An African Midlands Meander



Written by Morag Peden 

Published in the Witness, 18 Jun 2008


It’s hillbilly country, the D389 between Ashburton and Bishopstowe on the eastern edge of Pietermaritzburg. The road is corrugated by sugar cane and quarry trucks, and the dust finds its way into your car and up your nose. This is no Midlands Meander with green fields, white post-and-rail fences and cute green-and-white signs. No one is pretending anything out here. The farms are called Sukkelsrus and Doornhoek; a rusty sign proclaims “Trespassers Will Be Shot”. A few years ago there were rumours of a rhino roaming freely. While this may have been the imagination of a lonely drunken farmer, there are African animals here, unhindered by game fences and private ownership.

The rolling hills of thornveld with Table Mountain in the distance offer a wonderful sense of openness and space. When the Byrne settlers were offered land here in the mid 1800s, they took one look at the dry thornveld and scarpered off to a cooler, wetter valley near Richmond. The rainfall is low and the summer heat is deep, harsh and inescapable. But the aridity of the area has saved it from becoming yet another monochrome landscape of sugar cane or timber. There simply isn’t enough rain to farm.

The only thing you can do here is keep game, says Neville Durow, landowner and conservationist. The grazing is too poor for domestic livestock and too dry for cropping. Before the Aloe Festival last year, Durow took us on a walk through his land which was part of the annual Aloe Festival organised by the Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancy.

It was an exceptionally beautiful winter’s day. A few days previously they had had 60 mm of rain, unheard of in July. The sky was bright, sharp and cold. The landscape appeared a uniform winter yellow-thorn tree country, with Acacia nilotica (the Apple or Scented Thorn) scattered around the yellow grass.

But there was more to see. The deciduous Ziziphus mucronata (Buffalo Thorn) was starting to sprout green leaves. Scattered between the trees were the magnificent Aloe ferox in full bloom, flaming standards, with something to proclaim. Their magnificence perhaps? I was awed by the sheer beauty of a plant that withstands heat, aridity, frost and fire and then flowers in midwinter when nothing else does. Some of the aloes are six metres tall and over 50 years old. We stopped and looked at one. Below the powerful waxy leaves were wrinkled, crinkled brown leaves, truly an artist’s delight and a suburban gardener’s nightmare. I have seen gardeners trim off these lower leaves, leaving shorn and embarrassed aloes, standing semi-naked in neat gardens. “These dead leaves play an important role,” saiys Durow, “they are fire-resistant and protect the aloe, and are also home to lizards and birds.”

This area is home to the endemic Aloe pruinosa, thought to be unique to the Pietermaritzburg thornveld in the southern and eastern outskirts of the city. This aloe has spotted leaves and occurs as solitary plants. The dark pink flowers grow up to two metres and are nibbled down by antelope  in winter.

Aloes have numerous uses. Sunbirds and insects drink the nectar and game and monkeys browse the flowers. Traditionally, Zulus ground up dead leaves for snuff. Some of the flowers are eaten and the plants are used for lightning protection, in female initiation rites and as medicine for humans, poultry and cattle.

While I love to see aloes in their natural habitat, aloe gardening has become very popular. Ben Botha gave a talk last year on landscaping with aloes at last year's Aloe Festival. His advice was down-to-earth: if you don’t want to run around with fungicides, don’t plant exotic aloes.

By this, he means plant aloes that grow naturally in your area. Winter rainfall aloes from the Cape will rot in our wet summers. Although aloes like the heat, they don’t mind occasional watering as long as the soil is well drained. He suggested mixing Gromor potting medium (good for drainage) and aged kraal manure into your soil to improve drainage. If you have heavy clay, add some river sand. And keep nitrogen away from aloes — just a whiff of it causes them to collapse and die. There was much discussion from the audience about the where, how and which of aloes. A plaintive person from the Hilton mistbelt had decided to convert her garden to aloes, only to find that they were rotting and dying. Botha’s advice: move to somewhere drier.

Aloes are an acquired taste. As a young plant lover, the first flowers I noticed were soft, pink and frilly with petals that bruised easily in small fingers. I only noticed aloes when I entered my middle years. Perhaps we seek out companions that are most like ourselves. And there are the aloes: hardy, tough-skinned, resilient and yet still having their moments of glory.

The Aloe Festival is organised annually by the Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancy, a group of landowners who want to develop the area for tourism and environmental education. Their vision is a more African midlands meander, within easy reach of both Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Numerous conservation and tourism ventures already exist with plans for a Big Five game reserve forming a semi-circle around the city. However, this project is not about self-enrichment. The driving force is that conservancy members are passionate about protecting the area from inappropriate development.