Visit KZN’s own cradle of humanity

2008-07-17 00:00

To Joy and Richard Alcock’s grandchildren, playing outside on the stoep of their grandparents’ farmhouse on a warm December evening in 2005, it looked as if a “white mist” had suddenly appeared over the riverine thickets which fringed the small Mhlopeni stream. However, this was no mist but was instead the beginning of a nightmare for the Alcocks, who had spent close on 30 years managing the Mhlopeni Game Ranch near Muden. In a matter of minutes both bush camps in what Graeme Coutts, a regular visitor, describes as a “thorny paradise”, had been totally destroyed by fire.

A Witness article of December 21, 2005, indicated that arson was strongly suspected as both camps, situated about 300 metres from each other, burnt down within minutes. The fires were thought to be linked to a restitution land claim on 50 farms in the area gazetted on September 2, 2005, by members of the Azibuy’emasisweni community.

I had fond memories of two visits to Mhlopeni prior to the fires. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when an e-mail earlier this year indicated that the arsonists had been unsuccessful in driving off the Alcocks and that Mhlopeni was still in business. With a friend as photographer, I set out for Mhlopeni with a view to publicising this amazing place.

Although Mhlopeni Game Ranch has a good selection of game, including the comparatively rare

klipspringer, and is something of a birders’ Mecca, it was not these things that attracted me to the deep, quiet, stony valley carved out over aeons by the Mhlopeni stream. Despite its present remote and deserted appearance, Mhlopeni and the surrounding area represent “at least 1,5 million years of human occupation”, according to a report written by Gavin Whitelaw, an archaeologist at the Natal Museum.

Upon our arrival at the farmhouse, Richard Alcock started our guided tour with an examination of the artefact table on the front verandah. This fascinating display comprises artefacts from Mhlopeni, covering a time span from the Early Stone Age to modern times. Our tour continued with a trip to the newly reconstructed camp. Wisely roofed with iron instead of inflammable thatch, the new camp lies in the cool, quiet shade of unusually tall acacias intermingled with other species, including a number of fine Celtis africana (white stinkwood) trees.

Not far from the camp lies what was once a large early Iron Age settlement occupied in the AD 600s. At first sight it appeared to be nothing more than a large patch of disturbed ground but with the aid of Richard’s expert eye the whole settlement started to come alive. He showed us the excavated site of a hut floor. Close by, a pile of snuffbox ironstone demonstrated that these were indeed ironmakers and this was further confirmed when pieces of the clay pipe used to provide a blast of air into the furnaces were found scattered on the ground. Despite the already extensive collection of clay pots removed to museums, the ground is still littered with fragments of pottery. Stone Age artefacts also occur in abundance at the site.

On the way back to the farmhouse I asked what attracts visitors from all over the country to come to this remote place. Alcock replied that it is the very remoteness that attracts many people. Mhlopeni provides a rare chance for the visitor to “drop out of the 21st century”. In place of jarring cellphones, milling crowds and the stresses of modern life, Mhlopeni offers the ageless calm of the bush, the gentle diurnal rhythm of nature and the ghosts of long-forgotten peoples.

Back at the house, Joy was eager to give me an update. Rebuilding the camps has not been easy for the Alcocks. No bank was willing to give them a loan because a land claim has been registered against the farm. Joy has assembled a bulging file of evidence as to why the Mhlopeni Valley should be maintained as a reserve.

Perhaps the most pressing reason, other than the rich archaeological heritage, is that Mhlopeni lies in one of the most threatened vegetation types in the country, namely the Thukela Valley Bushveld. Although unlikely ever to be restored completely to a pristine state owing to the ravages of years of human exploitation, the reserve represents a marked advance on any of the neighbouring properties. These demonstrate all too clearly the destructive effects of exceeding the carrying capacity of this fragile ecosystem — a dire legacy of the time when much of the thornveld consisted of overcrowded, white-owned labour farms. In Mhlopeni’s case 30 years of slow healing could be undone in a mere three years by an invading army of goats and cattle.

Despite the severe setbacks, at the time of writing the first bush camp has been completed and plans are afoot to offer training in bushcraft to those interested in such skills as archery, tracking and survival.

On our way back to the main road, we stopped at one of several Late Iron Age sites. Clearly visible were the remains of four ancient furnaces. Dating has proved difficult but archaeologists estimate that the site could be anything from 300 to 1 000 years old.

We had just enough time for one more visit before setting out for home. This time it was to see a bushman painting hidden from view in a rock overhang on the side of a small flat-topped koppie, a very different location from the usual rock art sites in the Drakensberg. The painting, although faded, contains some fine examples of polychrome eland as well as a rather whimsical line of 14 small, white warthogs playing follow-my-leader. Had time allowed we could have driven on a few kilometres to a site where stone peckings are to be seen.

After a visit such as this, one is left with the question of what should happen to Mhlopeni. I am not alone in thinking that the worst outcome would be for farming to be resumed, allowing Mhlopeni and its rich heritage to return to Joy’s “dust bowl” of 30 years ago. A far better solution would be the development of Mhlopeni and indeed of the whole stunningly beautiful Muden area as a major tourist destination — thereby offering a far better livelihood for the local community than eking out a mean subsistence on rapidly deteriorating land.

• Those interested in learning more about Mhlopeni are invited to contact the Alcocks at 033 496 1722 or by e-mail at School groups are also very welcome.

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