Farming in Zululand

2008-03-28 00:00

BEING married to a keen “birder” and hence linked to the Pietermaritzburg Birding Club, has many positive and negative aspects. It involves travel of note and also great cost.

To find the elusive Cinderella Waxbill in northern Namibia cost R20 000 in travel costs and three weeks’, loss of income. The positive side is that I am regularly able to check out the farming world.

Our latest excursion involved a long weekend at Cape Vidal 35 kilometres north of the town of St Lucia.

The coastal area from Durban northwards is covered with quality sugar cane. The rainfall has been pretty good this season but it must have been somewhat patchy along the coast because the cane was not the best I have seen even among the bigger commercial farmers.

Most of the 144 000 small cane-growers are found further inland and if one bothers to have a look you will find that their cane is generally very poor even in a good season. We could blame bad management for this but maybe it has something to do with the quality of the soils they inherited?

Both locally and internationally you can find reports regarding the great success of the small cane-growers “project” in KwaZulu-Natal. It would be useful to know the realities of this

“project”. Initially I would like to suggest that most of these growers did not ask to become sugar farmers, nor did they ask for the loans that are required to grow the crop and, finally, only a small percentage actually wanted to enter the tough business world of agriculture. How can the “project” survive under these conditions? It would be interesting to know the realities.

Approaching Empangeni, instead of cane, increasingly timber is grown and it appears to do extremely well in these conditions. The height of the eucalyptus trees is something to see.

Further north towards Hluhluwe and Mkhuze the great cattle ranches are slowly but surely being replaced with game farms. There is still some evidence of the old abandoned cotton lands and sisal plantations but it is only the few pine-apple plantations that have resisted the move towards game farming and game lodges.

Some of these lodges are financially sound but many seem to have a low occupancy rate. The Zululand bushveld is a great place to chill out but maybe the supply of lodges has outdone the demand — at least initially?

From Mtubatuba, it is a short 35 kilometres to St Lucia and the entrance to the Cape Vidal game reserve is just outside St Lucia as one heads north. Approaching the main gate I was proudly armed with my new Wild ard purchased from the Midmar resort outside Howick. The Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife signs were emblazoned across the entrance but as I handed my Wildcard over I was informed that the game reserve is now under new management and the Wild card is not accepted.

It will be interesting to know who now owns this magnificent piece of land. Although it is pretty expensive to either camp or stay in the beautiful chalets, the place was packed, mainly with fishermen.

So maybe game lodges in Zululand are an obvious alternative to the agriculture that existed in the old days. To ensure the continued influx of tourists to Cape Vidal it will need the development of reasonable facilities in the camping areas and some maintenance on the very special lodges.

The area from St Lucia stretching north to the Mozambique border, Maputaland, is bounded on the west by the Lebombo mountains. This whole area is mainly communal agriculture where

ownership of the land is vested in the local chief.

The farming practices resulting from communal land ownership have developed over many years and are typified by heavily stocked veld and scratch-patch grain crops. These practices are often frowned upon because they are seen as resulting in low production and environmental degradation.

Government policy is to attempt to help these people out of their poverty trap through

introducing commercialisation. This is a huge challenge which has not yet been addressed

adequately.

It is so difficult to introduce commercial ideas when individual entrepreneurial spirit is subdued by the communal way of living.

As part of the commercialisation programme — or is it “returning the land to its rightful owners”? — Ndumo game reserve and the Tembe Elephant Reserve have been handed over to the local communities. No doubt suitable management will be used to maintain these incredibly valuable natural environments.

Some of the birders continued from Cape Vidal to Mkhuze game reserve. According to one of our ardent Pietermaritzburg birders, Rob Melville, the camp site at Mkhuze is in excellent condition.

Thankfully my better half returned with eight ‘Lifers’ to add to her long list of bird species. This was mainly as a result of having top birders like Adam Riley, the owner of Rockjumpers Birding Tours, leading the pack.

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