By Niren Tolsi
The mountains meet the Indian Ocean on the Wild Coast. At Ebulawu, south of Port St Johns, green-topped peaks undulate up towards sheer drops into the blue maelstrom below, where waves crash against cliffs of white, grey and red.
Vines hang heavy on centuries-old trees. The vegetation's lush hypnotism is a reminder that this is psychotropic territory in every sense. The descent into the ravines takes us down paths darkened by impenetrable tree canopies.
Forests give way to clearings, which give way to squares of crops - and back again. Navigating down the steep inclines, one is soon walking in fields of marijuana, where stalks are star-spangled with leaves and crystalline flowering buds. Some plants are shoulder high, others are stunted by drought.
Ebulawu is one of the heartlands of Pondoland marijuana. These are fields of green.
The strains of Cannabis sativa cultivated at Ebulawu have been famous for generations. Locals, tourists, visiting fishermen and dealers have been buying, smoking and selling the marijuana for decades. Some locals barter their crops for anything from food to appliances. Customers come from as far away as Pretoria and Cape Town to buy bulk for resale.
"My grandfather planted before me, I remember he planted three or four mountains away from here," says Michael*, 62, pointing northward. "My father didn't plant at all. I didn't either, until I came back from the mines in 1989."
Michael had been working as a miner in Welkom when he was retrenched. He says one day his benefit pay-outs stopped - with no explanation. To supplement an income from catching and selling fish to tourists - and to support his nine children - Michael began growing marijuana.
Employment in the area is limited to cleaning the cottages that white tourists and anglers have built on land obtained on long-lease from local chiefs, sometimes in exchange for alcohol and a feast for the village. Or selling the abundant harvest of fish, mussels and shellfish to tourists - the going rate for a whole steenbras the length of one's forearm, says Michael, is about R50.
There are no other jobs in this lush paradise. Men will go to the mines if they can, committing themselves to the penury of hard migrant labour, only seeing their families two or three times a year. Women will tend the fields growing mealies, spinach, cabbage and vegetables for subsistence. Money for clothes, school uniforms and books or cellphone airtime comes from social grants, seafood sales - and marijuana.
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Thumbnail: Wikimedia Commons