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Life is a highway

From Durban's urban jungle to the meandering Midlands



Hot, sweaty, and with the largest port in Africa, unabashedly industrial, Durban welcomed us with such long stretches of highway and irate, noxious traffic that it was a relief to veer into the suburbs and peace of Glenwood’s Mackaya Bella Guest House.

Traffic and chaos in Durban city centre

Just a sneeze away from the city centre, or in our case, a long drawn-out cough, Mackaya Bella is home to an indigenous garden and permaculture-inspired food garden, while owner Louise Rash makes use of the neighbouring municipal park for a bit of guerrilla gardening.

Guerilla gardening in a municipal park in Durban

A member of the Botanical Society, Louise is a passionate advocate for the environment - converting Mackaya Bella's garden (which initially did not contain a single indigenous tree or shrub) into a 100% indigenous one, where plants are so hardy (they're endemic to the area) that they rarely need watering.

Indigenous garden at Mackaya Bella Guest House, Durban

A farmer at heart who grew up inthe dry Karoo, it should be no surprise that Louise runs a water-wise garden. The vegetable garden saves water by using dried coconuts as mulch. Composting is a given, as is recycling, and she buys locally-produced products in bulk to save on packaging - all to keep Mackaya Bella's (named after a plant in the garden) footprint low.

The permaculture vegetable garden also helps provide meals for guests (who are free to pick their own tasty greens). Louise tells us that COP 17 was a great way for Durban to showcase what they were doing on an environmental front, and indeed, to inspire its residents and municipal government to do more.

We were keen to check it all out for ourselves, so we headed out to Durban's city centre once again.

Initially part of a walking tour for delegates, the Priority Zone was implemented by eThekwini Municipality and Drake and Scull Facilities Management to transform Durban’s inner city from a crime and grime-ridden area into a pleasant public space.

Rooftop garden at Priority Zone, Durban

Open to anyone interested in sustainability or food security, the walking tour takes in the rooftop garden, which reduces ambient heat (in the building) by 3 percent - resulting in a 40 percent reduction of AC in summer.

Harvesting vegetables from the rooftop garden at Durban's Priority Zone

With indigenous flora, a beehive, wormery and enough organic vegetables to send a raw vegan into a frenzy and still have surplus to donate to soup kitchens, schools and orphanages, the lush rooftop garden is testament to what can be done with limited urban space.

Solar panels, Priority zone, Durban

And if that’s not enough, solar power, harvesting of rainwater for irrigation and recycled materials for walkways, garden beds and benches, as well as taxi rank vegetable gardens, indigenous tree plantings and the revival of Gugu Dlamini Park are revolutionising Durban’s city centre.

Papaya tree in Durban's inner city centre

Urban recycling

They also help provide an income to Durban's homeless, buying used cardboard, glass and paper for recycling and assisting in better organising their informal clean-up efforts.

Walking past mosques, bustling markets and temples, juxtaposed with the Victorian architecture of this past colonial centre, our next stop was the Sustainable Living Expo at the ICC, which showcased school permaculture gardens, alternative energy solutions and community initiatives.

Then it was a ride to Pinetown to visit the Shallcross Community Clinic, where a team of eight colleagues, including DA Councillor Singh (pictured below), began a vegetable garden where patients can come buy fresh organic fruit and vegetables.

Councillor Singh

Johnson Naidoo took the time to show us around the developing project, which started just a few months before our visit, and shows a lot of promise.

Aiming to feed sick patients with fresh, organic vegetables, sell to visitors and staff, and hopefully expand to the point where they can supply the community at large, Shallcross freely shares information on all they've learnt at FTFA workshops.

Their needs are modest: Rainwater tanks are needed to capture rainwater, as well as tunnels for the garden to protect the vegetables from the stifling heat and occasional monkeys.

Shallcross vegetable garden with Johnson Naidoo

Shallcross clinic vegetable garden

After a nightmare of riding around Durban’s chaos to find a mechanic to fix my scooter’s back brake, only to discover that it was just the seal that was broken (thankfully), we headed off to Durban’s Botanical Gardens and the Indigenous Plant Fair.

We met Jabulani Memele, who was able to show us around the Botanical Garden’s permaculture garden, where workshops are held to inspire both young and old to grow safe organic food at a minimal cost to one’s pocket and the environment.

Durban Botanical Garden's Permaculture Garden and demonstration site

It's the first time I've seen the marriage of permaculture and botanical gardens (which is a somewhat different approach, and it was interesting to hear that the botanical society has embraced permaculture as a sustainable design system.

"We try to teach and inspire people that this is an easy system that they can develop in their own homes that fits into nature. We try to teach ecological literacy. That all comes from permaculture so it is a good teaching tool".

The highway up to Pietermaritzburg was characterised by stretches of inexplicable concrete-riven lines that made riding somewhat hallucinatory, while keeping to a straight line was next to impossible.

Then there was the crazed traffic cop who pulled us over to tell us that we must drive 120km/hr on all lanes of the highway. Content in our superior knowledge of the laws of the road we pressed on, reaching the Midlands and a more gentle meander on country roads with a landscape so English it wasn’t surprising to see gentrified estates and expansive stables dotted amongst the hills.

Karkloof, Midlands

In stark contrast to the beauty surrounding it, Sifisesihle Primary school is located in Mpophomeni, a township just outside of Howick.

Sifisesihle is just one of the Midlands Meander Education Project’s (MMAEP) initiatives, which aims to make caring for the environment fun with creative lessons that integrate with the curriculum, emphasising wise resource use, creativity, sustainable living and community building.

Sifisesihle Primary school food garden, recovering after a recent fire

After visiting the school’s permaculture garden, which was returning to it's former glory after a recent fire, we gave a small talk about our trip and the need for greater environmental awareness to the kids.

Melissa Andrews and Christopher List give an environmental talk to schoolkids

We chatted to Eidin Griffin, food garden facilitator of MMAEP and manager of SEED’s Outdoor Classroom Education Programme before heading to see a show held by a group of artists from Reunion who were aiming to inspire kids about art and music.

Reunion artists at Mpophomeni Township

Despite dire warnings from Eidin, we weren’t prepared for the condition of the dirt road, a nightmare of corrugation only negotiated in second gear as we watched the light get sucked out of the blue sky above us en-route to her rambling farmhouse where we would spend the night in relative luxury.

The next morning dawned wet, making riding to Karkloof a less-than-pleasant affair. Still, the road condition improved quicker than summer lightning and soon we were coasting on tar.

Riding through the Midlands, Vespa

Arriving at Dovehouse Organics, owner Paul Duncan showed us around the flourishing gardens, health shop, restaurant and training centre, which aims to be a model for sustainable commercial farming and permaculture design methodologies.

Paul Duncan at Dovehouse Organics permaculture farm

Permaculture in practice, Dovehouse Organics

And that is what sets Dovehouse apart. It's rare to see examples of large-scale permaculture farming and Paul and Shireen have proven that it is possible.

While Paul focuses on cash-crops like different kinds of lettuces and herbs, he grows a vast variety of produce, does organic box deliveries, trains vast numbers of both rural and unskilled and urban, skilled people in permaculture farming and has a model of sustainable living that can be replicated.

Paul and Shireen Duncan with their family, Dovehouse Organics

We met with a number of young students, mostly from KZN's rural villages, who were doing a internship at Dovehouse. Their enthusiasm was infectious - they loved being there and we so inspired by permaculture and the work that Dovehouse is doing that it offered me great hope for the future!

The next day we hiked with Paul and his family to the Karkloof Nature Reserve, with the second-largest tract of indigenous forest in South Africa!

Hiking in Karkloof Nature Reserve

With no real route or plan we spent some supremely enjoyable hours bumbling around in the forest.

Moss covered log in the forest

We left as the sun started going down, lighting up the beauty of the Midlands.

Christopher List in Karkloof, Midlands

Sunset over grass in the Midlands

Melissa Andrews and Christopher List, Midlands

We left in more mild drizzle to visit Howick Falls, one of the world’s most dangerous waterfalls with over 40 recorded deaths since 1851.

Howick Falls, Howick

Further contributing to its notoriety, the ‘Place of the Tall One’, as it’s known by Zulus, is believed by many to be home to the Inkanyamba, a large snake-like creature that only sangomas may approach to offer prayers and acts of worship.

Our remaining time riding the Midlands Meander passed in a contradictory blur - we visited two eco-villages, one new, one old, that aim to showcase sustainable, community living.

Riding Vespas in the rain

The ride to Zuvuya -a 1000 acre property located in the rolling hills of the Dargle Valley outside of Howick - was beautiful, albeit mist-covered.

Bickering all the way, we missed the turnoff, riding through some incredibly deteriorated roads until we reached a small township (which turned out to be Impendle, where Sam is very involved with community work), and I surmised that we'd gone to far.

Riding back in a mutual huff, blaming each other for missing the turn-off we agreed to call Sam, who told us we were nearly an hour in the wrong direction! Finally, we found the 'correct' turnoff, and made our way down the road to Zuvuya Ecovillage, where we'd be staying with Samantha Rose and Shine from the Rainbow Commons homestead.

Riding in to Zuvuya Eco village on a scooter

Instantly made to feel at home, I couldn't have asked for a better place to spend my birthday and to recover from the mind-numbing exhausting of nonstop travel.

We stayed in a yurt (a dome-shaped traditional shelter used by nomads in Mongolia and Central Asia), shared meals in an A-frame house built by Sam and her ex, and were welcomed into the family, who gave us the space we so desperately needed to recuperate.

Christopher List and Shine at Rainbow Commons, Zuvuya

Sam is home-schooling her two kids and clearly is doing a great job - they're self-assured, intelligent and fun to be around. They were also chosen as finalists to attend FTFA's Eduplant Competition due to their extensive knowledge of permaculture (lucky kids!).

Unfortunately it rained the entire time we were there, though we did venture out to see some of the other homes, including a fallen-in natural building and an sunken earth house whose roof had collapsed. Apparently, natural building is not as easy as it seems.

Said Shine: "If I ever start an eco-village, it'll be mandatory to do a PDC!", while I'm going to add to that, saying AND a natural building workshop.

Fortunately Sam's home stands in better stead, though occasional maintenance is needed - they plug in gaps during winter with recycled orange bags stuffed with plastic and paper, or paper mache really bringing to life the principal of reduce, reuse, recycle :-)

Rainbow Commons Homestead, Zuvuya

A permaculture activist with a thriving vegetable garden, Sam is also the Coordinator of the seven Impendle Eco-Schools and Impendle Eco-Tourism, which offers homestays in the stunningly-located rural Zulu village and voluntourism - visitors can contribute to community upliftment projects, mainly through the Eco-Schools programme.

Visitors and Impendle residents benefit from the authentic intercultural exchange while the community benefits from the hands-on assistance and fresh ideas of the visitors.

After three days of rain riding out from Zuvuya was a slippery affair - knowing that my legs were not long enough to balance out the bike properly if it started to fall, Chris rode my bike up the worst of the road, nearly wiping out himself, much to the amusement of the kids.

Riding a Vespa out an ecovillage after days of rain

Struggling to get a Vespa through mud in Midlands

Anastacia-inspired Five Streams was located on 81 hectares of land outside of Nottingham Road towards Giant's Castle. We were lucky enough to arrive in time to meet Scott Cundhill, its founder, and some of the other community members including Benjamin Steyl, who inspired us with the latest news on renewables.

Though not completely off-the-grid yet, Five Streams promises to be a interesting example of community living. Inspired by the Anastacia novels, each plot or 'domain' will be roughly 1 hectare in size - allowing them to be completely independent if they choose and for community to develop naturally, without being forced.

"It's just big enough for a family to grow their own food, have a house or two, and not have to talk to anyone if they do not want to. But it is also just small enough to allow community to develop naturally. You can walk to your neighbours, share with them and commune with them without having to pay toll fees".

Sid is the full-time farm manager, and he manages a team of 4 staff, whose responsibility is to maintain the main house and equipment, develop the land, grow vegetables and fruit trees, look after the animals, etc. Which means, you don't have to get involved unless you WANT to.

Living labyrinth, Five streams Eco Village, Midlands

So even if community members do nothing for the 'we', the farm will be developed and everyone shares in the bounty. Thus, you can focus on your own domain, without having to feel selfish. Sounds good to me!

We camped next to a babbling brook, waking to mist-covered hills and the smell of wakening life like something out of a fairytale.

Camping next to a babbling brook at Five Streams Ecovillage

Indeed, life in an eco-village can seem far from reality, with its notions of caring, sharing and self-sufficiency.

A small waterfall next to the farmhouse at Five Streams Eco Village

Three days of interminable rain and we were back on deserted, mist-shrouded country roads - the only time I saw a car was (naturally) when my pants were around my ankles.

Riding Vespa in the mist

Catch us as we travel the Battlefields Route to the Drakensberg, in the next article In the Clouds

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