Beacon of light in the darkness – floral wonders and forest bathing in Grootbos Reserve
In this private nature reserve, ancient milkwood forests and fynbos hills meet the glittering coastline, as luxury ecotourism is coupled with conservation to create a slice of paradise.
I arrived at Grootbos on a golden winter’s day sandwiched between cold fronts battering the Cape. The “green season” is a good time to visit this corner of the Overberg, wonderfully rich in winter blooms. From my suite in Forest Lodge, the coastline swept in a gracious arc around Walker Bay to Hermanus, backed by serrated peaks that stretched away to a ghostly Cape Point on the horizon.
It was this very view that inspired Grootbos founder Michael Lutzeyer to buy a farm here in 1991 as a holiday home. This led to a modest tourism venture that took a new direction in 1997 when a young botanist, Sean Privett, signed on as a guide and conservation manager. Sean soon realised they were sitting on a treasure trove of floral diversity.
Since then, botanical studies and conservation efforts have intensified and a remarkable number of plant species have been discovered. Grootbos has grown to encompass about 3,500 hectares and become a leader in sustainable luxury tourism, transforming lives in the local community and preserving the area’s botanical treasures.
The best introduction to the reserve is a 4×4 flower safari. I joined guide Thea Wanty as we headed up the slope through impossibly rich tracts of fynbos, stopping to examine plants, insects and birds. Being midwinter, the hills were radiant with the pink blush of extremely rare Erica irregularis, also known as Gansbaai heath.
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“To date, 946 species have been recorded on the reserve,” said Thea. “Among them are seven new to science, four of which occur nowhere else on the planet. Our researchers have also identified 32,000 insect species, including 67 different bee species.”
From Thea, I learnt about the great variety of means of pollination, the importance of particular insects or birds to the process and why pollinators are attracted to certain flowers. I also learnt about the vital importance of fire to rejuvenate the flora, helping to clear the veld, allowing pods to burst and spread their seeds and waking those that have been dormant for years. We moved further up the slope from limestone soil to sandstone soil and into thickly wooded kloofs of Afromontane forest, each realm boasting its own myriad plants and pollinators.
I was later to learn from wildlife ecologist Mike Fabricius that four Cape leopards frequent the reserve. Mike has been able to plot their favoured routes with the help of camera traps and his faithful border collie, Monks, who is able to sniff out the big cats (and plenty of other animals, including bush pig and aardwolf). On a forest walk with Mike – among beautiful hard pear and white stinkwood – the industrious Monks led us directly to trees with scratch marks made by leopards.
Botanical art and bubbling trees
Next, I visited the Hannarie Wenhold Botanical Art Gallery to view the magnificent artworks of the Grootbos Florilegium, a botanical project undertaken to catalogue the Cape floral kingdom. The gallery serves as a permanent home for the florilegium, the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
This unique collection of botanical illustrations by more than 40 local and international artists depicts local plants and includes the story of each specimen and its pollinator. The Grootbos Florilegium is a manifestation of the reserve’s commitment to ecological research and was created to instil a passion for fynbos and inspire others to adopt a conservation mindset.
Another way to immerse yourself in nature at Grootbos is “forest bathing”, an activity offered by Grant Hine of ZenGuiding. The practice of shinrin-yoku gained traction in Japan during the 1980s and later became a cornerstone of preventive healthcare, believed to have the power to counter a host of illnesses and modern ills.
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Grant led me into the 1,000-year-old milkwood forest behind the lodge, where he guided me through a range of techniques that included walking barefoot, listening to trees with a stethoscope (I heard the bubbling of water passing up the trunk), and learning to appreciate the richness and diversity of one’s surroundings. Forest bathing is all about taking your time, breathing deeply, holding your attention in the moment and giving your body and mind the chance to slow down and embrace nature.
On my last evening, I sat beside a log fire looking out over swathes of strandveld and fynbos – all of it preserved, pristine and precious. A cold front bruised the western horizon, threatening to strike the Cape with another powerful blow. I sipped a My Dear Erica cocktail (Grootbos gin with buchu, resurrection bush and honeybush): like almost everything else on the reserve, my drink paid tribute to the local flora, as did the décor, botanical teas, cuisine, local honey, art and even the lodge design.
I was thinking, too, about how a small reserve can become such a powerful site of celebration of the floral crown jewels of the Cape, and how the Grootbos Florilegium was the culmination of that venture. In a South Africa so challenged by darkness, both literal and figurative, Grootbos stands as a beacon of light. Everything there is tuned to conservation, a powerhouse of research encompassing flora and fauna, geology and human origins. It gives the visitor a sense of immersion quite unlike other safari experiences, and encourages understanding, curiosity and veneration. DM
There’s no shortage of things to do at Grootbos, from whale watching and Marine Big Five excursions to fynbos 4×4 drives and horseback safaris, as well as excellent wining and dining, and wellness treatments at the spa.
The reserve also has a number of fine hiking trails (guided or on your own) and the forest bathing experience.
Secret season rates for South African residents (including meals and many activities) start from R5,950 pp sharing. Phone 028 384 8008, email [email protected] or visit www.grootbos.com
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.