Christopher List takes timeout from the Midlands Madness.
Christopher List takes timeout from the Midlands Madness.
Cruising into the sunset. Pictures: Christopher List
Cruising into the sunset. Pictures: Christopher List

Durban - 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. 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.

After the 17th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, we were interested to see what Durban was doing for the environment. Part of a walking tour for delegates, the Priority Zone was implemented by eThekwini Municipality and Drake and Scull Facilities Management to transform the inner city from a crime- and grime-ridden area into a pleasant public space.

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 three percent – resulting in a 40 percent reduction of air conditioning in summer.

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. 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.

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 eight colleagues began a vegetable garden where patients can come buy fresh organic fruit and vegetables. 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, 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.

The highway up to Pietermaritzburg was characterised by stretches of inexplicable concrete-riven lines that made riding somewhat hallucinatory. Then there was the crazed traffic cop who pulled us over to tell us that we must drive 120km/h 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 among the hills.

In stark contrast to the beauty surrounding it, Sifisesihle Primary school is located in Mpophomeni, a township just outside Howick. Sifisesihle is an initiative of the Midlands Meander Education Project (MMAEP), which aims to make caring for the environment fun with creative lessons that integrate with the curriculum.

After visiting the school’s permaculture garden, we chatted to Eidin Griffin, food garden facilitator of MMAEP and manager of SEED’s Outdoor Classroom Education Programme, before heading to her rambling farmhouse where we’d be spending the night. 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.

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. When we arrived 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. The next day we hiked to the Karkloof Nature Reserve, with the second-largest tract of indigenous forest in SA, and visited Howick Falls, one of the world’s most dangerous waterfalls with more than 40 recorded deaths since 1851. 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 that aim to showcase sustainable, community living – Five Streams near Nottingham Road and Zuvuya, near Howick. We camped at both spots in a tent and a yurt (a dome-shaped traditional shelter used by nomads in central Asia) respectively, waking to mist-covered hills and babbling brooks like something out of a fairy tale. Indeed, life in an eco-village can seem far from reality, with its notions of caring, sharing and self-sufficiency. Three days of rain and we were back on mist-shrouded country roads – the only time I saw a car was (naturally) when my pants were around my ankles.

Catch us next time as we travel the Battlefields Route to the Drakensberg, the long way round.

l Andrews and List are on a 7500km carbon-neutral scooter safari to document SA’s natural beauty and inspiring environmental projects that aim to conserve this. Follow them at or www.facebook. com/EcoFriendlyAfricaTravel - Cape Times