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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: South Africa – The Garden Route

By: Jim Bishop.

The last two months I’ve written about the Northern Cape of South Africa and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Originally we had planned to drive the Garden Route from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. However, we changed our plans to be able to visit the bulbs and wildflowers of the Western Cape at the peak of their bloom. We were still able to do a day trip to the Cape of Good Hope and a quick four day road trip on part of the Garden Route.

Storms River

The drive to the Cape of Good Hope includes some of the most beautiful ocean and mountain scenery in the world. The hills are covered with large proteas, leucadendrons, restios and countless other indigenous plants. Add in baboons, ostriches, penguins and a lot of marine life and it is a bit like visiting a giant outdoor zoo and botanic garden. We stopped at several places along the way just to walk around in the unusual plants.

Scott and Jim at the Cape of Good Hope

After Scott returned home, I flew to Port Elizabeth and set out on a driving tour back to Cape Town along the garden route. The road is slightly misnamed, since much of it was once forested but was mostly cut down years ago. What remains are large lumber plantations of non-native pines and many farms. The first stop on the drive was Storms River. Here the mountains drop off sharply into the Indian Ocean. Many small rivers have cut steep canyons into the mountains before dumping into the ocean. The large mountains dropping into the ocean with huge surf reminded me much of Big Sur in California. This is a relatively wet area of South Africa and there were a few remaining large trees and lots of ferns (including tree ferns), mosses and lichens. I took a short side trip to see one of the largest, at 120 feet tall, remaining Podocarpus falcatus trees, locally known as Tsitsikamma. Impressive but still small by comparison to our native redwood trees.

From Storms River I continued along the coast westward. I was amazed at all the large bays and estuaries that dotted the coast. Some were so large that they took more than an hour just to drive around. Most were loaded with all types of exotic birds. Just past the town of George, I turned northward into the mountains, heading to a much drier climate and towards the town of Oudtshoorn located in the Klein Karoo region. The drive and plants were spectacular, but there were almost no pullouts on the road to stop, explore and take in the scenery. Just before Oudtshoorn are many large ostrich farms. In fact, Oudshoorn still has many “feather palaces” that were built by fortunes made during the early part of the 20th century when ostrich feather hats were the style of the day. I ate dinner at small restaurant and sampled many of the chef’s specialty dishes made with ostrich. To my surprise, it has more the taste and texture of lean beef than chicken.

The next day, I drove through a large valley and then off-road for over an hour to reach one of the newer wild game preserves, Sanbona. This preserve was still being repopulated by native South African wildlife after having been 3 very large sheep ranches for over 300 years. Luckily, most of the native plants had survived. This area was desert-like and had a many aloes and succulents. Fortunately, our guide was more interested in plants than animals, but I’m sure I still drove her crazy asking the name of everything and often getting a common name response in Afrikaans. I got quite excited when I saw Crassula rupestris that looked exactly like the ones growing in my front garden. Rupestris means “living among the rocks” and sure enough they were growing right on top of rocks. Besides the plants, I saw white lions, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, zebras, baboons, oryx and many other animals.

Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden

Back on the road and headed to my last night accommodation in South Africa, there were whole hillsides of Aloe ferox. Also impressive and in bloom was a cliff aloe that sprawled down several feet on the cliff rock faces. I stayed in Worchester so that I could visit the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden. It was a somewhat cool and drizzly weekday and I pretty much had all 380 acres to myself. The lower 27 acres is a cultivated garden and contains 3000 species of plants, mostly succulents. Most notable were the aloes, many of which were still in bloom. The hills above the garden are home to 400 plant species that are naturally indigenous to the garden's premise. The hills are uplifted sheets of red sandstone and reminded me of desert hills you might see in Arizona, only instead of cacti they were covered with succulents, bulbs and flowering shrubs.

As I was getting nearer the winelands area of South Africa, I was starting to see fruit orchards in bloom. Most appeared to be either plums or apricots. They were grown along tall fences and trimmed to only be a couple of feet across. I assumed this was to make them easier to harvest. My flight out of Cape Town was early evening and I took one last side trip to visit two of the most famous winelands towns, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. The white colonial Dutch buildings and vineyards made me think Savannah, Georgia meets the Napa Valley. However, both towns were set against backdrop of steep and rugged mountains. I explored the relatively small but well maintained University of Stellenbosch Botanical Garden which featured a large collection of native Oxalis and Pelargoniums and a surprising bonsai collection.

Fish pond at Babylonstoren Vineyard

My final stop was the Babylonstoren Vineyard and a perfect way to end a trip to South Africa. It had beautiful white colonial Dutch architecture set in the middle of a vineyard with a backdrop of rugged mountains. A natural stream ran through the property and had been diverted to water the garden and create interesting water features. The highlight however was the eight acres of cultivated fruit and vegetables gardens. In 2007 the plan for the garden was created by French architect Patrice Taravella. It comprises 15 clusters spanning vegetable areas, stone and pome fruits, nuts, citrus, berries, bees, herbs, roses, ducks, donkeys, chickens, turkeys as well as a prickly pear maze. Gravity feeds water from a stream by rills into the garden, flowing through ponds planted with edible lotus, nymphaea lilies and native water onion. There are over 300 edible plants. The natural stream on the far side of the property explodes with 7000 clivia lilies.

A short 30 minute drive to the airport and a brief 33 hours of travel time and I was back in San Diego!

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