Susan Worner Tours

South Africa: Gardens of the Cape

Gardens offering a wide range of flora, vineyards as far as the eye can see, wild flowers unique to the region, magnificent ocean views and warm hospitality – a memorable tour of the Cape region of South Africa in November 2016.

Our arrival at Cape Town is awesome: We have left behind a northern winter to be greeted not only by sparkling blue skies and the majestic mountains surrounding the city, but also by the warm smile of our regular driver, Charles.

We quickly set off eastwards to Stellenbosch, a university town founded in the early C17 at the foot of the Simonsberg Mountains. With its Cape Dutch architecture, oak tree-lined streets and mauve jacaranda trees in full bloom, it is stunningly beautiful. After checking into the Hotel Oude Werf, we walk to the University Botanic Gardens for lunch, followed by an informative introduction to the flora of the Cape by our guide and former curator of the gardens, Wim Tijmens. It is the perfect way to set the scene for the tour to follow.

The next morning we drive towards the Simonsberg Mountains to visit a privately owned manor house and wine estate recently taken over by a new generation of the family. The head gardener, Pietman, is assisting the owners with renovating and extending the garden, and he introduces us to this superb estate set against a mountain backdrop with extensive grazing land rolling down to the valley. The landscaping includes sunken garden, richly planted double herbaceous borders, slender cypress trees that bring to mind Tuscany, and a white garden surrounding the Cape Dutch-style manor house.

South Africa - Rustenberg garden

South Africa – Rustenberg garden

We continue to the wine estate where we discover another beautifully designed garden with maze, lily-lined pool and borders. Moving on to the vineyards on the mountainside, we enjoy a picnic lunch with estate-produced Rustenberg wine while taking in the long views towards the Hottentot Holland mountain range.

We drive on to Kenilworth, a hillside suburb of Cape Town, to discover another private garden, Stellenberg, renovated and developed by owner Sandy Ovenstone. Featuring extensive lawns around the Cape Dutch house, with English oaks (Quercus robur) introduced by early settlers, it has an intriguing mosaic of garden rooms and parterres. Recent work to take in hand the boggy stream has introduced a contrasting, somewhat wilder, atmosphere. In an inspired stroke, David Hicks transformed the former walled garden for a special anniversary, dividing it between exuberant planting and symmetrical beds with clipped edging!

Managing a wide range of plants in the Cape can be challenging. English oaks may not thrive, as the climate is too warm with virtually no winter frosts. In addition, we learn that Sandy’s gardeners lift all the perennials late in their autumn to give them a few months in a cold glasshouse to emulate winter in northern Europe.

On day three we set off eastwards away from the coast to Elgin, situated in a major apple-producing region. Here we discover an amazing garden on a windy hilltop with pine trees planted as a windbreak, where Peter and Barbara have assembled a great collection of plants. If the garden looks natural, it is clearly the result of immense dedication on their part, with rambling roses climbing up trees and bushes, rhododendrons in flower, and candelabra primula – we have the impression that the seasons are all mixed up!

The region has a primarily Mediterranean climate, but with more humidity, although rainfall has been scant in recent times and there was none at all during the last southern winter (2016). This has left the reservoirs worryingly low. Soil conditions are acid – hence the presence of rhododendrons.

Even so, wildflowers including iris are thriving: On the edge of woodland we see the striking blue sceptre (Aristea capitata), while the tall golden sceptre, Wachendorfia thyrsiflora, is flowering in a marshy patch.

Blue sceptre Aristea capitata in Kirstenbosch garden

Blue sceptre Aristea capitata in Kirstenbosch garden

After stopping at a local farm shop for lunch we pass the Villersdorp Reservoir and cross the wild mountains of the Kogelberg, where we spot pincushions (Leucospermum) of the Protea family, before descending through the lovely village of Franschhoek in wine-growing country.

The afternoon ends with a visit to the studio and garden of sculptor Dylan Lewis in the hills above Stellenbosch. Well known for his sculptures of mountain leopards, Dylan has also created an impressive garden with indigenous plants, sitting areas and coppices that form the setting for his figures. In real life, the leopards are shy and rarely sighted, though they have been caught on camera. We round off our visit with a glass of bubbly as the sun goes down over the mountains: a wonderful end to the day’s travelling in an idyllic setting.

In the morning, Kirstenbosch Gardens awaits us, and a glimpse of South Africa’s history. The land was bought by Cecil Rhodes in 1895, planted with an avenue of camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) and Moreton Bay figs (Ficus macrophylla), and then bequeathed to the government in 1902. It was the arrival in the same year of Harold Pearson as Chair of Botany at the University of Stellenbosch that led to the transformation into a botanical garden.

Kirstenbosch Gardens - pincushion plants (Leucospermum)

Kirstenbosch Gardens – pincushion plants (Leucospermum)

Kirstenbosch features principally indigenous plants in a setting beautifully laid out on a hillside with Table Mountain as a backdrop. Our guide, Moira, shows us some of the huge range of mostly Cape flora in the collection; at the highest point we find flowering king proteas (P. cynaroides) and a mass of pincushion plants (Leucospermum). The tree canopy walkway, built to commemorate the millennium, gives a superb view of the treetops and mountains beyond. To our delight, we spot young owls, their parents keeping an ever-watchful eye on them.

Returning towards the Simonsberg Mountains we take the road up the Jonkershoek Valley to the gardens of The Old Nectar. Created by the late Una van der Spuy over seventy years ago, the planting reflects her passion for roses, with many fine ramblers climbing over the pergola, and it features fine specimens of English oaks.

We round off the day’s adventures with a drive to the Helsgroote Pass and a memorable dinner at a wine estate restaurant: The views over sweeping rows of vines contend with the excellent, innovative cuisine for our attention!

The following day begins with a total change of scene as we explore the rich biodiversity of the Cape Point Nature Reserve. With its rugged cliffs, open and windswept spaces, and poor sandy soil, the area hosts indigenous wild flowers, known as fynbos, forming the smallest but richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms – and this is our chance to discover its astonishing wealth.

Here we find stands of the Cape snow (Helicrysum) growing alongside the original ancestor of all modern varieties of pelargonium, P. cucullatum. A highlight of our visit is the discovery of a cluster of lovely blue disa (Disa graminifolia) of the orchid family. We are struck by the delicacy of the flora, especially since fynbos needs frequent natural fire to burn thickly grown vegetation and allow the more fragile plants to bloom.

Cape Point Nature Reserve  - Disa graminifolia

Cape Point Nature Reserve – Disa graminifolia

Later in the day we explore the shore of the Cape of Good Hope. The sea is rough, cormorants are flying up and down the sea-line, an old shipwreck is being drenched by the tumbling waves. We return along the west coast passing Scarborough – very different from its namesake in the British county of Yorkshire – finally approaching Table Mountain and Lion’s Head where the lovely silver tree (Leucadendron argenteum) thrives.

Our next stop is a stunning garden within an extensive wine estate with Cape Dutch architecture. Babylonstoren was recently designed and laid out by talented French architect Patrice Taravella. The gardens, planned on a grid system, follow the theme of a “potager” and produce enough organically grown fruit and veg to supply the estate’s restaurant. Water is sourced from a mountain stream on edge of the garden, its banks used for the cultivation of an extensive collection of clivias.

The afternoon is devoted to visiting a garden in the hills above Stellenbosch featuring superb lawns stretching down to a lake and views over to the mountains. Here, too, there is an extensive kitchen garden including cut flower section. Peaceful and serene, the gardens have a special atmosphere: balm to the soul!

Babylonstoren Garden

Babylonstoren Garden

Next day, we pack our bags and set off through the mountain tunnel to the Breede Valley and then on to Worcester Desert Botanic Garden. This is our introduction to the fynbos and succulents of the Little Karoo, where we are to stay for the next three days.

We take the R60 along the valley, passing through Robertson and on to Montagu, eventually reaching the gateway to the Sanbona Conservation Reserve. Our drive by Landcruiser to Gondwana Lodge is as exhilarating as it is long: We pass intriguing steep, rocky cliffs where ancient rock art can be seen, enjoy sightings of kudu and baboons, and spot colourful succulents along the way. We end the day with a sunset drive through the fynbos to discover more wildlife, returning to the lodge for dinner at dusk.

Next day, it’s a challenge but we manage a 5 a.m. start, tumbling out of the lodge as the first light is appearing over a wonderfully still landscape and setting off in search of wildlife and flora. We are lucky! We encounter kudu grazing near the lodge, a group of giraffes including two young males sparring – a high-impact activity using the neck – and rhinos drinking at a waterhole. We return to the lodge for a delicious brunch then set off again, in search of succulents endemic to certain patches on the edge of pans at Sanbona. Again, we are lucky as we spot groups of springbok moving through the landscape, some of them “pronking” or taking long, high leaps into the air.

Sanbona was created from a number of sheep farms impoverished by over-grazing. The land was left fallow for three years to recover its vegetation of Karoo fynbos, and wildlife was then gradually reintroduced where it had once thrived. The good news is that the reserve has been acquired by a private Swiss conservation foundation keen to support indigenous flora and fauna, so the outlook for the area is encouraging.

A second early morning start leads us to the magnificent pride of lions we have heard roaring from the lodge: Two tawny and three white lions look to be masters of all they survey. Further on, in the dry riverbed lined with olive and tamarisk, we come across elephants browsing their way towards the dam. We spot a good number of young and watch spellbound as the family group moves upstream protecting and caring for each other. We round off the day with another great sighting, this time a cheetah nestling under a bush after feeding on its kill; then drive back through the wide, remote landscape of Sanbona bathed in a glorious sunset.

The cheetah at San Bona

The cheetah at San Bona

Out again early in the morning, then a delicious and copious breakfast at the lodge… And off we go once more, to meet our driver, Charles, at the entrance to the reserve. The morning is bright and sparkling as we cross the Langeberge Mountains taking the spectacular Tradouw Pass with views down into the deep, narrow gorge and passing dramatically contorted strata of sandstone. Now the vegetation changes to cone bushes (Leucadendron) and the eye-catching flowering pincushions (Leucospermum), all from the Protea family. We pass through the small town of Swellendam with its attractive Cape Dutch houses and jacaranda trees in flower; it is refreshing to note that homes and gardens in the hinterland are not fenced against intruders.

A coffee break near the river, its peaty brown water swollen by recent mountain storms, is followed by a further drive through vast rolling countryside where the corn has just been harvested and blue cranes have flocked to the fields to feed on the stubble.

Eventually we arrive at Walker Bay on the coast. Our destination is the Lodge at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, a wonderful spot covered with wild fynbos, where the accommodation is well hidden among the ancient milkwood forest (Sideroxylon inerme) and the views over to the coast and mountains are breathtaking.

Cape Sugar Bird

Cape Sugar Bird

Our stay at Grootbos begins with an introductory walk led by ranger Christoff. Covering 1750 hectares of unique Cape floral kingdom, the reserve has over 750 species of indigenous plants. Next morning we set off with Christoff to explore in more depth. Among our finds are stands of cone bushes. The female cones are pollinated through infiltration by thrips, but have to wait until the cones are burnt by fire before releasing millions of seeds. Growing in quartzite soil on a hillside is a stand of Leucadendron patersonii with silver-grey leaves and an eye-catching orange flower. Found only in Grootbos and immediate surroundings, we hear that L. patersonii is pollinated by the Cape sugarbird, with its long bill, while the seeds are distributed by pugnacious ants!

We head off to the coast in the afternoon in search of southern right whales, but this is where our luck runs out and there is none to be seen. Normally, the females come from Antarctica to give birth and spend a few months with their calves in Walker Bay before returning south to the ice fields. As we walk along the beach we find many hermit crabs, and quantities of abalone shells discarded after being gathered illegally by Chinese fishermen – an activity troublesome to the delicate natural balance. Coastal dunes are stabilized by the sour fig plant (Carpobrotus edulis), which in turn provides food for the local wild tortoise.

African Penguin

African Penguin

Our final evening at Grootbos is truly magical: South Africans are keen on their “braai” (grill/barbecue) and to our delight we have a chance to experience one in the milkwood forest. The chefs at the lodge prepare delicious dishes, the trees are hung with lanterns, and we sit around the “Boma” fire talking over our experiences… An evening to remember.

We take our time on the return journey to Cape Town: no need to hurry the end of this wonderful journey of discovery. We visit Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, and we savour a picnic lunch in spite of over-attentive baboons. At Betty’s Bay in Overberg we spot a colony of African penguins at the former Waaygat whaling station: All huddled together, they are fasting as they are in a state of molt. Then we take the incredible coastal road with, on one side, steep mountain slopes covered in flowering pincushions and, on the other, a view over the bay towards Cape Point. The mountains with Helderberg and Simonsberg are lit up by late afternoon sunshine as we make our way to the airport, one last brilliant view of a spectacularly beautiful country.

Posted by: a wanderer in Africa