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From dust to green

By Melissa Andrews

Upington - The road stretched before us, shimmering in the blistering afternoon sun like a mirage, but not the kind that water-starved wanderers usually hope for.

Hot air blasted in our stifling helmets like a blow-dryer on full heat, as if nature was a demonic hairdresser determined to wrestle the beauty out of us.

The water we carried was not enough, it couldn’t ever be enough. We’d stopped at Scoots, a vintage scooter spot in Johannesburg, to give our scooters a new lease on life, and they’d purred as we cruised to Lichtenburg.

Past fields of genetically modified maize, Monsanto proudly in their midst like a warlord ruling over his victims, the heat was an onslaught, so hot that even the fields of sunflowers had to turn their heads away. We were heading towards the border of Botswana, where we’d be visiting schools around Mahikeng on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

This is a place of thorn and kokerboom (quiver) trees. Of grasslands and tired cows. Riding through Mmabatho we entered a village with such thick sand you could almost imagine a beach around the very next corner. Only the sand was orange, and water was one of the biggest challenges of the area.

So it was amazing to see a flourishing food garden at Malaik-gang Primary School, a veritable oasis where principal Evelyn Badibo has been pitting her will against this barren soil. With support from Food & Trees for Africa, the project has been such a success that kids have to go on a waiting list to join the Environmental Club, while over the past 14 years the school has won numerous Eduplant competitions, which recognise sustainable food gardens.

Evelyn is clearly of the “can do” school of thought: mulch pits in the centre of her circular beds retain and slowly spread water and she recycles and buries plastic bottles with small holes in the bottom, which are filled with water that slowly drips out in a homemade irrigation system. In every school we’ve been to so far, it’s this perseverance that determines a project’s success: “As long as I’m here,” says Evelyn, “I’ll never give up.”

Apart from having her own garden at home, Evelyn goes from school to school encouraging other teachers to start or improve their own gardens. She also mentors another 10 schools, meaning that not only do her children get to eat fresh, organic vegetables every day, but thousands of other little ones can do so too.

Vryburg, a stone’s throw from the Northern Cape, was a torturously hot and long ride for us. We were visiting Tigerkloof Combined School, initially a missionary service opened to develop local skills. Today, it’s a government school on 1 200 hectares of private land that, apart from teaching Grades R-12, practises holistic management techniques on 155 Nguni cattle and feeds the hostel from an organic vegetable garden.

Despite a comprehensive background in natural farming, project leader Maxwell Masasi’s policy is to let the children in his Environmental Club run the garden: “I want to inspire kids to have gardens at home, and to understand food production in a way that mimics nature.”

The heat slowly baking us, we rode to Moholeng and Maruping Primary School just outside of Kuruman to meet district co-ordinators for food security John Tlhage and Margaret Loeto, who believe gardens should be “living laboratories”.

While the food gardens wilted in the heat, the spirit of the educators involved in these gardens was steadfast.

“Apart from donating vegetables to needy people and children, the garden encourages children to attend school because they know they can eat here,” said Mrs Gae of Moholeng. The principal of Maruping, Mrs Gaetsewe, who “likes gardening too much”, was equally impassioned.

“Life is hard. If you grow your own food and medicine, it means you have to buy less.”

I certainly could buy less when I discovered my debit card had mysteriously disappeared. This meant we had to abort plans to venture deeper into the Kalahari via Ashkam and instead traverse the solitary road to Upington.

Fortunately we were not on camels – it took us a mere seven hours to reach our destination, stopping only to gawk at the giant Afro-like nests of sociable weavers that topped telephone poles like lollipops, while everything distorted under a carpet of desert heat.

The Green Kalahari, an irrigated fertile region on the banks of the Orange River that stretches south of Upington through endless vineyards (irrigated with quaint wooden water wheels) was a welcome respite. Augrabies Falls, thundering out a narrow channel in a barren landscape, is known by its Khoisan name Aukoerabis, meaning “the place of great noise”. We hiked the 9km-long Dassie Trail, trudging through a stony and unforgiving landscape with striking rock formations, most notably Moon Rock (a huge dome of smooth granite).

The ride to Springbok was equally daunting though no less beautiful: sun-baked hills vividly coloured in ochre, red, brown and listless greens under a faded sky, two half-wild horses watching us warily, fields of white quartz and the tiny town of Pofadder, where they aim to make the most of the sun with a solar power plant.

A small detour took us to Pella, a desert refuge centred around an old-world cathedral surrounded by date palms, which gave it an Arabian air. You can hardly believe it was built by two missionaries with no knowledge of building other than a German encyclopedia.

The mission station, a sanctuary for Khoisan driven out of Namibia, was as abandoned in the oppressive heat as the rest of the dusty town.

Back on the roads again, newly tarred blackness contrasting with the curiously colour-matched landscape, the monotony was finally broken by the harsh, rocky hills that precede the frontier town of Springbok and a thankfully cooler temperature.

Though we were too late to catch the wildflowers the area is famous for, Springbok is the heart of Namaqualand and where we’ll be leaving you for our next adventure. - Cape Times

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