After the winter rainfall, the dull scrubland of Namaqualand is transformed into a multi-coloured carpet as wild flowers bloom
en masse. So impressive is this natural display that the Northern Cape has built a thriving seasonal tourism industry upon it.
Now similar efforts are under way to tap into the midwinter blooming of aloes in KwaZulu-Natal’s southern Midlands.
Each winter, the hillsides and valleys burst into flame as thousands of aloes come into flower. Many species, particularly the towering candelabra aloe (Aloe arborescens) are at their most impressive in July, and two festivals have sprung up independently of each other to celebrate aloe season. The town of Creighton holds its Aloe and Steam Train Festival over three weekends. This gives visitors the opportunity to take in the view of blazing aloes through the window of a steam train or a hot air balloon.
In the Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancy outside Pietermaritzburg, the Ashburton Aloe Festival is held over one weekend. Here, the focus is on biodiversity education and the public interact with indigenous plant experts, such as Elsa Pooley and Ben Botha, to learn about the value of indigenous plants and river systems. The two festivals draw throngs of visitors to the region, supporting micro-businesses, creating seasonal jobs and training, and heightening environmental awareness.
The Steam Train Festival
Creighton’s Aloe and Steam Train Festival has been running for nine years and this winter attracted 2 000 visitors. The festival is run concurrently with the annual festival of the local country club, which uses the occasion for fundraising.
Rides on the Eshayomoya steam train, owned by Ingwe Municipality and managed by the non-profit Paton Country Railways, are growing in popularity. Visitors either take a return train ride along the Ngwangwe River or put their bicycles on the train to Donnybrook and cycle back.
“The train rides have become very big and have potential to become even more so,” says co-ordinator Glynnis Shewan. “Catering on the train and at the country club is outsourced to BEE companies and local clubs. A cleaning business was started to clean the trains and high school tourism students are employed as train hostesses.”
The train rides create about 20 jobs, while the funds raised are used to restore coaches. Because the festival injects funds into the community only once a year, the Southern Midlands Tourism association is keen to make a greater impact. “We want to take tourism to a whole new level. The festival is a stepping stone to promote the region’s other attractions. We may not have the likes of the Sani Pass, but we do have rail, the Sisonke bird route and missions built by Trappist monks,” says Glynnis.
Building a local economy around tourism is one thing, but sustaining it year-round is another. “Demand is there to have more rides but Spoornet is erratic. This year, it asked for horrific access costs of R12 000 for each ride. Ingwe Municipality is trying to lease the line from Spoornet; if they come to an agreement, we can run them monthly. Jobs will then be much more sustainable,” explains Glynnis.
Pandora Long Glynnis Shewan
Sixty kilometres from Creighton, the Ashburton Aloe Festival has been running for six years and has grown from 200 visitors annually to almost 1 000. “The Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancy is home to a wide variety of animal, bird and insect life and is a butterfly hotspot,” explains festival spokesperson Pandora Long. “It’s a secret valley – beautiful when the hillsides are covered with aloes. We wanted to share its beauty and biodiversity.”
All funds raised by the festival go towards the valley’s conservation. Alien weed-clearing is being undertaken in the riverine area and a beautification project is planned to attract more people throughout the year. “By attracting people into the
valley, we’re able to use the funds raised to take on the role neglected by our municipality,” she adds.
The festival has helped to grow businesses in the area, including Rocky Wonder Aloe Nursery and Toprock Museum, a palaeontology museum with an extensive collection of fossils and minerals. “All of these contribute to the bigger local industry,” says Pandora. “The potential for biodiversity conservation and local tourism to contribute to KZN’s economy shouldn’t be overlooked.”
The Mkhondeni and Mpushini valleys are, however, under threat from the planned N3 Development Corridor, with increased housing and industrial development expected at Cato Ridge within the next decade.“The development corridor is being pushed, but the Umgeni River and its tributaries are the lifeblood of KZN,” argues Pandora. “They provide the water and clean air that are taken for granted. People don’t recognise the value of the biodiversity of this ‘last remnant of wild Africa’ and often don’t understand the implications of over-developing closed catchments.”
The Preservation of the Mpushini Mkhondeni Biodiversity Trust, with the Upper and Lower Mpushini Valley Conservancies, are working with consultants for Msunduzi Municipality to develop a local area plan for the south-eastern districts. “These communities are insisting on proper public participation. We’re recommending that tourism be recognised as an economic driver, and that the proposed N3 ribbon development leapfrog the Mpushini and Mkhondeni valley systems. “This aspiration to direct the development of our area has grown out of the success of initiatives like the aloe festival,” says Pandora.
Phone Angela Carr on 073 379 2352, Glynnis Shewan on 083 273 8037, Pandora Long on 072 692 8124 or Peter Poulsen on 082 728 7467. Visit www.smtourism.co.za.
This article was originally published in the 1 November 2013 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.