Bush-bashing and banter on a trail of discovery


One day, when a herdsman was tending his chief’s cattle upon a hill somewhere in Southern Africa, the Tokoloshe appeared. With a tendency for mischief, the Tokoloshe decided to steal a couple of cows, and disappear. 

One day, when a herdsman was tending his chief’s cattle upon a hill somewhere in Southern Africa, the Tokoloshe appeared. With a tendency for mischief, the Tokoloshe decided to steal a couple of cows, and disappear. 

The herdsman, now scared and confused, ran back to his chief, to explain the theft. The chief was furious and ordered 1 000 warriors to search for the Tokoloshe.

The Tokoloshe, tired and thirsty from constantly evading its hunters, stopped at the village of a friend, a second chief. This chief offered the Tokoloshe rest and drink and, in return, the Tokoloshe gave him the cows he had so recently acquired.

Word spread, and when the first chief heard of this injustice, he ordered a further 3 000 warriors to attack the other chieftain. 

A war ensued and, despite fighting valiantly, the second chief began to lose. The Tokoloshe, unhappy with this outcome, resurrected the second chief’s dead warriors, and ordered them to fight on.

At the sight of the dead, the first chief’s men retreated, winning the war for the second chief. With the war over, the dead men turned into plants, in order to protect their chief forever. 

These plants are spotted throughout the gardens of the National English Literary Museum (NELM), where uber-storyteller Basil Mills leads the Scifest Discovery Trail.

The plants are aloe ferox, or bitter aloe and, when they bloom, their red flowers are a symbol of the bloodstained spears of warriors past.

The sap from the bitter aloe can be used as an insect repellent. But it is not the only plant with medicinal value. Also on the grounds is Leonotis leonurus, or wild dagga, which can be used to treat snake bites.

Vachellia Karoo, commonly known as sweetthorn, grows here in abundance, a particular favourite for giraffes due to its delicious leaves, and young, tender thorns. It is the thorn of this plant which is said to have made up the crown of Christ as he was dying on the cross. Other plants in this area include spekboom (Portulacaria afra), and pig’s ear (Cotyledon orbiculata).

All of this and a whole lot more pours out of Basil Mills on this walk. He has been described as Grahamstown’s own Steve Irwin, and boasts his own Wikipedia page in the Makana Media subsection.

He is infatuated with the outdoors – to such an extent that he cannot access certain parts of the building because a life of hard work has worn away the grooves on his fingers needed for the fingerprint scanner.

Armed with an impressive knowledge of South African vegetation, Mills leads the group through a cultural and environmental understanding of the gardens at NELM. 

“It’s got to incorporate some of the view of the Eastern Cape,” says Mills, speaking on how four of the province’s seven biomes are represented within the gardens, with the Karoo and Fynbos section distinguishable on the beginning of the walk. 

Yet, what is so impressive is not the cultural understanding of the NELM garden, but its ecological awareness as well. Behind the building sits a rooftop garden – beautiful in array and splendour – which acts as a filter for rainwater, and creates a runoff which is used to water other plants.

Water is pumped through the ground into large pools, presumably from a borehole-like structure, which allows the plants to be watered in their young state, and to keep the ground fertile.

(Active watering of the plants will conclude at the end of the year, the gardens will then be self-maintaining.)

The museum also boasts a recycling centre, with large quantities of the waste produced being used to make functional objects for the gardens, as well as to create crafts to help generate profit for low-income households in the surrounding areas. 

Yellowwood trees, representing the forest biome, sway at the museum’s entrance creating a contrast with the building’s columns and clean, minimal lines of the reflective windows.

Giant pencils act as endings to quotes inscribed in the floor by greats such as Olive Schreiner and Alan Paton.

However, grandeur comes at a price. Over R100 million has been spent on the building, R6 million in the garden, and R3 million on security.  

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