Deep in the heart of the Karoo lives a princess. She is not a local princess but a Dutch royal, and she’s on a mission to help all of us regain our relationship with nature. It’s all about balance, she says, and she’s not just talking about it. By GUY LIEBERMAN.
The private nature reserve of Bergplaas, set high above the plains of the Camdeboo in the Sneeuberg Mountain range, seems to have an entirely unique climate. Driving up the snaking pass from the baking flatlands of the Karoo, I felt the air cool as I watched the altimeter rise and the Celsius drop on the thermometer of my 4X4.
I had been cautioned ahead of time about the weather by Wayne Maspero, the head ranger, but in the sweltering heat of Johannesburg I couldn’t really take his advice to heart.
“Even in the peak of summer, we have convection currents up here that draw moisture from the elevated valleys. It’s what gives this place its sense of mystique: a radiant sky can be darkened by dense storm clouds in less than an hour. So come prepared!”
As the track narrowed and became tougher to navigate, I changed down into a low gear, and considered where this path was taking me. I was on my way to meet a bona fide princess, the custodian of 7000 hectares of pristine Karoo wilderness.
“The Princess of Bergplaas”, I chuckled to myself as my car bounced over the dongas and ruts that were becoming increasingly deeper as I ascended the pass. But, this Royal of the Camdeboo is in fact the younger sister of Her Majesty, Queen Beatrix of the House of Orange, the presiding monarch of the Netherlands.
Princess Irene van Lippe-Biesterfeld is a nature lover in the truest sense of the term. In the Nineties, when she initially purchased the three adjoining farms to create the expanse that is Bergplaas, she’d spent 6 months of every year here for five consecutive years.
This was long before she had established her nature retreat programme, Spirit of the Wild, with all the accompanying staff and their families that now live on the farm. Much of her time was spent alone, deliberately so, walking the ridges, peaks and riverine kloofs, discovering the silence of this vast open land that makes up an estate very unlike any other noble’s in Europe. Previously used for farming, she bought the land in order to let it lie fallow and return to its natural state.
“You’ll be staying up at Hill Ccottage. There’s firewood there for you. Dinner is at Irene’s house at 7:30pm. Bring a torch.”
Maspero is cut from the cloth of cowboys and rangers of old. He doesn’t waste his words, his language is to the point. That he looks like a lithe ironman athlete only serves to endorse the persona. He manages Bergplaas with his wife, Cindy, who was bush-born and bred in Zambia. Together with their young daughter they have made a life of relative seclusion. The Princess has invited Cindy’s retired parents to live on Bergplaas too, which means that there is connection to three generations of family, giving comfort and support to an otherwise isolated existence.
There is a warm, respectful and humorous informality at Bergplaas. Her Royal Highness is simply referred to as Irene. She balks at decorum, wants the conversation honest, clear and direct. It’s possibly why the Masperos have fitted in so easily to life on the farm.
It’s 7:30pm on the mark, and I step up on to the stoep of the Princess’ farmhouse. I can’t help but reflect on how the English part of my ancestry would always emphasise punctuality – or any form of fine manners – with a threat that otherwise we children would never have tea with the Queen.
I try to push that thought from my mind, imagining myself over-reaching and spilling the tea all over the floor. Outside her front door I look around and get an immediate sense of the Princess’s aesthetic. The house is spacious, rustic, designed by Irene and hewn from rock and wood. It carries grace in its simplicity. In form, its not the palace one imagines a princess to live in. No twirls, no crystal chandeliers. But there is a gentle, certain gravitas here, which reflects the lineage and genes of the one whose home this is.
She opens the door (no servant in sight), and smiling broadly ushers me in out of the chilly night air, welcoming me with a delicate hug. “It’s cold, isn’t it? Come in, come in, how was the drive up?”
She’s dressed in a tracksuit, casual jumper and well-worn sneakers. Her eyes are kind, and yet I am to learn how much she has experienced over the decades to arrive at what must have at one time seemed like an impossible peace.
Born in Soestdijk Palace just before the imminent World War ll, in the hope of a non-violent solution her parents chose to name her after the Greek goddess of peace. One of her godparents was Queen Elizabeth. She was not yet a year old before she fled with the entire royal family to England. As they were leaving Holland on a British warship, a fierce German air raid bombed the port, almost decimating the family.
Irene was placed in a gasproof carrier to protect her from possible chemical warfare. The family were forced to take flight again during the London Blitz, and went further afield into exile in Ottawa, Canada, where she spent several years of her youth. Interestingly, her grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina, named the Royal Dutch Brigade that fought alongside the Allies after Princess Irene.
Her family life included a fair share of excitement and intrigue. She studied Spanish and became proficient enough to serve as an official interpreter. After moving to Madrid, Irene met and married Prince Carlos Hugo of Bourbon-Parma of Spain, which was not a traditional coupling within Europe’s royal families: Protestants don’t usually marry Catholics.
With much consideration on the religious import of this decision, and its spiritual relevance for her—beyond marriage—Irene converted. This caused some upset within the nobility, but created turmoil for much of the country. It was a signature act for Irene: she is entirely independent in how, where and with whom she chooses to live her life.
Irene and Carlos were involved in a political revival movement promoting democracy, which resulted in her spending years gaining experience as a political activist against fascist Franco Spain. She and Carlos had four children together, later divorced, and he passed away a few years thereafter.
She then moved to Switzerland, which is her current European seat, and it was there that she first started re-experiencing something she had retained from her childhood: an integral view of nature, and our place as humans within it.
“We forget”, she explains to me as we sit around her candle-lit dinner table with the Masperos, “that we are woven into the natural world. Our intellect convinces us that we are a separate entity, that we need to control nature to the point that we suffocate the very earth under our feet. There are so many things that we have no right to take from these ecosystems that give us life, and especially not in such quantities.”
These are not the light words so often expressed by fashionable eco-warrior-wannabes. Irene has several forces at work within her, which provide her with a certain authority on this issue: she has delved deeper than most people I know in this field into a genuine space of communion with nature. Months of time alone in the Swiss mountains and deep in the Karoo, year after year, have given her a rare understanding of place.
She is also well read on the subject of our natural world, applying her mind to both the spirit and the sciences of fauna and flora. In 1995 she published her first book, Dialogue with Nature, which led to her writing several others on related topics.
Through her organisations, her work has gained traction over the years, including NatuurCollege Foundation in the Netherlands, and the NatureWise Foundation, a non-profit organisation that brings primary school pupils into direct contact with nature.
Irene channelled her activism experiences into her campaigns for nature. It seemed she had evolved from a position of intense independence to that of a broader, deeper interdependence.
The Masperos had invited to me to attend Bergplaas’ flagship week-long intensive programme called Spirit of the Wild, something the Princess developed during her long retreats there. Spirit of the Wild offers subsidised courses to nature guides, field rangers and environmental educators to interact with an ecosystem in a way that no accredited college, technikon or university offers.
“Nature guides, almost anywhere in the world, have a great sense of the biological world. They can recite a litany of botanical or zoological facts, and present them to guests or their students as if life is made up of chemical compounds and scientific terms. In part, all of that is true,” she says.
“But what of cultural knowledge systems? What about the spirit of the place, the rocks, the plants, the animals? Besides the fact that a zebra is an ungulate that gives birth to a foal every 12 months, what did it symbolise to the first nations? And how does it resonate for you – standing 30 feet away, watching as it grazes? And is the ephemeral or ‘soft’ knowledge even valuable in our modern world? I believe it is. More than ever.”
Does that sound tree-hug-ish? One might think so, but not after there has been a collective response over years of positive feedback from the very nature guides who received Spirit of the Wild training. It’s been so beneficial that SANParks chose to accredit the course and offer it as one option (of several) to their rangers.
But it’s her conviction on this issue that drives home her point. We are too disconnected from the earth. Some of our technologies and most of our energy needs are causing irreversible damage and, if not irreversible, then at least with recovery periods that span over centuries.
Irene feels that “we have separated ourselves from the natural world to the extent that human society has lost its ‘balance’. This has resulted in the many crises we are experiencing today.”
This brings me to another force that drives her: the issue of shale gas mining, or fracking, and her relationship to the ‘Royal Dutch’ part of Shell Oil’s full title. She explains that while her family did indeed seed Royal Dutch Shell, neither she nor any of her family holds shares in the company today. I learn that once an entity has the term ‘Royal Dutch’ preceding it, that’s how it remains, regardless of the royal family’s onward shareholding. In fact, Irene is unequivocal in her anti-fracking position.
“Can you imagine,” she says, eyes wide as she presents a scenario, “that if Shell or any other prospector were to find shale gas under any tract of land in the Karoo – privately owned, government or municipal commonage – they could mine.”
She’s referring to the law that states that landowners only own the surface of their land, not the mineral rights beneath. “Should a fissure occur in the well, and the toxic cocktail of chemicals and shale gas escapes into the water table, as has happened too many times in other parts of the world, the water table would be poisoned. The impact on the land and the ecosystem is unthinkable. And there would be no recourse.”
It’s not only the Camdeboo she’s concerned about – it extends beyond the Karoo. Princess Irene is not alone in her view that shale gas mining is a toxic industry, and while it has a potentially vast offering in terms of energy, the repercussions of things going wrong are too severe to consider. The shale layer is too deep, it requires far too much water to pump down the wide shafts in order, through pressure, to fracture the shale that releases the gas.
And it’s not like the energy producers are instilling confidence either. Considering the environmental disasters they inflict, the stakes are precipitous.
The Princess’ perspective is that there should be a longer view, one with a more concerted focus on innovative, clean technologies, which rely more heavily on natural forces. If properly harnessed, and established at scale, wave motion turbines, solar, wind, water and other green-tech industries, situated closer to the distribution grid and therefore closing the loop of local energy independence, could eventually satisfy much of the needs of our materials economy.
This is when Irene and the Masperos share with me their new project for Bergplaas – a version of Spirit of the Wild, but for business leaders.
“Picture people who power economies coming up here to step back, take a breath and just sense what its like to blend with the wild,” says Cindy.
“We have no cellphone reception up here. Our water comes from underground springs – most of our evenings are lit by fire or candlelight. If we keep silent, we are met by the rich, soft sounds that life offers up. Often we experience animals coming right up to the homesteads – not because they are tame or that we feed them, but because we don’t pose a threat.”
She continues, “We are surrounded here by the true colours and textures of our world. It’s so important for people, especially those who move through their days at 300 miles an hour – society’s decision-makers – to slow right down and make contact. To relate to the earth. ”
It’s a repeat on the same theme: 7,000ha of dedicated grasslands, valleys, mountains and rivers, allowed to lie fallow for their own benefit and in order to provide value to those who discover this paragon of life in balance.
Princess Irene bought Bergplaas for what she feels is a greater ideal. In her experience, the wilderness acts as a mirror. Through this reflection, people are offered an opportunity to rethink their place in the great ecosystem of the earth.
“We cannot delay on this sort of introspection much longer: being integral to nature, humans have a responsibility toward the wellbeing of all that live on the planet. What we do to her, we do to ourselves. It’s that simple.” DM
Photo: Princess Irene van Lippe-Biesterfeld of the Netherlands. (Liselore Chevalier/Margriet)