Stopping to smell the Cape flowers

Discover the majesty of the Cape floral kingdom at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve near the southern tip of Africa. This unique addition to your luxury South African safari will introduce you to a floral wonderland unlike any other on the planet.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve offers a very different kind of luxury South African safari, one that focuses on the region’s amazing floral kingdom. My partner and I visited this reserve in the spring, when the veld was a riot of flowers, insects and birds.

We arrived at the spectacular Grootbos Forest Lodge one golden morning. Nestled in an ancient milkwood forest (some of the trees are nearly 1,000 years old) and surrounded by rolling hills of fynbos, it has breathtaking panoramic views of mountain and sea.

We were led to our luxury suite down an enchanting, cobbled pathway beneath gnarled milkwood boughs. The rooms were stylishly furnished with a luxurious canopy bed, separate lounge with cosy fireplace and a private wooden deck with jaw-dropping views.

Later that afternoon, we set off on a fynbos safari in an open Land Rover with our guide, Johannes. ‘Grootbos has more than 765 flower species, six of which were discovered right here on our property, and over 2,500ha of pristine wilderness,’ he said as we drove through the green hills behind the lodge. ‘Grootbos is paradise for plant lovers. It’s one of the few private places that both conserves fynbos and showcases it on flower tours.’

We wended our way over mountains and into valleys, through a variety of unique vegetation types that ranged from sandstone fynbos to afromontane forests. Through Johannes, we discovered the symbiotic relationships between flowers, insects, birds and animals. We learnt, too, how fynbos is able to thrive in soils that are almost devoid of nutrients.

The Land Rover drew to a halt and we got out to take a stroll through iridescent green veld dotted with wild flowering malvas and pink and red ericas. We came to a patch of burnt veld. The ground was bare and only a few blackened bushes remained. But Johannes urged us to crouch down and see how new shoots were already poking their heads above ground.

‘Fire is life here,’ he said. ‘It actually helps to germinate certain species. The vital ecological role of fire was emphasised when our plant checklist grew from 680 species to 750 after the huge 2006 blaze that swept through Grootbos. That’s 70 new species as a result of post-fire successional processes!’

Back on the vehicle, we drove deeper into the hills. This was an unusual safari in that it wasn’t about chasing around the bush trying to spot big cats, but rather taking things slowly, and focusing on the little things. Although Grootbos isn’t a Big Five reserve, it does have 21 mammal and 21 reptile species, and we did see quite a number of smaller creatures. At one point, Johannes slowed down and pointed to the underbrush. Lumbering along, we saw a beautiful angulate tortoise wending his merry way through the fynbos.

The birdlife was also superb. We saw Cape sugarbird, black harrier, jackal buzzard and a magnificent African fish eagle on the wing. Best of all was the malachite sunbird with its iridescent green plumage. From Johannes, we learnt how the beaks of the orange-breasted sunbird and southern double-collared sunbird are tailor-made for sipping the sweet stuff from the floral tubes of various erica species.

We stopped on a ridge for drinks and to watch the sun slipping towards the dark blue waters of Walker Bay. ‘The Cape floristic region is one of six floral kingdoms in the world,’ said Johannes as we drank our G&Ts. ‘The Western Cape has the highest concentration of plant species in the world: about 9,500 species, of which 70% don’t grow anywhere else on the planet. Only 9% of the biome is formally protected and population growth threatens the long-term integrity of our floral region. That’s what makes a place like Grootbos so important.’

I was interested in the word ‘fynbos’ and asked Johannes about its origins.

‘When the first Dutch settlers landed here, hoping to find wood for ship building, all they found was low shrubby bush. “There’s nothing here but fine bush (fynbos),” they lamented. But I tell you, this bush is mighty fine! Although the flora of the Cape may not have been good for building ships, it displayed such an amazing diversity and uniqueness that it was declared a floral kingdom in its own right. Then, in 2004, Unesco declared the Cape floral region a World Heritage Site.’

‘You know, this is by far the smallest of the floral kingdoms and the only one that fits inside one country. But it’s also the most diverse, with more than three times more species than the Amazon jungle!’

Back at the lodge, we sat on the deck staring at the rolling hills and dusky ocean beyond. It was a grand spectacle of moody light and colour. Our Cape flower safari had been the perfect introduction to the staggering variety of floral species, each with its own fascinating adaptations, interactions and dependencies. The landscape had taken on a new significance and a deeper beauty that will stay with me forever.

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