1998, Kathleen King, Travel Scholarship, South Africa

At the fairest cape, South Africa

By Kathleen King

My travel scholarship adventure began in Cape Town. Within an hour of being in the city, I was on top of South Africa’s most famous landmark — Table Mountain. I spent several hours just admiring the endless views and enjoying the native flora.

During the first two weeks of my scholarship I joined a colleague from Kew, Phil Griffiths. We botanised our way along the West Coast, travelling north to Springbok and south to the Cape of Good Hope. This coast line is renowned for the spring display of wildflowers. Unfortunately poor rainfall over the winter had an effect on the seasonal blooms. Sadly they were not as spectacular as the previous year. However, for a first time visit the show was still impressive. Visiting Darling, The West Coast National Park and the Namaqualand were highlights of the trip.

Darling is known for its magnificent flower reserves and farms that are open to the public each spring. We visited Duckett’s Nursery, the largest orchid nursery in South Africa. The variety of plant species in the area was just a taste of what I was to see during my trip to this botanical hotspot. Favourite beauty: Geissorhiza radians.

The West Coast National Park covers an area of 18,000 hectares. The vegetation consists of stunted bushes, sedges, succulents and many flowering annuals. The park was beautiful, with some stunning displays and interesting wildlife. However, the soil was obviously dry and plants were suffering. Favourite beauty: Ferraia crispa.

The wildflower displays end at the West Coast National Park. The land known as Namaqualand lay ahead, being a rugged, mountainous plateau that overlooks a narrow, sandy coastal plain.We spent six days exploring this vast, open countryside. Namaqualand is divided into four regions — The Richtersveld, The Namaqualand Klipkoppe, The Sandveld and The Knersvlakte. During spring these parts are usually a wonderland of colour, consisting of carpets of annuals, a wide variety of geophytes, dwarf shrubs and succulents. The lack of rain was really apparent and wildflowers were sparse. Favourite beauties: Aloe dichotoma, Lithops olivetii, Conophytum calculus.

During the third week of my trip I attended the Fifth International Botanic Gardens Conservation Congress hosted by the National Botanical Institute of South Africa. The Congress was held at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. The focus was the role of botanic gardens in sustainable living.

The priorities and responsibilities of botanic gardens were reviewed and highlighted. It was a valuable experience. It made me aware of world-wide projects and reminded me what a big world we live in.

I spent many days admiring Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden and the magnificent backdrop of Table Mountain. The garden covers an area of 528 ha, with 36 ha reserve for the cultivation of over 4,500 plant species of southern Africa, many of which are rare and endangered. The addition of a new conservatory enables plants that cannot be grown outside to be displayed. I was fortunate to have worked for several days with the Orchid Propagator, Hildegard Crous.

I visited two other Botanic gardens. Karoo National Botanic Garden lies in the outskirts of Worcester and intersects the southern tip of the succulent Karoo. Only 10 ha have been developed for cultivation whilst the remaining 144 hectares are retained as a floral reserve. This was such a contrasting garden and very different from anywhere I have ever been. Harold Porter National Botanical Garden at Betty’s Bay is set between the mountains and the sea, in the heart of the Cape Floristic Region. It covers an area of 200 ha, stretching from the surrounding Kogelberg Range to a Marine Reserve running along the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean.

I managed to see some of the sites, gardens, museums and galleries in and around Cape Town during my final week. This included Jonkershoek, a managed forest that has for years been used for pioneer work in fynbos management. The wildlife here was wonderful. I stroked a hand-reared cheetah. As a part of a captive breeding programme, five cheetah are on show to promote conservation of the species. Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve is one of South Africa’s most valuable nature reserves. The display of fynbos was beautiful. Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope are found at the most southern tip of the reserve. I climbed Skeleton Gorge, through Kirstenbosch which was a memorable experience. The trail disappears and you find yourself climbing a waterfall just to reach the top. Robben Island, once home to thousands of political activists during their imprisonment, offers the best views of Table Mountain and Cape Town. It is quite a cultural experience.

During my stay I only had a taste of the wonderful sights, places, flavours and beautiful plants that South Africa is full of. I gained valuable experience in the field and had the opportunity to compare the similarities with the Western Australian flora. The value of habitats was particularly emphasised to me. The most important experience of my trip was seeing plants in the wild, in situ, growing in their natural habitats with associated genera. What a valuable key to successful growing and management of a collection of plants.

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