrastructure was “broken and dilapidated” and staff needed to be paid.
Funds were needed fast.
But being a paddler, the answer came instantly to Greg.
“We came up with this idea to use paddling in a fundraiser,” he recalls.
“On the 18th of July is Nelson Mandela Day, where you’re encouraged to do 67 minutes of good for others.
“You know paddlers – we can’t go on paddle for 67 minutes, people would laugh at us!
“We thought about paddling for 67 hours… but we settled on 67 kilometres.”
In 2018, the small team did it on their own.
In 2019, Garth Schonewolf joined in and completed 100 kilometres.
Last year the Shongweni 67 was opened to the public for the first time, and this year, after the event was forced to reschedule amid South Africa’s recent civil unrest, delivered the most successful instalment yet.
“We understand that during this time a lot of people have donor fatigue,” Greg says.
“But the paddling fraternity, no matter where you are in the world, it’s in our DNA.
“If everyone who pledged follows through with a donation, we should surpass our target of 100,000 rand.”
It would be an incredible outcome for an organisation that desperately needs it.
While Greg was to The Paddler, anti-poaching teams returned from patrol, where they been forced to ward off groups of hunting gangs trying to reach the wildlife.
That need for conservation – of both the environment and the animals that call it home – is the key motivator for paddlers taking part in the Shongweni 67.
“We’re running out of Nature Reserves. We’re running out of wild, open spaces. I think we forget to give back and look after those dams and look after those animals.” 2017 ICF World Champion Hayley Nixon says.
“Shongweni Nature Reserve is absolutely exquisite. There’s game, it’s a beautiful dam, it’s got a sprint course, it’s got a marathon course and it’s just a stunning venue.
“You want to get involved in community projects, you want to get involved in things that are trying to preserve the waters we paddle on – whether that’s ocean or dams or lakes.
“It’s important. It’s important for the world. It’s important for our country. It’s important for our heritage. And it’s important for us as paddlers to be able to maintain those waters that we often take for granted.”
Nixon wasn’t the only surfski star to take part.
Hank McGregor again threw his weight behind the Shongweni 67, auctioning off a one hour paddle in his double.
According to Nixon, it’s all symbolic of the goodwill that the Shongweni 67 exudes.
“As athletes, especially when you’re racing as your career, you tend to be quite selfish with your time,” she reflects.
“You’re always so focused on your training schedule for your next race, you often don’t get to do things that are fun or community based or charity based.
“To get out there and do something for charity and do something that wasn’t aimed at me – instead, it was aimed at a bigger cause – that was really important to me.”
That involvement wasn’t lost on Greg Vogt.
“It was amazing. To see Hank McGregor come out with his family and have a brai and a paddle with his son, then to have a World Champion like Hayley Nixon bring her kid and husband… it was unbelievable.”
It’s also fitting, given the direction he hopes the Shongweni Nature Reserve will follow.
“This body of water has been a very important training ground for some really famous paddlers and it has quite a legendary story behind it.” He says.
“We’ve got a beautiful vision for the Reserve, designing it as a sprint and marathon destination, which is sorely needed here.
“The larger ambition is to have this area as a location for international teams to come out and train.
“These are the first steps towards that actually being established.