MARULAS, MUD AND MAYHEM
Two directionally challenged journalists headed out into rural Zululand in a tiny Renault Kwid with nothing more than Google Maps in the midst of a storm in pursuit of the Umthayi Marula Festival.
This is what we discovered …
I guess that most stories end with the moral of the story. This one begins with it – when you find yourself in the midst of mud and mayhem and staring into an angry river that is flowing over a bridge, don’t drive through it. As two seasoned journalists, who made it through to the other end after much sloshing, clanking, spraying and praying, and who will now believe that warning about driving into flooding rivers that they themselves have probably penned many a time over the decades (and which appear on many a television reality show), don’t try this at home!
I guess that a strong dash of panic combined with the fear that, having gotten ourselves lost in the middle of nowhere, no-one would even know where to look should we disappear into one of many lake-like puddles that straddled the muddy roads, just kept us bumping along our rain drenched obstacle course.
As a member of the Search and Rescue team that we met at breakfast the next morning and who had spent the night searching for missing people informed us – without the help of wonderful local people (one standing on the edge of the bridge to point us in the right direction and another driving through in his 4 x 4 to help find a way through the torrent), we could have ended up on his list.
Thinking back on an unintended adventure that now tops sinking a (much larger) vehicle up to its axle in the Kalahari and another creeping down a cliff at nearly 90 degrees during my first 4 x 4 driving lesson in Gwahumbe, I can only say there had to be an easier way of following the trail of the mysterious marula.
It’s just that we didn’t know that when we set out at dawn, windscreen wipers thumping, to the eMfihlweni Royal Residence where the legendary Umthayi Marula Festival was about to take place.
I’m told that the event is an annual highlight that has been held near the town of Manguzi, formerly known as Kosi Bay, for decades. Last year’s event was apparently a very steamy affair with traditional Zululand temperatures over 40ºC. Sadly, this year’s was rained out.
THE MARULA ROAD
According to various official websites, the Umthayi Marula Festival which has taken place for over 20 years, attracts about 30 000 visitors from as far afield as Mozambique and Swaziland who gather together for a colourful celebration of culture and heritage.
Marulas are harvested in February. The first fruits of the marula are then made into a traditional beer. This magical brew is then presented by the women of the clan to Inkosi Tembe who blesses both the brew and the harvest. It is lauded as a ceremony which not only brings together a wide diversity of cultures but one which inspires people from far and wide to learn more about this fascinating indigenous fruit and ponder the possibility of this becoming South Africa’s next big cash crop.
But like any other uniquely South African crop – think rooibos tea which took us eons to officially make our own and which has some pretty special health and wellness properties –realising the full potential of the still humble marula will
probably have as many bends and bumps as the road that we faced en route back to the Jozini Tiger lodge where we were staying for duration of the festival.
Which takes me back to that winding road. We’d offered two of the organisers a lift and had scuttled out super early, packed breakfasts in hand. They were the perfect navigators, ushering us along a very wet but solid tarred road that went past the Ndumu Reserve and then the Tembe Elephant Park en route to the gravel turn off to the royal palace.
No more than a kilometre or two along what was already proving to be a rather slippery customer, we came face to bonnet with a very large puddle that filled a dip right across
the road. Already a bakkie was immersed in the mud on the other side of the pool with its occupants trying to dig it out and only larger 4 x 4s and SUVs were cautiously slipping through.
Our concern was that it was still raining very hard and, not only did we have no idea what was waiting on the other side of the pool, but guessed that this and any other puddles would be far larger when we returned after the festival ended at four.
Staring at something much the same size as our home swimming pools over the bonnet of a 1.0 Renault Kwid, our courage almost instantaneously evapourated. We secured our charges a lift and headed back to Manguzi for fuel. We’d resolved to return and reassess the watery hurdle once we had enough fuel to guarantee that we’d make it along what now looked much like a rally track.
Negotiating the road works into Manguzi proved challenging with streams of water flowing rapidly down into the already flooding town. We were over bridge number one. After straddling the ponds on the garage forecourt, we topped up and headed back – only to be met with a rather stern looking traffic officer who had now closed the road to the palace.
Together with other media vehicles, we hovered for a short while, but the message was quite clear – we had to turn back.
This is where things went very wrong we decided after we’d arrived back at the lodge and debated the whole debacle over coffee.
Without our navigators and chatting about whether or not the event would survive the storm and we had sadly missed it, we drove past the turning that would have taken us back the way we had come. Instead, we chugged on to the next turn to Jozini that took us to a gravel road to what seemed to be nowhere.
Not far into the drive, my colleague tentatively suggested that she did not recognise the road. Out came our phones and Google maps which reassured us that, if we continued for another 35 kms, we’d turn on to a short linking road that would return us to the tar.
The distance got longer as we went and the turning never emerged. We phoned another colleague in the tourism industry back in Durban. “Ah, rural tourism,” she said. “Don’t go East and head into rural Zululand.” It was already a bit late for that.
By now, we were coming to more massive puddles and, without a soul in sight, debated whether to head straight through the middle, left or right. Each time we took a gamble and paddled through one puddle, we braced ourselves for the next. Admittedly, it was misty, the bushy surrounds were thick and we only glimpsed the odd school or general store set well back from the road. So, no landmarks, no road signs and more and more water.
The only constant was the trusty cell phone mast ahead of us. All appetites had disappeared and our breakfast packs were abandoned on the back seat. Though, somehow, the boiled eggs and apples had escaped and were bopping about as we rattled on. Worth a smile even though a sense of hysteria was rising….
So, I phoned my poor, long suffering husband. Could he try and find where we were using the name of the road that Google maps was reassuring me we’d find 4kms ago? Nope, no roads with names (or codes) like that he told me – and then the cell phone signal died.
To cut a very long story short, we ended up terrifying the poor man as the signal returned and disappeared periodically and we found ourselves sloshing along in circles keeping our eyes on the ever present cell phone mast.
We flagged down one local and he turned us around but we soon realised that we weren’t heading in the right direction and flagged down another person who sent us in yet another direction. At last, I really knew what going nowhere fast meant. We decided that we had no intention of retracing our steps and taking on puddles that were far larger than the one that had frightened us away in the first place. Onwards and forwards.
Finally, we flagged down one last motorist in a mud splattered white van. Is this the road to Jozini, we asked. Could he help us get there? He confirmed that it was, in fact, the correct road (if you could call it that) and then asked in disbelief pointing to the little Kwid – ‘you have come all this way in that?”
Yes, we replied and he decided, there and then, that rescue was the only option. We could follow him back to Jozini, waiting on the side of the road whilst he disappeared down slippery banks to make deliveries.
Nerves somewhat stilled, we started to notice things around us – adorable groups of donkeys with down turned dripping ears huddled under bushes, cheeky piglets rushing across the road, a tortoise that had come out for a drink, goats delicately picking their way between wash aways and even, after slithering around a huge bend, a massive bull who promptly sauntered off after giving us the eye. Most heart-warming of all, a group of little boys, stripped down to their undies, were slipping and sliding in a large puddle with screams of delight.
It seemed like rainbows and silver linings until we met the mother of all puddles and a group of youngsters waving their hands in the air and urging us not to venture through. With our trusty guardian ahead, we were ushered off the road on to what was no more than a track and guided up hill and down dale under low hanging trees and back to the road on the other side of the water. A green note later to pay the rain toll, we were waved on to our next watershed moment.
We carefully continued with a river of storm water as a constant companion until we finally reached bridge two.
On we ducked and dived until we reached our nemesis, bridge three just before the town of Jozini. This is the end, I told my colleague and courageous driver. But, there was still no going back, so we dunked our little car into the river. At one point it stopped, making horrid clanking sounds. I was videoing the whole experience but dropped the phone. For a very long moment, everything was still until, finally, the car found a little traction and inched its way forward.
When we said goodbye to our guardian angel on the right side of the river, we were amazed to hear that his name, translated into English, meant Conqueror of the World. To us, he felt like that. A stop in Jozini to inspect the car, left us amazed. The hub caps looked like wilted flowers. Other than that, all was fine. No flat tyres and an engine that was still chugging.
This was the car that never called it Kwids, we decided, before hopping in and heading for the Jozini Tiger Lodge where we shared our story with many a guest who had either turned back or left the event which had, sadly, been cancelled. Until next year, then.
FINDING THE MARULA
On leaving the lodge via a steep driveway that had looked like a waterfall the day before and shaking our heads in disbelief at the sun emerged from the clouds over the Jozini Dam, we were in for another surprise. At the gate were a pile of marulas – almost a reminder that this was the reason we’d taken on the elements in the first place.
A picture opportunity at the very least.
On returning, I’ve done a bit of research into this enigmatic fruit which my friend google (you would think I’d have learnt by now) tells me is a key ingredient in many skin care formulations, jams and the Amarula liqueur that most South African’s have enjoyed.
Known as “the king of African trees” or, alternatively, either the marriage or the elephant tree, the marula tree is medium-sized and grows to between 9 and 18 metres tall. It is dotted across the bushveld, stretching from the upper KZN East Coast, through Mpumalanga and Swaziland and into Mozambique.
The trees themselves are deciduous and leafy and are either male or female. Extremely drought resistant, they manage to produce a good crop even when water is short supply, making them an important food source to rural communities. They are protected in South Africa.
The Marula season begins each year in mid-February and continues until May.
The fruits – which are famously (but inaccurately) said to make elephants tipsy – are the size of a small plum and have a light yellow skin with white flesh. They fall to the ground whilst still green and then ripen. I haven’t tasted one but I’m told that they are succulent and tart with a strong and distinctive flavour. Inside is a walnut-sized stone which protects the seeds.
The fruits of the marula tree can be eaten either raw or cooked and are commonly used to produce jam. When left to ferment, marula fruit can be used to produce various powerful alcoholic concoctions including beer and wine and the stuff of Herman Charles Bosman’s writings, mampoer.
Through the ages, marula fruit and even the trees, have had a number of different uses. The skin of the fruit can be burnt and used as a substitute for coffee. The wood is soft and used for carving while the inner bark can be used to make rope. This bark is also used to make both dye and ink and the tree itself has a number of uses in indigenous medicine – the green leaves relieve heartburn while the bark contains antihistamines.
On a more westernized level, not only the fruit, but also the nut, are rich in minerals and vitamins. Marula fruit pulp contains four times more vitamin C than oranges whilst the edible oil extracted from the seed or pip is rich in nutritious proteins and contains anti-oxidants. Marula essential oils are used as skin conditioners and are key ingredients in a number of skin products which are already sold via mainstream retailers.
Which brings me to the nub of our marula quest and the reason to head off to the Marula festival in the first place. Just what sort of potential is there for commercialisation, development and job creation in an area where these miracle trees grow quite prolifically but poverty remains a major issue?
Although the website for Amarula liqueur states that the marula is not allowed to be commercially farmed in South Africa, it seems that packaging plants already exist in both Mpumalanga and in KwaZulu-Natal and that the fruits have been commercially harvested for well over a decade. In 2016, it was announced that the KZN provincial government was investing R30 million into a processing plant which seems to be operational in Manguzi.
During last year’s festival, the provincial government said it would continue to work with both the Tembe clan and local municipalities to develop this factory in Manguzi to take full advantage of the fruit from two million Amarula trees growing in the province. The end result would help produce jams and oils that are in huge demand by local tourists and the international cosmetic industry. The operational plan identified the potential to employ almost 1 000 seasonal workers.
The national Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries valued the marula harvest at R1,1-billion as far back as 2014/15 and development of a supply chain features in the uThukela District Municipality’s Integrated Development Plan, too.
If these trees are of the same family as the mango, cashew, pistachio and sumac, what is stopping us from planting up orchards and developing new products?
Then comes the related potential agricultural tourism offshoot which was also identified during last year’s festival. If we can make chutney out of spekboom (another home grown wonder plant high in vitamin C), then why not marulas? Watch out Mrs Balls. This could usher in new recipes and our restaurants could conjure up a whole new form of local cuisine not to mention a few more liqueurs.
But we may have to cross a few bridges to get there first, it seems.
In 2022, the East3Route initiative which falls within the Lubombo Spatial Development initiative and links cross border tourism in South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland was relaunched at the Umthayi Marula Festival. It was first conceived in 1998 – but little more has been said about it.
The inertia could be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic or even politics in the region.
Alternatively, it could be because the marula remains an orphan crop.
Researchers define these as indigenous crops which are invariably grown by small or subsistence farmers. Although widely accepted as having undiscovered nutritional value and highly valued by local farmers, not to mention being perfectly suited to sub optimal growing conditions where soils are poor and water scarce, they have been all but ignored by the broader scientific and agricultural communities simply because they are not traded in large volumes on world markets like wheat, maize, rice and sugar.
But, in a world which is greedy for nutritional alternatives and one in which naturally sourced ingredients for medicines and cosmetics are becoming increasingly popular, this could be about to change. South Africa’s opportunities could, in fact, lie far closer to home than international investment.
Against this background, the importance of festivals such as the Umthayi Marula Festival should never be under estimated. However, actually seeing what is happening on the ground would require another trip to Manguzi. Only this time, I’d prefer to go when it isn’t raining …