When Wayne Easton was walking along the edge of the Mahlongwa River in eastern South Africa, he noticed a small trickle of water cutting through the sandy river bank. That flow then traveled toward the Indian Ocean. And Easton may have recognized what was about to happen, as he began to film the scene – and the resulting footage ended up capturing something extraordinary.
Then Easton later uploaded his recordings onto YouTube as two separate video clips, allowing everyone to catch a remarkable glimpse of nature in action. And while the picture quality is at times a little raw, viewers are nonetheless able to tap into Easton’s own excitement – and share in it, too.
The first clip begins with the tiny stream of water incrementally traversing the river bank, flowing in the direction of the sea. As the seconds melt away, however, the stream becomes more significant and eventually starts to cut through the bank. And by the end of the second video, the thin trickle has become a tumultuous torrent.
And the footage – which only serves to illustrate the natural wonder of rivers – certainly makes for mesmerizing viewing. Easton appears to be awestruck by what he’s seeing, too, as evidenced by his audible narration. Indeed, it seems the man is more than aware that something special is unfolding before his eyes.
But before we talk about what Easton witnessed on that day in South Africa, let’s investigate one of the natural features he saw. National Geographic has defined a river simply as “a large, natural stream of flowing water.” And while this concise characterization applies to all rivers, there can nonetheless be huge differences between any given two. For example, one of these bodies of water may be quite short; another, by contrast, could stretch out from one end of a continent to the other.
Whatever their length, though, rivers are a vital component of what is referred to as the water or hydrologic cycle. This, in essence, relates to the processes by which water is moved between the air, the ocean and land. And as you may have guessed, the water cycle ensures that the planet is topped up with crucial, life-sustaining freshwater.
Evaporation plays an important role in the water cycle, too. Liquid water from the Earth’s oceans is affected by the Sun, which turns it into a gas known as water vapor. This vapor then brings clouds into being. And clouds complete the cycle by floating above land and discharging rain – a process that in turn fills rivers with freshwater.
Furthermore, every river – no matter its individual size or whereabouts on the planet – derives from a given source. This may be a thawing glacier or some snow, for instance, or perhaps a lake or an underwater spring emerging to the surface.
Wherever a river originates from, however, it’ll travel away from its source down a slope, driven by the force of gravity. The intensity of its progress is influenced, moreover, by rainfall and moisture found underground. And smaller streams known as tributaries also connect to a river and are another factor that can increase its flow. This combination of a river and its network of tributaries is called a river system.
But a river will finally reach its end when it flows into a more significant volume of water. In some cases, this might be a lake, but many of the greatest rivers on Earth flow into the ocean. And the point at which a river meets with a larger body of water is called the mouth.
Meanwhile, if a river travels down steep ground, the movement of the water will naturally be more powerful. This flow is known as a current, and it tends to be more significant in the vicinity of the source. A forceful current is even capable of sweeping up sizable rocks, which over time can alter the nearby landscape dramatically.
You see, when big rocks are pulled along by a current, they can smash into fragments. These pieces may then be dragged over the riverbed, scratching away at other rocks and soil found down there. And over time, this form of erosion can lead to the creation of steep-sided, V-shaped valleys.
The components swept up by the flow of a river, however, are known as sediment. When sediment is left downstream, on the other hand, it’s referred to as alluvium. Alluvium is made up of eroded soil and so tends to be extremely fertile – explaining why the earliest human societies developed near rivers.
And at the sides of a river, a bulge known as a levee or dike can often be found. These features help to manage a river by ensuring that its waters don’t escape its boundaries and flood the surrounding area, and they can be created either artificially or naturally.
Naturally occurring levees can materialize over time as the result of a river flooding on multiple occasions. You see, if a river has spilled out beyond the boundaries of its channel, then it leaves deposits of sediment on the ground around it. These sediments can then accumulate and eventually form into ridges that subsequently keep the river from overflowing.
However, levees can also deteriorate and ultimately prove unsuccessful in keeping the flow of a river in check. Yes, either an artificial or natural levee can breach through the process of erosion. This basically means that an aperture opens up in the levee, and – as you may have guessed – the river’s waters can then surge through the hole.
After a natural levee has been breached, however, the rift through which the water flows can eventually be plugged by sediment. And, sometimes, the flow of the river will have been altered for good. This means that water will continuously travel through the breach and the river will follow a new course.
What’s more, a breach can occur over a long period or it can unfold dramatically and with speed. And it was very much a case of the latter when Easton happened to witness the process along a stretch of South Africa’s Mahlongwa River. Thankfully for us, though, the event wasn’t so rapid that he was unable to capture it on his phone.
And luckily, Easton has subsequently shared his footage in the form of two YouTube videos. The first clip begins with a shot of the river before the breach has occurred. Here, we’re able to see how wide the Mahlongwa River is, with a little water beginning to teeter over the bank. A thick stream then begins to make its way toward the nearby Indian Ocean.
Easton himself provides the clip with context, too, by way of some impromptu narration. “We’re on the banks of the Mahlongwa River,” he says aloud at beginning of the video. “We had some brilliant rainfall over the last three days, and quite an epic little occurrence [is] happening here.”
Then the water snaking along the river bank eventually begins a sharp descent and surges over. At this point, the flow begins to increase in power, and it starts eating into the sands more noticeably. “I’ve never seen this before, but this could be quite epic,” remarks Easton.
Seeming to anticipate that the flow of water is going to greatly escalate in force, Easton steps back. Specifically, he climbs on top of some rocks to ensure that he isn’t standing directly in the path of the growing stream. And as he’ll soon find out, this is a very smart move.
From his new vantage point – which is still uncomfortably close to the developing channel – Easton pans his camera. First, he shows us the Mahlongwa River before providing us with a view of the Indian Ocean close by. “That’s the whole river there, going to meet the sea here,” he tells us.
Easton then takes us back to the stream once again, and we can now see that it’s growing quickly. The walls of sand on either side of the tiny channel are beginning to crumble before the cameraman, in fact. And with that, the channel itself visibly increases in size and strength.
While this is going on, Easton directs his camera towards the Mahlongwa River. And ever the helpful narrator, he attempts to provide a little more context for his audience. “Hundreds of thousands of liters of fresh water,” he says of the river. “And hundreds of thousands of fish, prawns, crabs – you name it.”
Towards the end of his first video, Easton then points his camera seaward to illustrate the poor weather conditions. But to viewers living in cooler climates than can be found in South Africa, his definition of “freezing” might seem a little off. “It’s absolutely freezing here, it’s about 11 °C [51 °F] or 12 °C [53 °F],” he says. “[There’s] a massive storm front coming through – a cold front.”
And by the conclusion of Easton’s first clip, we see that the new channel has progressed quite a lot. Considering that this all occurred in just four minutes, we’re thus able to grasp the intensity of the river breach so far. But as video two goes on to show, the process is far from complete.
When the second clip begins, we immediately see how much more powerful the stream has become. A far bigger chunk of the river bank has been swept away, and more water is now able to surge through. We can even witness an increasing number of cracks beginning to show elsewhere on the surface of the sandy bank.
Yes, the disintegration of the river bank is undoubtedly occurring at a more rapid rate by this point. And Easton notices as much and realizes that he needs to get a little further back to safety. “Now we’re cooking,” he says from behind the camera. “I better get out of the way.”
Easton now appears to step on to the river bank itself, providing us with a bird’s-eye view of the channel. And from this vantage point, we’re able to see just how significant the breach has become. Indeed, it’s almost unrecognizable from the weak stream that initially started to eat away at the sand.
As time passes, more and more cracks begin to appear upon the surface of the sandy river bank. And it becomes evident that the channel is going to widen even further than it already has. The water escapes the Mahlongwa River quickly now and shows no signs of slowing.
The process makes for quite a sight, even when viewed as a video clip. But, of course, Easton was actually there to experience it in the moment. And over the sound of the water, he manages to express his excitement. “I thought it would run, and it would be cool watching it breach,” he says. “But [I] never [expected] that it would escalate to these proportions. Wow.”
The force of the water has become so great over the course of filming, in fact, that Easton’s phone is splashed. And, understandably, this interferes with the sound and image quality of his recordings. As the man later puts it himself in his video description, “A wet phone, although fully waterproof, made the mic and lens hazy at times.”
Yet in spite of the clear danger to his technology, Easton perseveres and continues to film the ever-progressing river breach. And acknowledging the sheer power of the gushing water, he makes sure not to stand in its path. “The whole bank’s gonna go,” he explains. “I’m standing on the rocks.”
And from his position atop the rocks, Easton is able to stand back and marvel at the natural spectacle he has been permitted to witness. “That is absolutely ridiculous,” he says, sounding a little awestruck. But given the profound event unfolding before him, no one could begrudge his sense of wonder.
By now, then, the flow of water from the river to the Indian Ocean has become extremely powerful and violent. Even the sound of this newly formed channel is immense, as Easton points out. “The sea has been drowned out in noise by the river,” he says. “My word!”
And as the video comes to a close, Easton makes an observation about the Mahlongwa. “Amazing thing, it doesn’t even look like the level has dropped off the river,” he says. So despite the sheer size of the flow of water now gushing through the bank, it doesn’t appear as though the torrent will stop anytime soon.
What’s more, it seems that some of the nearly 900,000 people who have watched the second of Easton’s videos have been wowed, too. “This is beautiful,” wrote one viewer beneath the YouTube clip. “These videos… should be mandatory viewing for college hydrology students. This is a mini Niagara Falls compressed in time.”
“This would be great for high schoolers learning about erosion in geography classes… as it perfectly shows beach erosion in real time,” another appreciative viewer suggested. “This is something they can see and understand rather than read about in a book. This is a great visual aid.”
Indeed, many of the commenters responding to Easton’s video have recognized that the clip was showing something special. And Easton himself has since reflected on the experience. “I noticed the river was very full, so I waited for around 30 minutes to see the spectacle unfold,” he told the website Rumble. “I did not expect it to grow so fast into the raging torrent it became.”