I’m constantly surprised at how poorly the Midlands region of Kwazulu-Natal is known among the Midlands people themselves. Perhaps it’s a feeling that it’s all too ordinary and doesn’t measure up to the splendour of the Wild Coast, the “Big Five” game reserves and other faraway places. Almost without exception, when I ask a Maritzburger if he’s been to Cumberland (a small privately-owned gem of a reserve about twenty minutes’ drive from our city centre,) the answer is “What’s that?”
The same applies to most of the places that aren’t almost along some main route, as Richmond, Howick and Cato Ridge are. However, that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped in at those places and seen them. It merely means they have an idea of how to get there. But what about Muden, Dalton, Weenen or Creighton? Creighton? Where’s that? Let’s take a look.
Most of the small remote towns and villages are essentially farming centres, catering for the needs of the local community, and not bothering too much about the outside world, as long as it leaves them alone. They’re small settlements, and very quiet, boasting a near absence of traffic, and a seemingly total absence of urgency. Those situated along main routes (the ones that haven’t been bypassed by new highways or main roads, that is,) have at least some kind of commercial or tourism component that caters for the possible wants of non-residents.
But Creighton is a stand-alone village, dusty and in some ways forlorn, boasting a few businesses along the main road as well as quite a fancy municipal complex which stands in the grounds of the Creighton Railway Station. And that’s where the really interesting part of the village is. The railway station, home to the steam trains that occasionally ply the lines to Donnybrook and Riverside has become a sort of institution in its own right. It’s known to steam rail buffs and enthusiasts throughout the country, and far beyond the borders too.
The time for Creighton and all its people is July. It’s festival time, the Aloe Festival. It’s held each year in July, and has become hugely popular, attracting visitors from as far afield as Alldays in Limpopo, the bulk being made up by the Durban and Maritzburg gang who’re able to treat the visit as a day outing. The chief attraction is undoubtedly the steam train trip to Riverside and back. The line winds through the aloe valley, with literally millions of flowering aloe plants jostling for place on the rocky hillsides. They provide a spectacular show, a sight not soon to be forgotten. In former years the Festival was held on just one weekend in July, with one train trip per day, but soon became so popular that it now spans three weekends with two trips per day.
The catering is done by the local farming community, and activities are based at the Farmers’ Club, directly across the road from the railway station. Even though the morning train ride would leave as late at ten o’clock, stallholders got going early on erecting their stalls and setting out their displays of merchandise. The goods were greatly varied, many including goodstuffs like preserves, honey and yoghurt. There was a chap selling candyfloss, guaranteeing many kids sticky hands during the day, and a coffee kiosk was doing major business. Over all of this there was the relentless aroma of frying bacon where bacon-and-egg rolls were being snapped up as fast as the servers could slap them together. On a chilly winter’s morning like this, it was the best way to keep one’s mind off freezing hands, feet and noses.
With the parking area almost full, the queue for breakfast snaked deeper between the stalls, and the tables in the dining area filled up quicker than the Kings Park grandstand at a Sharks home fixture. There was a steady stream of cars still trying for a spot in the parking field, the dust beginning to rise from the dry sports field as the dew evaporated, and the sun at last peeped over the surrounding trees to begin warming the assembled revellers.
To the beat of drums, a group dancing girls began to sway and leap, taking turns for solo slots. They’d gone to plenty of trouble with their costumes, and had obviously put in substantial time at practising their routine. They’d probably chosen their moment poorly, because everyone was intent on finding his or her place on the train, and most didn’t take the time to watch. I found that sad, as it was to have been the only inclusion of the local black community in the festivities.
Gradually the attention, along with most of the visitors, moved across the road to the railway station where the Garrett steam loco had been huffing up and down the track, and was now firmly attached to the train of carriages that would transport the crowd to and beyond the aloes. The group became a small crowd as seats were allocated, and passengers drifted off to find their places. All around were experts on trains discussing deeply technical matters, and of course the photographers were about three-deep everywhere. Last minute checks were done on the locomotive and control systems, and suddenly, it was time to go.
The Durban gang and I had decided not to travel on the train, but instead to chase the train by road, having sussed out a few promising spots for pictures. Oddly, we didn’t realise others would be doing that too, and that there’d be competition for positions at those spots. At the first level crossing several vehicles were parked directly in our line of sight, but the owners were happy to move them after being threatened with violence and fence posts. From this point the train would be out of sight for some time as there would be a stop in the aloe valley to let off the passengers for aloe shots, and the train was to be backed up and then driven back down the track amid smoke and steam to provide a train photo opportunity for the travellers. They were then to re-embark and trundle along towards Riverside. At the level crossing we were treated to a grandstand display of raw selfishness as a group of motorcyclists put their idea of recreation ahead of our safety and enjoyment.
To kill some of the waiting time we stopped at an attractive little church along the road for some photos. Arlene Mullins befriended a local girl and asked the name of the church, to be told it was The Katolik Church. Good enough. It was odd to see this obviously well-built and planned structure amid the rural homesteads and huts that stood in profusion in all directions. We stopped at several spots to view and photograph the surroundings, watched at one place by a trio of colourfully clad youngsters who were fascinated by this unusual activity.
The train took longer to reach us than I’d anticipated, and I began to worry that we’d missed it completely. Then we saw a belch of black smoke escape over the brow of a hill from the valley behind. Action stations were at hand again. I doubt whether the Australian troops on the beach at Gallipoli in the First World War had been subjected to as withering a rate of fire as we directed at the distant train. It was a chance that wouldn’t last too long, and then we had to be back in the vehicles and off to the next vantage point. Murphy had his way, though, as while we were stopped we were overtaken by two gigantic trucks laden with bricks, kicking up a monumental cloud of dust along the length of that narrow twisting road. The frustration was physical.
Having taken some chances to overtake the trucks, we were to find about a kilometre farther along that the train had come to a complete stop on the long straight running down to Riverside siding. This was great for us, and we managed to fill our camera cards with images we’d never anticipated getting. Even our friend Allan Bower, a train passenger, got involved, photographing us as we did him. A very friendly lady with a massive bundle of thatch grass on her head was happy to pose for us, showing great delight at the results on our camera screens. At last the train rolled gently down the slope to the siding, coming to a very genteel stop.
The next job was to move the loco to the other end of the train for the return journey to Creighton. Hordes of passengers watched every move as if worried about their safety, and then, satisfied at the completion of the operation, they moved off to inspect one of the most intriguing buildings I think I’ve ever seen.
I have to find out something about its history, but it looks as if it was a small hotel at some stage, borne out by the quaint “rocket” type concrete public telephone cubicle on the verandah. The door height was just made for Kevin Mullins. I hadn’t seen one of those for decades. I was really lucky, after everyone had gone off, to have the services of four very willing, patient and natural models on the verandah.
With much gesticulation and stentorian shouting the impatient train-master herded the flock back onto the train, and off they went. We were in no mood for another hell-bent drive along that road, and Kevin and I agreed to meet again at the first level crossing in case a decent pic or two were on offer. In the event, the light was now very poor near the middle of the day, and a record shot was all I could see. And then back to the Farmers’ Club, and lunch.
As most of you are aware, I’m not one for crowds, and there really was a crowd at the Club. So that was it for me and my day, and I took my leave of the Durban crew who were by now, seated on rows of hay bales, cheerfully munching away at what looked like a feast. It had been a good day with good folks, and I have to congratulate the Creighton community on a wonderful occasion. Long may it grow and bring prosperity to their village and surrounds.
To my astonishment, I realised as I was editing the day's shots, that they didn't include a single picture of an aloe. So here's one I took a year ago, from the top of the koppie overlooking the valley and Riverside. These aloes are just magnificent.