Finding visions of beauty in a floral kingdom Ecotourism: There's no wild game in the Grootbos Nature Reserve

instead, the search is for the rare and lovely in the world of plants

Destination: South Africa

October 18, 1998|By Gary A. Warner | Gary A. Warner,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

GANSBAAI, South Africa - Sean Privett thrust the Volkswagen Syncro into first gear, making the four wheels lurch out of a deep rut.

The truck churned gravel as it climbed the steep grade to God's Window, the highest hilltop on a South African nature reserve.

Privett, a former soldier, scanned the hilltop for his quarry, eyes squinting against the sun setting over the ocean 500 feet down the hill. Suddenly, he sat straight up in the driver's seat.

"There, there he is - what a brute!" Privett said, pointing toward a patch of brush about 50 feet away.

Swaying in the breeze was a large king protea, a splash of color against the browns and greens of the surrounding vegetation.

For most visitors to South Africa, a trip to a reserve means careening around the brush in search of the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and water buffalo.

At Grootbos (pronounced "grewt-bus," meaning big forest), the attraction is the bush itself. On the hills of the southern tip of South Africa is something rarer, if more sedate, than big game: the Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest of the six floristic kingdoms of the world.

"You can find lions all over Africa, but what we have here exists nowhere else in the world," said Michael Lutzeyer, owner of the Grootbos Nature Reserve.

Grootbos itself is a rare flower in the world of travel - a reserve bereft of game animals. Privett, its lead botanist, hunts down flowers instead of animals.

It's an oasis of progressive race relations, where blacks and whites work side by side, in a stronghold of Nationalist Party sentiment just down the road from the ocean-side house where apartheid's last leader, former President F.W. De-Klerk, makes his home.

"Today, I am working with great guys, many of them black, whom I would never have had a chance to work with under the old ways," Privett said. "Who knows how many good minds that could have helped South Africa were wasted all those years."

Politics is distant thunder on the hillsides of Grootbos.

Here, the focus is on a unique world of 8,500 species of plants spread across 90,000 square kilometers. Most grow wild nowhere else on the planet.

The centerpiece is the fynbos (pronounced "fine-bus"), which means "fine bush" in the white settlers' dialect known as Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch.

In the Southern Hemisphere's late winter and early spring, from June to October, the fynbos puts on a show of colors that gives the landscape an ever-changing texture.

The effect is as stunning as it is subtle - it's best to look at the plants with the sun over your shoulder.

But even in the hot summer months, there are beautiful flowers to be seen everywhere.

Recognition of the important place of the Cape Floral Kingdom in the world has come late. Much of the fynbos that once covered the area is gone, leaving patches scattered on steep hillsides and a few reserves.

"The only reason we have so much fynbos at Grootbos is that the soil is considered poor," Privett said. "Anywhere where the soil was considered good enough and the terrain flat, everything is under wheat."

The lodge at Grootbos itself is almost unrecognizable against the hillside, the stone and wood main lodge built low amid the bush. A thick forest of wind-shaped milk-wood trees, some more than 1,000 years old, blots out a view from below as visitors come up a long drive.

At the top of the hill, the view is panoramic, taking in hillsides filled with fynbos and running down past farms to the beach at Walker Bay. Guest cottages are scattered amid the trees, giving both solitude and a feeling of being surrounded by the floral world.

Visiting a unique ecosystem would be reason enough to come to Grootbos, but the area has its share of fauna as well as flora.

From June to November, Walker Bay is where southern right whales come to mate and give birth. The whole stretch of South Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to Port Elizabeth to the northeast is populated during the period with whales. Orcas, humpbacked dolphins and bottlenose dolphins also ply the coastal waters.

A boat chartered by Grootbos regularly makes its way through the choppy surf to De Kelters Island, a rocky stretch where 30,000 seals and cape otters cover every conceivable spot. Another islet nearby is home to thousands of jackass penguins.

"I guess the seals and the penguins have not yet gotten the word that Mr. Mandela thinks we all should integrate," said Rudi Hughs, the boat's captain, with a chuckle.

The waters beyond the islands are known as a feeding ground for great white sharks, a notion that makes riding around in the little boat without any seat belts a knuckle-whitening experience.

Nights back at Grootbos are given over to hearty dinners and conversation around the big picture windows that look out over Walker Bay.

With nightfall comes yet another nature show. With little light nearby, the skies overhead are filled with stars.

Lutzeyer's father, Heiner, is an accomplished amateur astronomer, taking guests out into the cool night air to see the Milky Way or the Southern Cross.

After a night's sleep, it's time to get up again and go with Privett to look at fynbos. It might seem an odd outing, but Privett says most visitors get into the spirit.

"Every living thing has a story to tell, and their fight to survive and multiply is quite amazing," Privett said.

Plants have shapes, colors and smells for a reason - to attract nTC insects or repel hungry mammals. Some hide, while others shout their presence.

Even fire has a purpose - the explosion of seeds in the heat leading to regeneration of plants consumed by the flames.

It's a beautiful story of nature alive that Grootbos weaves.

"If we had giraffes or rhinos or other big game, that is all people would want to see," he said. "But here they look close at protea or heather. When they do, they realize that these living things are truly amazing, too."

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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