South Africa Plant Exploration - 2005
In Search of the Horticultural Big Five
by Tony Avent
Plant Delights Nursery, Inc.
9241 Sauls Road
Raleigh, NC 27603
Shop for Perennials at Plant Delights Nursery
Jim Dodson, Author/Journalist, ME
Hans Hansen, Shady Oaks Nursery, MN
Wade Roitsch, Yucca Do Nursery, TX
Carl Schoenfeld, Yucca Do Nursery, TX
South Africa has long been an interest of ours since we grow so many wonderful plants native to the region. Our goal was to put together a trip to photograph plants in the wild and study the natural habitats in which they grow. By learning new plants which might be adaptable to our climates, we can focus our trialing of new plants based on how and where they grow in the wild. Ferns are a great interest, since virtually non of the rich South African fern diversity has ever been cultivated in the West. Some South African plants that you may recognize are the kniphofia (red hot poker), gladiolus, agapanthus, crocosmia, freesia, most cultivated asparagus ferns, veltheimia, eucomis (pineapple lily), scadoxus (blood lily) lachenalia, moraea, aloe, delosperma, clivia, crassula (jade plants), haworthia, gasteria, strelitzia (bird of paradise), plectranthus (sweedish ivy), cissus (grape ivy), pelargonium (pot geraniums), protea, and much more. Many of these are recognizable as house plants, but their native ranges often reach elevations that should make them suitable for garden perennials in warmer parts of the US.
The two primary areas of focus for our trip are the Eastern Cape and Western Cape Provinces. The Western Cape is the drier of the two areas and is primarily a winter rainfall region. The Eastern Cape is much wetter and is a summer rainfall region. Since South Africa is in the Southern hemisphere, their seasons are reversed from those of us in the north. In the Eastern Cape, the weather fronts come from the Indian ocean and drop their moisture on the eastern mountain slopes, creating a 'rain shadow' or dry area on the western slopes. The moisture in the Western Cape comes from the Atlantic ocean to the south and hence the rain shadow occurs on the north slopes.
We picked a good year since this has been on of the best rainfall years in recent history in the Eastern Cape. The downside is that while we are at the end of the rainy season, the area that we are visiting is still prone to heavy rains and possible flooding. Since we are traveling in the Southern Hemisphere, February would be the equivalent of our month of August. We chose this time to catch the end of the summer flowering season and the start of the seed production season. During our trip, we will be traveling from coastal towns to over 8,000' in elevation. While elevations are an important factor in plant hardiness, it does not seem to always be reflected in the hardiness of some bulbous plants that have been much hardier than their native coastal ranges would indicate.
Before we left and while we were in South Africa, everyone talked about seeing the 'Big Five.' This refers to the fauna list of elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo. After the trip, we made up our list of the 'Big Five' from a flora point of view. The results of the voting are Aloe, Brunsvigia, Kniphofia, Haemanthus, and Agapanthus. So, if you go to South Africa, don't miss our Big Five.
Day 1, Saturday February 5, 2005
We rendezvoused in Atlanta for our transatlantic flight to Capetown...Hans from Minnesota, Carl and Wade from Texas, and Jim from Maine. At 1030am, we took off in our Airbus 600 for the flight to Capetown. The first 8 hour leg took us to a refueling stop on the Cape Verde Islands off the West Coast of Africa. When we boarded in Atlanta, we were given a re-boarding pass so that we could depart the plane during our refueling stop in Cape Verde. Upon arrival, the flight attendant announced that no one could leave the plane as this has been their policy since 9/11. Obviously, we are at odds with this tiny Portugese island. Perhaps, they didn't send troops to Iraq. It would have been nice if during the last 3 years someone on the plane would have informed their ticket agents of this change in policy. After a bizzarre 1.5 hour layover, we were on our way for the second 8.5 hour leg to Johannesburg.
I probably don't have to tell you that it's a long flight to South Africa...22.5 hours to be exact. On a flight this long with little leg room there isn't much to do except meet the people around you...good, bad, otherwise. Diagonal from me was an aerospace engineer from Texas who designed Mikhail Gorbachev's personal plane as well as designing a plane to carry the latest space telescope. Across the aisle was a young woman who was born in Tennessee, but returned home with her parents to Durban, South Africa before the age of 1. Now that she had gotten her PhD in pediatric medicine she wanted to work in the US and was returning home from a round of job interviews.
Then, beside me, there was Michael. As we sat on the plane waiting to depart from Atlanta, I had a ebullient feeling that only comes over you when you hear the plane door close and find there is a vacant seat beside you for a long overseas flight. There was only 13 minutes left before our departure time and everyone had been seated for at least 10 minutes. A head appeared at the door, and then, like a stalker marking his prey, he marched directly for the vacant window seat beside me. Throwing his bag in seat, he muttered about visiting the loo, and he was off again. He returned to his seat and we buckled ourselves in...one obviously relieved and one disappointed.
After an hour in the air, the lunch service arrived and I was shocked to see Michael ordering 1 beer and 2 bottles of vodka to go with his lunch. With boundless energy and talking a mile a minute, Michael seemed oblivious to the video sign in front of our seats warning about consuming too much alcohol on flights. I would find out later that Michael's energy came from a small vial of white powder that he kept in his shirt pocket and indulged on his frequent bathroom visits, returning each time with a short duration sinus issue. With the energy that it seemed to give him, I'm sure it must have been powdered sugar. To counteract the effects of his white powder, Michael made frequent trips to the galley, returning each time to his seat with more and more liquor. He found that by going to a different galley each time, he would never be turned down in his quest for more alcohol. By the time we reached Johannesburg, Michael had polished off 4 beers and 24 airline-size bottles of liquor. You can imagine how much rest those around him got with him getting up every few minutes to retrieve more alcohol, relieve himself, or 'powder' his nose. Continually rattling his huge array of bottles and drumming on his tray table like the ghost of Buddy Rich, everyone around was now taking notice of my row mate.
Finally with only a couple of hours left before touchdown, he mercifully passed out and left us with only an inebriated snore to contend with. Before we landed, a burly flight attendant jabbed Michael to get him to take his breakfast tray, only to have the untouched tray removed an hour later after Michael passed out again. Michael finally awoke again as we prepared to land, wondering why no one ever offered him breakfast, and demanding his food. He then began wildly spraying huge quantities of aerosol deodorant all about his body...over and over again. In the row behind me, Jim thought someone had dropped a cologne bomb as the aerosol clouds overtook the better part of the main cabin. Thank goodness someone else would get to enjoy his company for our flight from Johannesburg to Capetown.
Day 2, Sunday February 6, 2005
After being processed through what was the slowest moving passport line in my extensive travels, we were escorted by a group of 'porters' for the half mile walk to the domestic terminal for our flight to Capetown. This escort service was not free as we found when they waited impatiently with hands stuck out waiting for a tip. With our early adventure behind us, we were finally on our 2-hour flight to Capetown... with Michael several rows behind, preparing the first of many mixed drinks. We arrived just after 3pm, gathered our luggage and were off to pick-up our rental van...or so we thought.
First rule of South Africa... you must be a pathological liar to work for a rental car company...or at least at National/Alamo. We rented a Mercedes Vito van, the only rental vehicle in South Africa to accommodate 6 people and luggage. After completing the requisite paperwork, the agent replied that our van was at the International Counter and was being brought around... only a couple of minutes. This story was repeated at least 6 times over the next thirty minutes. After thirty minutes passed and no sign of our vehicle, I got a new story...our van was at their downtown office and was being brought up...10 minutes...15 max.
Thirty minutes later, no van, and time for a new story. 'The driver is on the way and nearly at the airport,' the counter agent tells me. Thirty minutes later... no van, and yet another new story. There was no van downtown since it was never returned from a earlier rental. 'When was it due back,' I asked? '630pm...' the agent replied. 'It's almost 5pm,' I replied. 'Why did you rent a vehicle for 3pm and not expect it back before 630pm.' I asked. Time for another new story.... The van you rented was wrecked and is unavailable,' the agent explained. 'When was it wrecked,' I asked? 'Oh, much earlier' he replied. 'You will have to rent two cars and drive to your hotel 30 minutes east and we will bring the van to you when it is returned at 630pm.' 'Yes, and Elvis is alive and living in Capetown,' I informed the agent.
The agent sensed that this line of lying wasn't working and after another phone conversation told me that they found a van at their downtown store and it is being brought to the airport. I had heard this story earlier, but this was actually my favorite from the previous 2 hours. I figured that they must have run out of their pre-planned stories at this point and resorted to recycling. Finally at 530pm the van amazingly arrived as the counter agent announced proudly, 'They gave you a brand new van for all your trouble.' Beaming as we walked to the van, the outside attendant help point out the dents and scratches that adorned our 'new' vehicle along with the noted two thousand kilometers on the odometer. I get it, in South Africa they figured if Americans could re-define the word 'is', then they could define words like 'new' and 'right away.'
After re-learning how to drive on the wrong side of the road and shift gears with my left hand we were off to find our hotel, the Lord Charles Hotel in Somerset West. After only one wrong turn and 32 cutoffs trying to get from 1st gear into 2nd, we arrived at our wonderful hotel for the evening. Imagine arriving at your first hotel in South Africa to find it landscaped with US natives including Taxodium distichum and Gaura lindheimeri. It didn.t take long to begin recognizing South African native plants that we had grown since Plumbago auriculata was everywhere. After cleaning up what were now five very smelly Americans, we enjoyed a delightful buffet dinner at the hotel including the likes of springbok, lamb, squid, and ox-tail, and some stunning deserts. It was the impromptu dinner renditions of 1940's German folks songs that we could have done without. Finally, it was time to call it a day since the adventure begins tomorrow.
Day 3, Monday February 7, 2005
We began with breakfast at the Lord Charles, then set off for the 1.5 hour drive east to Napier to pick up bulb expert Cameron McMaster who would join us for the first half of our trip. Cameron is a 67- year old ball of energy in addition to being an expert on Eastern Cape bulbs, butterflies, and birds. We would discover later that Cameron has even had two butterflies that he found named after him. Cameron formerly worked for the South African sheep breeders association and still does a good bit of consulting with South African livestock farmers.
We arrived at Cameron and Rhoda's home in Napier and spent the better part of an hour making a whirlwind tour through their amazing bulb collection that featured a wide assortment of ledebourias, eucomis, and haemanthus, to mention but a few. The giant leaf Haemanthus humilis was truly stunning - 2' long x 1' wide velvety leaves. Afraid that we couldn't take any more excitement, it was time to depart to the northeast for the 8-hour drive to Graaff-Reinet. The first 3 hours were spent traveling east along the famed garden route on the N2. Then, at the town of George, we veered north through the Little Karroo (dry desert prairie, but smaller than the Big Karroo). Although the desert looked dry while driving, it was actually quite rich with plant material.
We made a series of roadside stops in the Outeniqua Mountains, the first to photograph the lovely salmon peach watsonias that were in flower along the sharply ascending highway growing among the spectacular clumps of Erica versicolor. I saw my first ferns at this site, a lovely blechnum and a rock clinging Gleichenia... both sans spores. As we drove further, we crossed into the rain shadow as we watched the vegetation change to drier loving flora.
We continued to climb in elevation and stopped again to find an amazing array of shrubby delospermas, crassulas, stick-type euphorbias, and an amazing asparagus fern. The plant that really excited me from this stop was a nice yellow-fruited prickly pear type opuntia that obviously had been originally planted for dry weather cattle food. Where we were driving now, the rainfall averages about 12" per year.
Every stop we made the rest of the day, we found another cool asparagus fern species, but unfortunately nothing was in seed. The asparagus was the genus whose diversity amazed all of us on the trip with their garden potential. The blue foliage species with purple stems that we saw is a must have, but not for this trip.
Further along the road, we stopped at a rocky outcrop looking for desert ferns. While the ferns were absent, there was an amazing dwarf haworthia growing in the rock crevices along with a 6" tall sansevieria. It was fascinating to see plants that we thought of as houseplants growing here in the wild. Since we were at 2800' elevation, there is a possibility that these might be winter hardy in NC.
As we continued on the N9 toward Graaff-Reinet, Cameron had us stop in the Little Karroo to show us a patch of the crinum relative, Ammocharis coranica. Cameron indicated that these were the furthest west that this species had been found. Compared to the plants that we already grew, these plants were larger with huge flower heads that are double the typical size for this species. I was fascinated to find that these grow in a seasonally flooded low roadside ditches. Perhaps this explains why these grow so well back in NC.
We only had time for one other stop since the sun was setting and we were still quite a way from our hotel. This time, it was to see Aloe variegata (partridge breast aloe), growing on the road shoulder. This aloe that I once sold as a houseplant, grew right along the roadside amongst the grasses and weeds. Just inside the barbed wire that lined the road, we saw a huge field of amazing 8-9' tall Opuntias that were covered in fruit. Two young girls who were picking fruit for their family agreed to sell us one of the giant fruit... this will be amazing if it is as winter hardy as we hope.
We continued the last 2 hours without a stop until we pulled into the Drosdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet, just as the sun was setting. The Drosdy was built in the 1600's as a center of government for the area. The slave cottages in the back had been converted into hotel rooms... quite a nice job. After getting unloaded, it was time for a wonderful dinner at the Drosdy restaurant consisted of a superb plate of ostrich. Perhaps it was one of the many ostrich that we had seen along the route earlier in the day.
Getting power to recharge computers proved to be quite difficult. None of the adapters purchased in the US fit the South African sockets. The most common adapter made in South Africa was made with a half inch lip around the plug which made it impossible for our international adapters to adapt. It was only the rare hotel that had power adapters that we could actually use. The other unusual feature of the rooms was no door on the bathroom. I've traveled in some pretty remote countries, but have never seen this before.
Day 4, Tuesday February 8, 2005Graaff-Reinet is at 2587' elevation, although the latitude here is equivalent to Savannah, GA. As would be the case in most towns we visited, each was located in the warmer valleys and tropical plants dotted the landscape. When we took a quick spin around the historic town, it was fascinating to see that the new street tree of choice was Leyland Cypress.
The drive today was short by comparison to the previous day. We left Graaff-Reinet and headed southeast into the mountains to outside Somerset West. As was the case the day before, the roadside (Great Karroo) looked like a deserted grassland until you stopped. Along the road was an amazing array of bulbs including ledebourias with heavily spotted leaves, bulbines, and huge clumps of Drimia altissima with tall seed spikes still clinging on. It was also interesting to see the introduced Pennisetum setaceum in full flower lining the roadside shoulders. As we neared the end of our two hour drive, the vegetation got increasingly greener and the rain had begun to drizzle. Carl and Wade had not brought rain suits, so we stopped at a farm supply store and picked up a couple of nice looking rain suits for only $9 US.
We hung a left just past the town of Somerset East, and pulled into the Glen Avon guest house to drop off our belongings and headed out the rocky dirt road to the top of the Boschberg mountain. Glen Avon is a large farm belonging to the Bill and Alison Brown family. Bill's family moved here in 1820 from Ireland and started the farm to supply British troops. Although their focus has changed through the years, the family farm has continued until the present.
As we began the drive to the top, I found myself wondering if I would find any ferns, which were one of my target groups for the trip. Within minutes, those thoughts were erased as we stopped beside the road at 3500' to find 6 species. Most of the ferns at this site were sun ferns including pellaeas, notholaena, mohria, and cheilanthes. The most impressive was Pellaea calomelanos, a small rock fern with lovely powder blue foliage. Underneath the yucca-like tree aloes that lined the road, we came across several exciting bulbs, Haemanthus albiflos and Haemanthus carneus. Both were in flower along with Oxalis bowiei. It was quite fascinating to see the large numbers of agaves that were planted in South Africa. Even much of the road to Glen Avon was lined with huge plants of Agave americana. I saw more agaves in flower in South Africa than I ever have in their native haunts in Mexico.
The same 6 fern species occurred all the way to the 4200' summit, where we stopped at the Waainek Wildflower Preserve, a private nature reserve which also has a guesthouse. As we wandered around the soaking wet grasslands, we saw the rare Kniphofia acraea in flower along with nice flowering clumps of Dierama pendula. Nestled deep in the grasslands were also single clumps of Eucomis autumnalis (pineapple lily). The array of bulbs hiding among the grasses was truly mind-boggling.
The steep hillsides became more shaded and rocky as we carefully descended. At the base of the huge boulders, we found masses of Dietes iridioides and Agapanthus campanulatus along with a bevy of ferns and an array of more asparagus species including Asparagus asparagoides and Asparagus myriocladus. One cutleaf fern that was prevalent in the region was the popular Rumohra adiantiformis (florist leatherleaf). As I headed lower, I was very surprised to find the Asian and European native Polypodium vulgare growing on the rocks along with a delightful dwarf asplenium that resembled A. trichomanes. he highlight of this cliff for me was finding a patch of Adiantum poiretii growing far down the cliff among Pelargoniums. Pelargoniums were the most unexpected find for the day as these perfectly resembled Florists geraniums, complete with dramatic zonal banding in each leaf. I wound up finding many plants that I had grown as a child including Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant), growing everywhere on the woodland floor. Despite our elevation, it was obvious that this was not Zone 7.
After picking off ticks while eating a sandwich lunch that was prepared by Alison, we headed back down to the farm to borrow up the 4-wheel drive pickup to head back up to the rocky side road that would take us to the waterfall. With Cameron at the wheel and Jim riding shotgun, we all piled into the bed of the pickup and off we went bouncing our way down the rocky road. I don't know if trying to hold on to the truck, dodging the overhead branches from the spiny Acacia Karroo, or trying to maintain our balance was the most challenging. In 30 minutes, I saw more bounces than Howard Dean in the entire Democratic primary.
Not to let his truck get out of sight, the Browns' dog Benji raced us over several miles, even leaping through closed gates to the point that we felt sorry for him and finally allowed him to join us in the pickup bed. There's just nothing like having an exhausted dog slobbering all over you when you are trying to keep from getting jostled to death. The only time we stopped along our route was to open another gate or move a large rock from the middle of the road. We finally arrived at a clearing and began our half mile walk to the falls. The walk upstream was treacherous at best as we criss-crossed back and forth across the huge boulders that lined the creek. After more than an hour of hiking and slithering up the boulders, we finally arrived at a spectacular waterfall. Cameron estimated the water falls from about 150', but Alison's comment when asked how high the fall were, said 'I saw a cow fall off it once and it just exploded with it hit. Pieces went everywhere.
While the waterfall was certainly amazing, the plants got us even more excited. The creek was lined with more pelargoniums, Asparagus fern, and one of my target goals, Adiantum capillus-veneris, which is also native in the Southeast US. As we were walking back to the truck, the baboons began barking at us from the adjacent bank. If you've never heard a baboon screaming, it is like being a country music fan and being forced to listen to rap... not very pleasant. Not to be outdone, Cameron showed off his baboon imitation which was so authentic, that Hans leaped high in the air, thinking the baboons were at his back and ready to attack.
Back at the farm, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner with the Browns, hearing all about the history of South Africa, from how his ancestors had started the farm through the trials and tribulations of being a livestock farmer today. The guesthouse was very cozy, but this was two guesthouses in a row with no bathroom door... very strange. You can email the Browns at [email protected]/* */ .
Day 5, Wednesday February 9, 2005
We departed after a hearty breakfast including prickly pear fruit, toward the east. Not long out of Glen Avon, we stopped where Cameron's brother had spotted the threatened endemic Nerine huttoniae. Sure enough, in a dry grassy field, just off the dirt road, there were Nerine huttoniae in full flower along with an amazing assortment of albuca, ledebouria, and much more.
From here, we traveled further east to Fort Beaufort, then northeast to the town of Cathcart. As we passed the town of Bedford, we stopped to see Haemanthus montanus. When we arrived, we found the fields full of plants, but they had just finished flowering. Again, other bulbs were plentiful everywhere you turned including a wonderfully spotted ledebouria. My favorite was the ground-hugging round- leaf eriospermum with its small round green ground-hugging leaves, backed in brilliant red-purple. I've got seedlings growing at home, so it was great to see where they like to grow.
Nearby was a cute dwarf ground-hugging mallow with large white/pink flowers that looks like it would make a great garden plant. We were really excited to find a delightful dwarf form of Eucomis autumnalis growing on the road bank, one that all of us hope to one day grow. Although we missed Haemanthus montanus in flower, we were able to find Haemanthus carneus in bloom.
We continued our drive along the Amathole mountains, stopping occasionally to see what we could find. One stop near the town of Seymour to see Aloe striata resulted in us also finding a huge 5' tall Asparagus species. Also growing along the road at the same stop were Gazania krebsiana and some beautiful grasses of the genus cymbopogon.
The next stop along our route to Cathcart was to see Brunsvigia grandiflora in full bloom. If you've never seen these bulbs in person, it is truly hard to describe... let's say it resembles a beach ball size exploding pink firework. Not to be outdone was the beautiful Gladiolus oppositiflorus growing nearby.
We continued further and came across our favorite stop of the day at 4,360', just above the Klipplaat River Dam. We could have easily spent the entire day on this outcrop of huge boulders, but only had a mere half hour. Kniphofia northiae grew among the rocks, while Kniphofia triangularis with its dwarf bright orange flower grew in the flat ground. More giant asparagus grew nearby huge clumps of a hardy euphorbia, probably E. truncata. Many of these large clumps are between 50 and 100 years old. One of our new favorite trees was at this site, the aralia family's Cussonia paniculata with it's blue-grey foliage is a must try. Ferns also abounded on the rocky outcrop, from terrestrial ferns to epiphytic ferns... possibly microsorium. Did I mention that we could have spent much more time here?
This stretch of highway around Cathcart was truly terrific. Another stop down the road revealed Brunsvigia gregaria in full flower along with many wonderful succulents. We turned to the northeast and continued along the road to our hotel just outside of Eliot, stopping to look at ferns, some incredible hypoxis (yellow star-grass) including the 3' tall H. rigidula, and the recently flowered Scilla nervosa. This may sound strange, but they have the most incredible grasshoppers that I've ever seen. If you're goin' to have your plants eaten, the insect should at least look nicer than the plant their munching.
As we neared the hotel, Cameron realized that he had lost his cell phone at one of the last two stops... probably hopping over barbed wire fences. It was too late to return since it was nearly dark, but perhaps he could pick-up another phone along the way. At least Jim and I both had one in case of emergency.
Throughout the day, we had traveled through farming country, but what a contrast we observed. Anyone who has followed South African politics knows of the dissolution of apartheid and the resulting problems that have occurred. The South African government purchased many of the white owned farms in this region and gave them to the black tribes in the early 1980's. In every case, these previously well-run high producing farms have fallen into complete disrepair. Fruit trees have died, erosion has washed away good topsoil, and overgrazing has left the land barren and the livestock emaciated. When new crops are planted, they are not maintained so that farms of tens of thousands of acres produce barely a subsistence. The land is so barren that livestock are turned out to graze on the highway right-of-way which has the only live grass remaining. As you drive from one community to the other, the contrast in farming and living styles is truly startling.
Poverty in these black farm areas is horrendous as you can imagine in a country with an unemployment rate of 38%. With the introduction of western medicine into these black tribes, the birthrate has increased dramatically to the point that poverty is worsening. It's common for men in these tribes to have 5-6 wives and 30-40 children. HIV is also a huge problem with estimates that 25-30% of South Africans are infected. Much of the problems are that the sexual promiscuity is admired and tribal chiefs perpetuate the problem by promoting sex with the lack of contraception as a right of manhood. They also tout the belief that HIV can be cured by having sex with a Virgin, which usually means girls under 14 years old. This is a problem that will not be cured by money, but only by education of the young generation.
Because of the population explosion along with the burgeoning death rate, the funeral business has been a huge black-dominated industry in South Africa. Advertising for funerals service abound, since the preferred elaborate ceremonial funerals are quite profitable. The quality and maintenance of the cemeteries, however, is quite shocking. We are told that 99.99% of the white families in South Africa are now opting for cremation because of the poor handling of cemeteries.
The South African government uses tax money to pay for housing for the blacks who live in these areas. The ANC party has promised everyone in South Africa a home, a promise that the expanding birth rate is making hard to keep. Shanty towns (), often without running water dot the countryside from Capetown through the Eastern Cape. South African squatter laws allow blacks to 'squat' on any land for 24 hours and then they cannot ever be removed. White farmers now must pay for patrols to constantly monitor these thousand acre farms to prevent this and livestock theft which has become a rampant problem. As you can tell, it's a great place to visit, but I can't imagine living there.
As the day drew to a close, we finally spotted the southern end of the Drakensberg Mountains. We stopped for the night in Eliot, atop the South end of the Drakensberg Mountains at the Mountaintop Inn. I highly recommend this delightful bed and breakfast for anyone in the area. The rooms can hang with a Motel 6, but the folks that run the inn are delightful and the food is out of this world. The dinner buffet included black bean soup, filet of lamb, broccoli and cheese, fish, carrots, homemade bread, deserts, and much much more. I wish I could say the same for my bed, which had a spring mattress that should have been thrown away 25 years ago. I was surprised to learn that many of the European car companies also stay here every year and road test their cars on the winding mountain roads nearby.
Day 6, Thursday February 10, 2005
After an early breakfast, we were off to the northeast again and the small town of Rhodes. Just outside of the Eliot, we spotted a large patch of the showy Kniphofia ritualis in flower. Kniphofias are most often seen in very moist bottom grasslands, with some even growing only in bogs. Hans spotted a variegated dandelion nearby, and it was very hard to leave with just a photo.
As we continued our climb (6,149' elevation) to Rhodes, we stopped at a several acre rock outcrop that was filled with treasures including tiny dianthus in flower, Bulbine abyssinica, Gladiolus saundersii, Selaginella caffrorum, and a fern that resembled Cheilanthes quadripinnata. Just above the rock outcrop was a huge field of Kniphofia stricta, still in full flower.
Around 11am, we arrived at our guesthouse for the evening, checked in, and then headed off for our trek to the nearby Tiffindill Ski Resort, just 15 minutes south of the country of Lesotho. In case you didn't realize that South Africa had a ski resort, neither did any of the South African natives that I talked to on the flight over. In fact, this is the one and only ski resort in South Africa. The woman at the guesthouse warned us of the impending drive... 'Don't stall or you won't make it and use a very low gear since it is a 90% slope.' We laughed at her exaggeration and off we drove away.
The two signs that guarded the entrance to the long dirt road foretold warned of every potential automotive disaster, but we were ready... so we thought. The first part of the drive on the rolling dirt road was quite easy, as we gawked at the fantastic clumps of asparagus that we passed. This bizarre upright 3' tall asparagus fern was a mass of glaucous-blue foliage and no leaves. As we passed through a series of narrow gates, the road was still a relatively easy climb... considering there were no guardrails and a rather steep drop. The came the sign... use a very low gear. Suddenly, the road began a steep ascent approaching a 50-60% grade including almost impossible short circumference switchback turns.
After a harrowing 15 more minutes of sheer terror, we finally reached a more level spot in the road and stopped to catch our breath and clean our underwear. If you've ever tried to catch your breath at 8,000' elevation, this is not the easiest task... especially after such a drive. A quick look found that we had lost a hubcap on the drive up, with little chance of ever finding it again.
Before I knew it, everyone was off in different directions, amazed at the change in vegetation. Moist grassy fields were filled with Dierama robustum and Androcymbium striatum, while the spongy wet areas were composed of Kniphofia caulescens and Moraea alticola. Above the road was a drier rocky outcrop, where we found bulbines, compact ruschias, euphorbias, lovely oxalis, dianthus more dieramas, tons of delospermas, and even a few scattered rock ferns. We were so distracted by the plants that nearly two hours went by before we came to our senses and returned to our van and headed toward the ski lodge at the top for lunch.
The last 500' climb was nothing compared to what we had already been through. Exhausted and hungry since it was now just after 2pm, we stumbled into the ski lodge for lunch only to find that it had closed 5 minutes earlier. Fortunately, Cameron was able to persuade the gentleman on duty to re-open the cafeteria and we enjoyed a delightful meal and an equally delightful view of the landscape, 8,544' below.
After lunch, we trekked down just below the ski slope around a spectacular mountain stream. The scene around the stream was composed of amazing ornamental grasses and the spectacular Kniphofia northiae in patches of thousands. Interspersed among these were Gladiolus longicollis, moraea, dieramas, wurmbea, and phygelius. One of the real treasures was an unidentified kniphofia with very narrow blue leaves that was growing by the hundreds of thousands along the wet streams.
As we continued, I stopped to admire a juncus and Cameron hopped out of the van to fill his water bottle from the mountain stream. Carl shrieked that there was a dead animal in the stream just above where Cameron was standing. 'Don't worry,' Cameron said calmly, explaining that if the water runs over 7 stones, it is fine to drink. It wasn't that we didn't trust Cameron and his truths of the wild, but we chose not to indulge.
As we headed lower, we stopped again at a lovely rock outcrop where we were delighted to find our first plants of the rare Eucomis schijffii. From here, we negotiated the treacherous descent down the steepest part of the road in low gear. Thank goodness, it was much less stressful than the drive up. As we continued our drive, I noticed a useful device by the side of the road... a barbed wire crossing ladder. Note to self... We're too old to jump barbed wire... make one of these and strap it to the roof of the van. The private property sign nearby looks just like one I saw in Texas last year... could there be transplanted Texans here?
Slowing again as the road leveled out where we could stop, we found a patch of 7' tall dieramas growing near a stream. In the rocky areas, we admired huge clumps of the silver-leaf Cotyledon orbiculata and a beautiful silver artemisia that resembled Perovskia atriplicifolia. Since it was getting dark, we limited ourselves to one more stop... the blue foliage asparagus at the bottom. We stopped at the bottom to photograph the wonderful blue asparagus and guess what, it was loaded with seed. This is truly an amazing plant that I hope we can get into production one day. As Martha would say, 'It's a good thing.'
Cameron was shocked that our van was able to traverse the road to the top. If only we could figure out where we lost the left hubcap along the way. Exhausted, we arrived back at our 6,400' elevation trout-fishing guesthouse called Walkerbouts in the small town of Rhodes. This formerly wild party town is now home to a large trout fishing industry and the owner Dave Walker is one of the trout fishing experts in the area.
Day 7, Friday February 11, 2005
After breakfast, we were off again toward the Naude.s Neck pass toward the town of Maclear. The drive was much less steep, although the rocky road was in very poor shape. We kept our fingers crossed that our Mercedes Vito van would survive the drive through more dirt mountain roads. Not long out of Rhodes, Carl spotted a sheer cliff that was loaded with fully seeded Haemanthus humilis. Carefully, we scaled the cliff to find them growing alongside a stunning little leaf geranium and one of my favorite cold hardy aloes, Aloe aristata.
We stopped again at 7,855' to find a treasure trove of plants below the road. Dierama robusta was everywhere, along with Kniphofia caulescens, ornithogalum, a wide leaf Hypoxis, along with quite a few cotyledons, ruschias, dierama, diascia, and delosperma. I was particularly impressed with Bulbine narcissifolia and its twisted glaucous blue leaves. There was also quite a bit of Harveya speciosa in full flower. This unusual parasite on grass roots produces a amazing flower stalk that rivals any non-parasitic perennial.
There were some lovely oxalis near the base of the cliffs. Since the cliffs are continually degraded, plants growing near the base have developed the ability to re-climb through sloughed off rock debris. The original tubers on many of the oxalis could be several feet deep.
We pulled into the parking area (a flat rock) at the top of Naude's Neck Pass at 7,941' elevation and began to explore. Many of the rock cliffs were filled with an array of ferns including cheilanthes, polystichums, and notholaenas. We saw a new kniphofia, K. thodei and a delightful unidentified dwarf kniphofia growing in the rocks. It was here that we saw our first Tritonia crocea, the pink flowering Hesperantha coccinea, and tiny rhodohypoxis. We have grown Cotyledon orbiculata before, but finding growing at this elevation should mean even more potential winter hardiness. Although the mountain top was in full sun when we arrived, we could watch the clouds pour onto the mountaintop, then crash into the ground below, and rise again. The top of the mountain catches all the moisture and averages nearly 60" of rain per year. By the time we had spent a few hours at top, a misty rain had already begun to fall.
After botanizing the mountaintop, we began the trip down the other side of the mountain. The road worsened as we found large rocks that we had to negotiate as part of the roadway. Although the road was very narrow, we managed to screech to a halt to photograph a vivid dark purple flowered dianthus clinging to the side of the cliff. As we continued further, the cliffs were filled with unique ferns and an incredible array of terrestrial orchids. Cameron had hoped to photograph orchids in bloom and certainly got his wish with many species in full flower, although finding a ladder to photograph from proved difficult In moist areas, I was very impressed with Gunnera perpensa which I can grow actually grown in my hot climate. Perhaps there is hope for this amazing saxifrage-looking Ranunculus baurii with stunning silver veined leaves.
As we dropped lower, we could tell that the rainfall average was lower by the change in vegetation. One bank on the right hand side was filled with another of the cold hardy aloes, Aloe ecklonii. One of the strange sites as we drove along the road were the giant termite mounds. Reminiscent of fire ant mound, these giant mounds were packed hard and could be beat into submission without any sign of the critters living inside. Another bank further down was a mass of the small blue-flowering Agapanthus campanulatus growing near the stunning Crassula vaginata. This entire road was a treasure trove of kniphofias and gladiolus as we saw four species of each. Our favorite gladiolus was G. crassifolius, although G. dalenii, G. saundersii, and G. oppositiflorus were also quite superb.
The hortgasm of the day occurred as we drove lower and simultaneously, the entire van screamed 'Oh my God, Oh my God!' I thought we'd run over a televangelist, but instead, the group had spotted a giant Brunsvigia in flower along the road. When we got out to inspect and photograph, Cameron told us that was the largest brunsvigia that he had ever seen. The flower head measured in excess of 2' wide.
The rain began to increase as we tried to beat the loss of light out of the mountain. After a long uninteresting and very foggy drive, we came out of the fog to find a sheer rock cliff loaded with ferns. A quick stop revealed Adiantum capillus-veneris, a Pteris vittata, and a thelypteris that resembled T. kunthii. Just like the day before, Cameron was still shaking his head in disbelief that our van was able to make the trek... still with three intact hubcaps.
After another exhausting drive, we arrived at the sign for Woodcliff Guest House near Maclear. Finding the guest house itself proved more difficult. After traversing several miles of dirt roads in the dark and rain, we found the confusing signs, which sent us to the wrong house. Cameron finally realized that the house for which we were searching was down a pasture path lined with 5' tall grass. Finding this in the daylight would have proved difficult, but finding it with headlights in a misty rain was nearly impossible. We finally did manage to check in and had a wonderful dinner with the property owner, Phyll Sephton. Phyll's first husband had passed away from cancer a few years earlier and she had remarried and now lives 200 km away. Despite this, she makes the long commute back to host and prepare meals when guests arrive.
The thatched cottage was nice except for having only 1 bathroom for 3 rooms of people. The bathroom here was certainly was well guarded... at least the toilet area, by 6 very large spiders. The nearby can of air freshener was enough to make them inebriated enough that I could get close enough to eliminate them. I later discovered that we probably should have just relocated them as they would have come in quite handy when the hoards of mosquitos invaded around 11pm. All night long, I heard what sounded like water dripping by my bed... at least I thought it was water since is was raining outside our thatched cabin. In the morning, the sound continued and I finally discovered that the source of the sound was termites feasting on the wooden lamp on the night stand.
Day 8, Saturday February 12, 2005
We awoke to a light drizzle and loaded up the van for the short drive to the main house for breakfast. The workers houses along the road were quite interesting... mud wall, thatched roofs, and a satellite dish. The types of plants used for landscaping was fascinating as well as eclectic. Phyll's front porch was adorned with a nice combination of the US native Yucca filamentosa 'Golden Sword' with Lonicera japonica.
After eating and checking out, we had hired one of Phyll's workers to drive us up to see the cave paintings on her property. For those unfamiliar with cave paintings, one of the original inhabitants of South Africa were the san people. They lived in caves and painted on the cave walls. National Geographic had been to study Phyll's cave paintings, some of which have been documented as 10,000 years old and obviously some much younger.
We all loaded up the back of the pickup truck... fortunately the rain had subsided. Off we went through the cow pasture and down the overgrown paths. We managed to travel a full 700' before the vehicle could no longer traverse the road. Phyll had forgot to mention about the broken culvert, washed out roads, washed away bridge, and the sinkhole large enough to swallow a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Out of the vehicle again, and on foot, we started the 3 mile walk to the caves.
The muddy, overgrown road was not the easiest hike, but it seemed like a breeze once we started to climb the steep rocky hillsides that lead to the caves. At least we still had Phyll's worker to go ahead with his trusty stick to scare away the cobras and puff adders before the stepped on them. Finally, we reached the caves, made our official photographs and headed back down the mountain. The path was loaded with treasures including our first glimpse of the South African tree fern, Cyathea dregei. Although we didn't have time for a visit, the tree ferns were much more prevalent in the small remnant of Afromontane forest on the other side of the stream.
Back at the lodge, those of us who had wet clothes changed into drier attire and we packed to leave. Carl stashed the shredded remains of his South African rain suit. Now we see why it only cost $9 USD. The 16 mile dirt road that took us back to the asphalt road was a again a long and arduous trek. Because it was daylight now, we were able the make a couple of stops, first to seed fields of Nerine appendiculata, which grew in sopping wet areas resembling rice patties. Alongside was Kniphofia parviflora and just up the way was more Brungsvigia grandiflora.
From here, it was a long drive to the southwest and our next nights lodging in Cathcart. As we drove closer to Cathcart, we passed many areas of planted forests. Many of these forests border the tribal Transkei regions and have been blamed for absorbing too much valuable ground water. The closer we came to the Transkei, the more of the forests had been burned by arsonists.
Since we were near Cathcart, we decided to retrace our steps in hopes of finding Cameron's cell phone. As we approached one of the areas that he had jumped a barbed wire fence to photograph brunsvigias, Cameron instantly recognized the site and leaped out of the van and over the fence for the second time. Amazingly, he nearly landed on his phone, lying just as it had exited his pocket three days earlier. Remarkably, it still had a good charge.
We arrived at Cathcart late in the day and made our way down another long bumpy dirt road to the Lowestoffe Inn. Since we were still near the Transkei region, security is very important. In this area, security is provided by a group called the Tactical Task Force. This security service is provided by form soldiers from the north who were trained to fight in the Angolan war. The guards assigned to a particular area are only given three month assigments in order to keep them from getting too friendly with the criminals from the Transkei.
Along the road, we were amazed by the number of ornamental asparagus species in the area. Note to self... check these out closer in the morning. The road was quite bumpy and fortunately Hans watched as another hubcap was sent flying. Fortunately, we were able to retrieve this one. We arrived to find a delightful guest house, but strangely only 1 bath for 6 people and no shower head in the bathroom. We also found that we had lost another hubcap... not a good thing. After a good dinner and hours of note taking, it was time to call it a night.
Day 9, Sunday February 13, 2005
In the morning, we headed out again along the dirt road where we had seen the asparagus the evening before. By the time we reached the end of the road, we had counted and photographed 6 different species. We were all amazed that none of these seem to be in cultivation in the US. Our favorite is a species with foxtail-like blue spikes... none of which were in seed. This was also our first sight of the lovely Gladiolus mortonianus along with Hypoxis costata, both growing among the asparagus. We turned down another dirt road and passed the farm belonging to Cameron's brother. Amazingly, we found three more asparagus species on this dirt road. We need a seed collector to keep an eye on these when they are in fruit.
We stopped at a stream crossing which was one of Cameron's favorite area for Nerine, Dierama pulcherrimum, Schizostylis, and Eucomis comosa. When we walked to the site, we found that the area had flooded recently and nothing remained visible except the dierama and the eucomis, both of which grow at damp rivers edge... much different habitat from the other species of both genera that we had seen earlier on the trip.
Still around 4,000' elevation, our next stop was a few miles away at the Ellington Farm, which is owned by a friend of Cameron's. The sun shown brightly as we parked in the drive and jumped yet another barbed wire fence and headed for the large rock outcrops. The first rock outcrop was covered with flowering Nerine filamentosa, Aloe pratensis, as well as loads of crassula and euphorbias. The rock outcrops were also abundant with desert ferns and bulbs including albucas, ledebourias, and many more asparagus. The highlight of this site was the huge number of Encephalartos friderici-guilielmi. These cycads had trunks between 6 and 15' tall. Many of the larger specimens are between 1000 and 2000 years of age. As if we needed it, there was more added excitement when Cameron found a 3' long recently shed cobra skin nearby. It's probably good we didn't see the rest of the snake.
Over the fence again, and we were off for the 30 minute drive to Stutterheim. Stopping to pick up lunch at the local supermarket, we were harassed for money by young black children, who obviously have had plenty of practice at begging. We took our food to the nearby Kologha Park and enjoyed at the Podocarpus forested picnic area near the base of the mountain. Kologha Park in the Amathole mountains is one of a few afromontane forests remaining in South Africa.
After we finished eating, we were off to the top of the mountain to see the waterfall. Hiking up the densely forested steep grade around the waterfall, we were greeted by an amazing array of 13 different ferns including an 8' wide blechnum. It was also great to find several epiphytic ferns and other plants such as streptocarpus which found the moist rocks a perfect home. Along with the ferns were three bulbs that I was not expecting to find in the shade, Scadoxus puniceus, Haemanthus albiflos, and Bowiea volubilis (climbing African onion). The other wonderful gem at the edge of the forest was Plectranthus ecklonii which made a 8' tall flowering shrub.
We had been blessed by high temperatures in the 70's and 80's until today, when the hot, humid temperature in the 90's took it's toll on everyone. At least it cools off nicely at night. Fortunately, our hotel, the Manderson Inn was at the base of the mountain, since we were all extremely worn out and some sunburned by the long hot strenuous day. This was the first day of our trek that we arrived at our hotel before 7pm. Thank goodness it was such a nice inn. If you find yourself in Stutterheim, I strongly recommend the well-run Manderson Inn. Be sure an tell Ingrid that we said hello.
Day 10, Monday February 14, 2005
Staying at the same hotel for two nights for the first time, we were up early to make our one hour drive to the farm of Neil and Carmen Potter, outside of Stutterheim. Picture Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter and you've got Neil. Neil owns some of the most inhospitable land that I've ever seen anyone try to farm. Despite the terrible terrain, he manages to make a living from cattle, goats, and sheep. Neil had recently been attacked in his home by thieves from the adjacent Transkei region, but managed to shoot two of the five intruders before the others fled. Neil was charged with attempted murder, but because the robbers removed the bodies of their accomplices, he was acquitted. As you can tell, the judicial system here is quite a mess. All day long, we continued to be amazed at Neil's stories from the perils of farming to killing puff adders and cape cobras on his property.
We offloaded at Neil's home on the farm and piled into the back of Neil's 4x4 pickup for the drive to the top of the mountain. The trek was slow and tedious since this Federal road was one of many to have fallen into a severe state of disrepair since the black government took over the road maintenance division of the Eastern Cape. We bounced and bounced all the way to the top where we mercifully arrived around 10am. From here, we hiked for three hours up and down the mountain top exploring the amazing vegetation. This remote mountaintop had been unexplored until Cameron discovered it nearly 20 years ago when he was hiking up the nearby Kei River. He had initially explored the mountain from the river side, but later made contact with the Neil, who owned the land on the other side. Neil just happened to be the son of one of Cameron's former classmates.
Cameron found that the mountain (3,400' elevation.) contained three species of cycads including Encephalartos friderici-guilielmi, E. princeps, and E. caffra. He had also discovered a new species of cyrtanthus here, soon to be published (2005) as Cyrtanthus mcmasterii. One of the special moments of the trip was when Hans persuaded Cameron to pose with his new find in it's native habitat.
As we trekked down from the top toward the Kei River, the 2' tall thick tussocks of grass and hidden round boulders made walking difficult. Actually difficult would have described our hike if the ground was level... which it wasn't. Another of the highlights was seeing Boophone disticha growing in the open grassland. The huge bulbs and amazing foliage were well over 25 years of age. Another bulb that caught my eye was Cyrtanthus obliquus with its fascinating wide glaucous leaves.
Exhausted after a morning hike, we devoured our packed lunch while sitting on rocks surrounded by short clumps of the beautiful Ficus ingens and then headed back down the mountain. About half way down, we detoured to a ravine, flanked by a steep rock cliff. Here, I found more Adiantum capillus-veneris along with many more plants that I used to grow as houseplants including sansevieria, Parthenocissus (grape ivy), and tree euphorbias. By this point, we were exhausted, sunburned, and jostled to death, so we returned to Neil's home and reloaded our van for the return to the hotel. On the way, we dropped Cameron by at his sister-in-laws house in Stutterheim. Cameron had to depart our excursion because of a previous commitment to tour the Australian Sheep Growers Association.
We arrived back at the hotel to find our laundry finished, but only part of it in our rooms. After rechecking with the hotel office, it was discovered that they had put part of our laundry on our luggage and hung the rest up in the closet which none of us had thought to check. Did I mention that we are now down to 2 hubcaps again? Not a good thing. We're casting ballots now to see which hubcap gets voted off next.
Day 11, Tuesday February 15, 2005
We awoke in a dense fog... partially due to the strenuous day yesterday and part due to the presence of a dense fog. We headed out for our 3-hour drive southwest to our next of destination Grahamstown, a college town near the coast. After about an hour, the fog cleared and we made a couple of roadside stops, including one where we found a bizarre shrub that resembled a cross between a loquat and a rhododendron. We would later discover this to be Oldenbergia grandis... reportedly the world's largest composite and an endemic to Grahamstown. Our first stop in Grahamstown was at the Albany Museum herbarium to see Tony Dold, the assistant curator and a friend of Cameron. Tony was very helpful in sharing three nearby areas for us to botanize while in Grahamstown.
We checked into our hotel in downtown Grahamstown for lunch, while we planned our activities for the afternoon. Jim agreed to stay in town and pick up supplies such as a new watch for me, a watch battery for Hans, and to convert more dollars into rand for the rest of the group. Jim's big find turned out to be an African fertility mask that he bought for his wife's birthday. We all thought Jim was a bit delirious from heat that previous day. We'll see what his wife thinks when he returns home.
Our first Grahamstown stop was a wildflower reserve atop a steep grassy knoll across from the university which they are reclaiming from non-native trees such as eucalyptus. As we arrived at the area, it appeared quite barren, but once we got out to look, it was anything but barren. The top of the rocky hillside was covered with gems including a wonderful dwarf crassula with yellow flowers, thousands of clumps of Hypoxis argentea (yellow star grass), Bulbine alooides, and ivy leaf geranium. I was particularly excited to find a large white-flowered Delosperma since most of the white selections that I've grown have had tiny flowers.
At the edge of the hill where the slope began to steepen were more of the Oldenbergia growing along with protea. The cliff down the back side was full of Bobartia...a yellow flowering irid with juncus-like foliage, Agapanthus praecox, Bulbine frutescens, Kniphofia uvaria, and a new blechnum fern that I hadn't seen before. My favorite find on the steepest part of the bank was an amazing clump of compact ledebouria with stunning purple spots.
The second stop several miles away was to see Crinum campanulatum just outside of town. Tony had advised us that the crinum had finished flowering, but that didn't deter us. We arrived to find two dried ponds, filled with 3' tall weeds. It didn't appear that there had been water in these ponds for years and there was certainly no sign of a crinum. The one interesting find here was a very compact and floriferous clump of opuntia. Although opuntias are not native to the continent, they have certainly naturalized and look right at home in the desert climate.
The third stop that we arrived at as the sun was beginning to approach the horizon was a succulent haven. Virtually all the succulents here were plants that I had grown as a kid. There was patches of Crassula argentea (jade plant)... regular and dwarf, haworthia, Strelitzia (bird of paradise), Sansevieria (snake plant), Senecio rowleanus (string of pearls). Carl was particularly excited to see one of his garden favorites, the silver back Hypoxis stepillata growing here. By this time, we were all pretty exhausted, as our tolerance had been worn down by 10 days of physical exertion. We returned back to Grahamstown and the Protea hotel for a shower and nice buffet dinner.
Day 12, Wednesday February 16, 2005
Today was a slow day, and boy did we need it. Since we were in a college town, our hotel was next door to a Postal Venue, which also offered Internet service. Since we had not seen email in quite a while, we spent the morning pouring over neglected emails. There's nothing quite like the feeling of logging on to find 930 unanswered emails. We finally departed around 10:30am heading for the town of Addo, some 1.5 hours to the west. The dusty road was quite dry, but were screeched to a halt when we spotted a clump of Haemanthus coccineus flowering amongst the dry spiny scrub growth that lined the highway.
Addo is home to the Addo Elephant Preserve, where many of the regions native animals have been preserved and protected. We wondered, however, if political correctness hadn't gone a bit too far with the Dung Beetle Right of Way sign. Trying to avoid running over Elephant poop in a nature reserve is a bit like trying not to pass another car while driving in New York City. The Preserve is a drive through habitat of several thousand acres where you can view a wide range of large game animals in their native habitat. During our 5-hour visit, we had a great lunch at their restaurant and then observed elephants, warthogs, ostriches, and zebras. You haven't lived until you've driven near a herd of 125 elephants and have them pass within inches of your van, while worrying about being crushed to death.
Fortunately, our drive for the evening was a short 12 kilometers to the Africanos Inn. This delightful clean and modern inn is actually a group of cottages and is the perfect stop for visitors to the Wildlife Preserve... despite no television or phone. Our evening dinner at the Inn was interrupted by a violent thunderstorm that knocked out power to the entire complex. According to the owners, this was the first storm of this magnitude in over 4 years. Our waiter, Elvis (I'm not making this up) was nowhere to be found when the power went out... obviously he had left the building. After 10 minutes of pitch black darkness in the restaurant, Elvis returned with candles and only as the last one was lit, did the power return and the cooking in the kitchen resumed.
Day 13, Thursday, February 17, 2005
After a long stormy evening, we awoke ready to hit the road again. Thursday would be another long drive as we make the 5-hour trek from Addo in the Eastern Cape to Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape. The drive was relatively boring, although we did make a couple of interesting discoveries along the way. As we got into the Western Cape Province, pelargoniums became prevalent along the highway. We had also returned to protea land and before long, an array of proteas were lining the highway, causing us immeasurable Kodak moments . We were particularly taken with a stunning 8' tall species with mauvy-lavender flowers that lined the road during a several mile stretch. At one site near the town of Haarlem, Wade scrambled up a bank to discover an exciting new aloe, possibly A. comptonii that we hadn't seem before.
The most interesting part of this day was a side excursion from Avontuur south over the Prince Alfred's Pass. This amazing pass rises to 3,500' before a dramatic drop into the low elevation but stunning canyon. The moist canyon is a dramatic site, even for the most jaded of world travelers. We did find a few new ferns on our trip down to the bottom including two beautiful blechnum. I became increasingly impressed with Bobartia which we had seen several times during the trip. This irid resembles a juncus until you notice the terminal sisyrinchium-like flower heads of bright yellow. I was also very interested to find carpobrotus growing along the road near the top of the pass. Carpobrotus resembles a delosperma on steroids and is commonly called fig apple or hottentot fig. The huge fruit can be eaten as one would the fruit from a prickly pear cactus. We have not found the selection in the trade, which has naturalized along the California coast to be winter hardy, but this would represent an interesting new collection to try.
After quickly botanizing the pass, it was a 2-hour drive west to our hotel in Oudtshoorn where we arrived at the 4-star Queen's hotel. Having seen the poor quality of many of the towns, we were pleased to find Oudtshoorn to be a very nice, clean, and prospering town. Compared to many of the poverty stricken areas that we had visited in the Eastern Cape, Oudtshoorn seemed quite wealthy. We had picked a good spot for another of our rare two-night hotel stays. It's a shame that the hotel couldn't find a front desk receptionist that understood being friendly. The young blonde that they had employed couldn't even manage a smile, a hello, or to warn us that bringing luggage up steep the back steps required a hand truck.
Day 14, Friday February 18, 2005
For our adventure this morning, we headed northwest out of town on Hwy 328 to go over the Swartberg Pass. The vegetation on the Swartberg mountain is called fynbos (as in I'm fine boss). It could best be described as a dry, rocky, well drained acidic soil, fire dependant, prairie scrub habitat. These areas are cold and wet in the winter and hot and dry during the summer months. The dominant shrubs were protea and erica... at least twelve proteas and probably 24 erica species and many in full flower. There was also an amazing array of restios, which could be best described as a cross between an equisetum and a juncus. From these elevations, it should be possible to find a hardy species for the Southeastern US. Growing among the proteas is a bizarre irid called Nivenia. Imagine a shrubby, branching sisyrinchium and you get the picture... very cool.
As we drove slowly along the winding mountain road toward the top, the vegetation began to change as the ground as we neared the top. As we climbed higher, we began finding more bulbs and ferns. Cyrtanthus angustifolius, Tritoniopsis antholyza, watsonias, and a small gladiolus began to be more regular occurrences.
As we passed 4,000' elevation, we entered the cloud layer and our one-lane steep mountain dirt road had become quite foggy. Everyone alternated turns walking ahead of the vehicle looking for interesting plants and watching for oncoming traffic. Carl emerged from the brush with the find of the day... a hubcap from a Volkswagen. Since we were missing two already, we were delighted when we found that it fit our Mercedes perfectly. The only difference was the insignia... surely no one would notice.
We continued to make stops as the width of the road would allow us to pull to the side. At a wonderful wet draw, we found masses of blechnum fern growing with Zantedeschia aethiopica. In the dry rock cracks was a delightful little strap-leaf fern... probably an Elaphoglossum. Nearby in a wet seep was a huge mass of a spreading blechnum. One of my more exciting finds here was an elegia, probably E. capensis. This restio has never been hardy for me, but this was a much colder growing form.
As we passed 4,500' elevation, we couldn't see more than 10' in front of us. With headlights on high, we kept our fingers crossed that no one would be coming down over the pass. Carl and Hans had walked far ahead and we had no idea what had become of them. As we finally crossed the pass at 5,024', the skies opened up to reveal bright sun. We had been on the south side of the mountain which catches all the moisture from the inland moving fronts. The north side of the mountain was consequently much drier.
We rejoined with Hans and Carl who were waiting in the sunshine and continued to explore the top of the mountain. Like the drive up, the top was very rocky, a combination of small rocks and large boulders. Around the rocks at the top, we found a fascinating small-leaf pelargonium that was unique from anything else we had seen before and quite un-geranium like. Tritoniopsis and ericas were in flower among the already finished watsonias. Amazingly, I found another patch of the normally non-hardy carpobrotus... this one at over 5,000' elevation. Surely from this elevation, it should grow back in Raleigh. The most exciting find at the top was Schizaea pectinata. Hans spotted this un-fern looking fern which resembles a grass, topped with Venus fly-trap like leaves, growing at the base of small rocks.
The downhill journey on the north side of the mountain took far less time and we were glad to be back on flat ground again. The drive down the north side of the pass is incomparably stunning as the road winds through massive vertical cliffs at roads edge. At the base of the mountain, we stopped for a very late lunch in the delightful small town of Prince Albert. After lunch, we all agreed that we would take the long loop back to the main highway, the N12 instead of renegotiating the Swartberg Pass.
As we drove along the road to Klaartstroom, we were attracted to a hillside of aloes that appeared brown and orange. From the road, these appeared to be quite ugly, but upon closer examination, my first assessment was quite wrong. Our find was Aloe microstigma, which because of the sun and drought had an amazing stress-induced coloration that was quite beautiful. It was also at this stop that Wade found a huge turtle moving among the aloes and we saw our first snake... a 4'+ brown snake that had tried to attack a 4x4 in the middle of the highway and lost.
This was obviously the day for animals. On our drive back to the hotel near the town of De Rust, we saw two more huge turtles crossing the road, along with a roadside gang of baboons that scattered back among the cliffs as we stopped for a Kodak moment. Our final stop of the day was at a lovely rest area along the highway. The interpretive display of flowers was delightful and the workers encouraged us to follow the rock path to the waterfall. 'Only a few hundred meters', they repeated. We all took their que and took the walk only to reach the waterfall and find no water. Due to a lack of rain, the falls had become completely dry. This type of disconnect between the workers not understanding that a waterfall should have water to be interesting was prevalent throughout our trip.
We returned in time to spend another hour at a Internet café trying to whittle down the backlog of e-mail messages. Two nights in Oudtshoorn had also given us a chance to try several restaurants in town including one on Friday night that served Zebra along with several other of the big game species that we had seen earlier on the trip. This is a really delightful town that is certainly worthy of a visit when you're in the area.
Day 15, Saturday February 19
Up and back at it on Saturday, we loaded up the van for our 5 hour drive back to Napier to have dinner with Rhoda and Cameron. Not far past the town of Calitzdorp, we stopped to admire the huge flowering pelargoniums that lined the highway. These amazing plants topped out at 8-9' in height. The drive was fairly uneventful, although a stop in the small town of Warmwatersberg was quite fascinating. This natural hot springs area looked more like the what I imagine from the surface of Mars. The sloping ground was covered with fist-size ankle-turning gravel making walking slow and difficult. This area was a haven for succulents including an array of Lampranthus and crassulas. My favorite crassula from this site is C. rupestris. I used to grow this as a houseplant, but never appreciated its true beauty until seeing it in the wild.
Further down the road, we stopped for lunch in Barrydale across from the World famous Ronnie's Sex Shop... or at least that's what the sign said. Judging from the large numbers of bikers that were parked out front, the sign must have been right. After lunch, we continued toward Napier. After traversing a good bit of low flat ground, we rose again as we traversed the low elevation, but beautiful Tradouws Pass. Here, we found a new delosperma relative with upright stems and bright purple flowers.
As we drove toward Napier, fatigue was evident by the lack of conversation and the more deafening lack of requests to stop and botanize. By 3pm, we were approaching Napier, when I spotted our first flowering plants of Brunsvigia orientalis. This was finally enough to stimulate everyone to hop out of the car for photographs.
From here, it was only a short drive to Cameron and Rhoda's home, so we spent the rest of the afternoon there discussing and identifying plants that we had seen and photographed since Cameron had departed. Cameron had arranged for us to stay at the Gunner's Restaurant and Lodge across the block from their home. We arrived to find a very loud party just outside the rooms, which would last until midnight. I was fortunate to get the room next to the uninsulated outer wall... lucky me. Note to all owners of bed and breakfasts... it is a very bad idea to hold loud parties next to a B&B, since the purpose of a bed and breakfast is to rest. Other than the noise and the fact that there were no way to lock our rooms, this was actually a nice place to stay.
Day 16, Sunday February 20
In the morning, Cameron and Rhoda led us by a couple of stops before turning us over to a local farmer, Thys De Villiers. Thys has a farm west of Napier and had agreed to take us on a 4x4 tour of Boskloof mountain. As if our bodies didn't ache enough, we again were loaded into the back of a pickup and up the mountain we bounced with Thys's son at the wheel and Thys in the back to navigate. Thys has a 11,000 hectare property that is mostly fynbos vegetation. As was the case with the fynbos that we visited earlier, it was composed primarily of protea family members and ericas. Amazingly, there are 850 different ericas in South Africa.
We bounced our way to the top with Thys naming all of the 65 heaths that we were seeing. On of the rarest was the yellow-flowered Erica angsymyfoia growing among a beautiful red flowered tritoniopsis. As we got near the top, we were very surprised to find Protea cynaroides, the famous King Protea, both in bud and in flower. The closely related leucospermums such as L. cordifolium were also equally as amazing. While we were at the top, Thys took us to a moist depression, filled with Drosera cistiflora (sundew). Coming back down the mountain, we pulled off on a side road after spotting masses of Brunsvigia orientalis in full flower. Although Thys is a cattle farmer, he has become quite an amateur botanist and also gives tours to plant groups interested in ericas and proteas. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected].
We departed around lunch time and headed west again. We stopped for lunch at Caledon to stumble onto the Caledon Botanical Garden sharing the same parking lot. After lunch, we ducked into the garden to find an amazing array of infrastructure and plants, albeit lacking in general garden maintenance. The amount of structural work and planting were on a mind-boggling scale that few US gardens could equal. We managed to find two stunning ferns here, the giant Todea barbara and what I think is a finely cut Adiantum raddianum. The central pond of the native Cyperus papyrus was absolutely stunning. All of these would make stunning garden additions if they were winter hardy.
Still suffering from the bouncing of the morning ride, we re-loaded for the remaining ride to Capetown. Capetown is a large and bustling city and we arrived just as everyone was returning from their weekend getaways. Again, we past the bourgeoning shanty towns that have developed over the last decade outside of Capetown. Cameron had described South Africa as a third world country within a first world country. If you drive through Capetown, you'll realize that his statements are right on the mark. We followed the signs to Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden to find cars parked along the road for miles. As it turned out, they were having an African sculpture show and antique sale. Since our hotel was only 10 minutes away, we turned around and headed for the hotel to return to Kirstenbosch tomorrow.
This was our first hotel with a crime prevention gate that must be opened for each vehicle. We arrived to find that we were staying our second 4-star hotel. We had already decided that South Africa uses a different scale of stars to rate their hotels than we are used to in America. The American scale is from 1-5 stars. It became obvious that the South Africa scale has from 1-10 stars. The hotel was obviously designed by an architect who finished at the bottom of a very dumb class. The stairways and hallways were so narrow that they were barely traversable even without luggage. After you climbed the two sets of stairs up to your floor, you had to climb back down another set to reach your room.
Dinner in the hotel restaurant was quite good, except for Jim whose squid had evidently exercised a bit too much before he was grilled. The service here and in much of South Africa was quite poor. Hospitality to guests is something that is obviously still foreign to many of the food service workers. Our waiter was surly and managed to botch much of our orders to the point that we named him, Mr. Happy. Several of the front desk employees weren't much better, giving us bad driving information. Jim was particularly impressed with the pool, which had a healthy layer of green algae growing on the sides of the pool. When he complained, he was told that people swim there all the time. Carl and Wade couldn't get clean towels in their room, but my favorite story was the battery operated wall clock in our room. We noticed that it didn't work and took the clock down to find no battery. We laid it on the counter so that the maid would see that it didn't have a battery. When we returned at the end of the day, the clock had been carefully re-hung... still without a battery. When we asked at the front desk, they replied that they would report it to housekeeping and that it would be fixed the next day. Are you getting the picture?
Day 17, Monday February 21
Today was our long-awaited visit to Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens. We arrived early in the morning for a full day of walking and photographing. The extensive gardens are planted in entirely South African native plants arranged in an attractive landscape style. Several of the major plant groups were grouped together such as aloes, restios, pelargoniums, trees, proteas, and cycads. We had just entered the main garden when I fell in love with a series of amazing ferns and asparagus ferns. Asparagus densiflorus 'Cwebe' is a most unusual form of our commonly grown Asparagus densiflorus 'Sprengeri.'
The slope of the garden made walking quite tiring if you were walking up hills, but coming back down was a breeze. Since Kirstenbosch sits at the base of Table Mountain, the clouds hit the top of the mountain and moisture is released. Consequently, Kirstenbosch gets the most rainfall of any location in the Western Cape. Many succulents from other areas of the Western Cape are grown inside their spectacular conservatory to keep them dry during the rainy season. We were surprised not to find more of a fern or bulb collection, although well-grown representative specimens of both were also found in the conservatory.
The gardens have two wonderful book and gift shops along with three cafes, so you can literally spend the day looking at plants, eating and shopping. Jim split with us early in the morning to visit other sites in downtown Capetown. We were finally ready to depart the gardens at 5pm for the 45 minute drive south along the coast to Simonstown. In the early 1980's a couple of South African native Jackass penguins (I'm not making this up), which normally live in rocky outcrops just off the coast, took up residence in a small coastal community called Boulder Bay. By the time we visited, their population has swelled to over 1000 animals.
We parked along the coastal road and made our way through the penguin fence (designed to keep hungry penguins from devouring neighborhood gardens) and out onto the huge tractor-trailer size rocks. We were attracted to one unusual rock that we nicknamed 'Plumber's Crack'. When we turned our focus from the unusual rocks, there they were... seemingly unafraid of humans, although huddling close together while casting a wary eye. Although the winds had picked up to gale force, we were able to complete the requisite photography and we were off to pick up Jim at the hotel and get some dinner. In order to avoid Mr. Happy at the hotel restaurant, we opted for the Capetown waterfront.
Jim had already scooped out the waterfront, which resembles a combination of the Baltimore Waterfront and New Orleans. This delightful area was teeming with police, which is probably why the crowds also mobbed the area. There were hundred of vibrant shops and restaurants... a far cry from much of Capetown that we visited. We returned to our hotel to find the winds still howling so bad that we felt like the windows and doors of the hotel were ready to be blown out as we went to bed. Fortunately, the hotel stayed together through the night.
Day 18, Monday February 22
Our plans for Monday were to head to the top of nearby Table Mountain, but the fierce winds and fogged in summit shut down the ski lift to the top. Instead we opted to drive to the top. We passed the ski lift entrance only to find the road closed by landslides just a mile further up the road. With a nice view of the city of Capetown below, we figured it was a good day for a walk. We found several new ferns along with an interesting watsonia that produced bulbils instead of seed. After a brisk 2-hour hike along the deserted road, it was time to retrace our steps back to the car. There's nothing like having a closed highway to botanize along. Our plans for Monday were to head to the top of nearby Table Mountain, but the fierce winds and fogged in summit shut down the ski lift to the top. Instead we opted to drive to the top. We passed the ski lift entrance only to find the road closed by landslides lift to the top. Instead we opted to drive to the top. We just a mile further up the road. With a nice view of the city of Capetown below, we figured it was a good day for a walk. We found several new ferns along with an interesting watsonia that produced bulbils instead of seed. After a brisk 2-hour hike along the deserted road, it was time to retrace our steps back to the car. There's nothing like having a closed highway to botanize along.
After lunch at the waterfront, we headed off on our final stop to visit Rod and Rachel Sanders of Silverhill Seed. Silverhill Seed (www.silverhillseed.co.za) is an amazing company that specialized in South African natives, many of which we had seen during our trip. Along the way, we stopped at the Mercedes dealership to try and purchase hubcaps to replace those that we lost along the way. Missing hubcaps on these vehicles were obviously a problem, since every Mercedes Vito that we had seen along the trip also had missing hubcaps. The gentleman at the parts department seemed to remember a problem with hubcaps falling off, but would have to research it for us. He was also delighted to order the hubcaps, but they kept nothing in stock. Since this was our last day, we would have to return our van sans hubcap.
We arrived at Rod and Rachel's Capetown home and spent a wonderful 2.5 hours touring their garden, library, and seed fulfillment area. Since many of us purchase regularly from Silverhill, it was great to see how their operation works. We were also quite eager to purchase books from their amazing stock of native plant books. After loading up with books and seed, we were off again for our final dinner in Capetown.
Day 19, Monday February 23
We made a quick morning stop at the downtown Post Office, which was nearly impossible to reach with a vehicle. The drive into the parking lot was so tight, that we nearly scraped the sidewalls off our tires, but somehow made it out without losing another hubcap. From here, it was back to the waterfront to get a refund on our VAT tax. For those who haven't traveled much, many countries have a national sales tax of VAT (Value Added Tax). The 14% tax is refundable to tourists when they leave the country. We had gathered up our receipts and now waited in line. Upon reaching the counter person, we found that we could not get a refund on anything other than goods to leave the county. In other words, no refunds on food or hotels, which was our largest expense. After examining our receipts, we were informed that we would only receive a fraction of the amount we had expected. We would then have to take the paperwork to the Capetown airport, unpack each item and then receive more paperwork. Next, we would take that paperwork from the Capetown airport to the Johannesburg airport to get our money. Forget it. The government has succeeded in making the system so convoluted, they are in effect charging an income tax to tourists with no chance of getting a refund. At least our return trip to the waterfront allowed us to see the nearby Table mountain sans fog.
We reached the Capetown airport by noon for our 2:30pm flight and headed directly to the car rental office to drop the rental van off at the airport, dreading the consequences of losing the two hubcaps. Upon our arrival, they instantly notice the missing hubcap, but not the VW replacement that we found to replace the original. We discussed the reasons for the missing hubcap as they poured over the vehicle checking for further damage. They still haven't noticed the VW hubcap. We settled up for the one lost hubcap and headed back to the terminal and our long 10,000+ mile flight back to the US.
Addendum: I would like to say another special thanks to our tour guide, Cameron McMaster, who is without a doubt the finest tour guide that I have ever had the pleasure to accompany. Cameron is available for other groups as his schedule will permit. He can be reached through his nursery African Bulbs (www.africanbulbs.com).