I’ve had the good fortune to be a friend of Keith “Chubby” Bales for some 20 years now. He’s the founder and owner of Gwahumbe Indigenous Nursery, near Mid-Illovo, KZN. It started as a business contact but we soon found common ground in our love of trees and plants, and never looked back. It’s one of those friendships that tolerates gaps of two days or two years without skipping a beat.
The nursery isn’t the sort of place for a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll and tea and scones. It’s set in a wild valley, and occupies virtually the entire valley floor with ranks and rows and stands of almost any species of South African tree you could name, from seedlings to four or five metres tall. There are tunnels with many thousands of plants, succulents and shrubs of untold variety. It’s a place of magic, where trees rule, and people serve.
There is a special part of that valley that each winter puts on a display unrivalled for colour. Keith has embraced aloes as a speciality, and to see the the carpet of yellows, oranges, reds and whites in June and July is unforgettable.
Spending an hour with the man among the flowering plants that are alive with beetles and bees is to experience the best that nature can provide. He explains the natural hybridisation of many of the plants, and points out some plants that are difficult to find in the wild, with at least one that as yet has no classification. His enthusiasm is almost as rich as the colours as he points out plants and facts that are seldom encountered by the casual observer.
The nursery supplies plants to all parts of South Africa, often to property developers for use along roads or in gardens around shopping malls or commercial complexes. Being a wholesale nursery, it isn’t open to the public, unfortunately, and just a privileged few will have the pleasure of immersing themselves in that sea of colour.
Always on the lookout for new material for propagation, Keith travels far and wide, collecting seeds and cuttings where he can. His passion for off-road motoring takes him to remote places where his trained eye homes in on plants that would be good to add to the already wide variety. That was the reason for the phone call.
“How about a ride down to the Transkei to look for the white Aloe ferox?” asked Keith when he called me one morning in July 2017. “I know where to find them and I’d like to take a few cuttings if possible. Please ask Nola if she’d like to come along, and let me know.” We agreed on the following Tuesday. We’d meet him at Gwahumbe and leave from there.
The trip didn’t start well as Nola Meiring, my photo partner, and I fell foul of several roadworks “stop ‘n go” spots and arrived late at the nursery, to find Keith battling to resolve staff issues for the day. At last we were on our way, stopping for a leisurely breakfast at the Mount Currie Motel just outside Kokstad, and then on to Mount Ayliff, deftly dodging potholes all the way. By that time most of the morning was gone, and I was beginning to wonder what time we’d get back to Gwahumbe and then Maritzburg, again having to negotiate the roadworks.
We found the aloes standing to attention, waiting for us, coating a hillside opposite the Mount Ayliff Boxer store complex. Tom Jones’ song “A field of yellow daisies” came to mind as we stared at the array of rich reds, oranges, yellows and whites that made the dun winter grass and scrub look even more dismal. The normal red ferox was the predominant colour, interspersed with the first white ferox plants I’d ever seen, and here and there the far less common orange inflorescences poked through. The very dry conditions of the past few years had turned many of the leaves to browns and salmon colours with some of the normal grey-green still visible. The plants, one of southern Africa’s largest single-stemmed aloes, ranged in size from knee-high seedlings to a few metres tall, and stood cheek by jowl with little space to walk between them.
Keith took a more scientific approach, studying the plants for their variety, while Nola and I, festooned with lenses, flashes and camera bodies, plunged into the jungle, taking care in the deep trenches created by many decades of soil erosion. Everywhere we turned we were confronted with colour, and were soon immersed in recording things we’d never seen before and were unlikely to experience again. We searched out the “perfect” blooms for special attention, but were aware of the need for record shots of all stages of the flowers; even the ragged stems found their way onto our camera cards. The warm midday sunshine had brought out the bees in multitudes to attend to the job of pollinating for seeds that would bring new plants the following year.
Here and there were some interesting distractions like these colourful fungi on the gnarled stems.
To my amazement Keith had decided to head farther south – we were already well into the afternoon, and some distance beyond Mount Ayliff we turned off the N2 onto a road that would wind its rural way over hills and through valleys eventually to enter the metropolis of Flagstaff. It turned out to be a good decision as the scenery was spectacular and we found many more pockets of aloes. The sentries guarding the roads didn’t show much interest in anything at all as they soaked up the mellow mid-afternoon glow.
There was even time for a poor quality selfie, rescued only by Nola’s charm and Keith’s dashing looks.
We reached the chaos of Flagstaff as the shadows were stretching, and headed off on back roads towards Harding. I saw no good reason for this, but Keith had a hidden agenda. Shortly before lurching through Harding in the gathering gloom, we pulled off the road to inspect yet more aloes. Thank heavens for good flashes and high ISO settings as we hurriedly dashed off a few shots in the late evening, the results, once we saw them on the computer screens surprisingly good, given the dreadful photography conditions.
The day wasn’t yet over, we were to find. Driving now in total darkness, Keith managed to spot the next field of aloes at the roadside about 20 km after passing through Harding. It was a scramble getting through a barbed wire fence with all the gear doing its utmost to hook and snag wherever possible, but by then my enthusiasm for photos had waned somewhat and I didn’t test my skills in the dead of the African night. I never found out if Nola had got anything presentable, but at least Mr Bales was happy at having located this spot.
R56 traffic at night around Mzimkhulu, Ixopo and Richmond isn’t for the meek, and to make matters even more tense, Keith quietly admitted to me that he didn’t enjoy night driving. We found our way back to Gwahumbe just before ten pm, bade the proprietor good evening and made haste for Hilton after which I had still to return to Wembley.
It had been a long, long day, but worth every minute, and Nola and I often still talk about it. We were both very grateful to Keith for including us, and now and again he still rumbles about another jaunt, perhaps to view a hillside of Bottlebrush Aloes (A rupestris) near Weenen Game Reserve. Can’t wait.