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In full bloom: South Africa's wild Western Cape

With more than 8,000 plant species on display, South Africa's Western Cape is a nature-lover's paradise, from its botanic gardens to its wild and wonderful scenery

Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

Between great arches of greenery I half-expected to see dinosaurs lurking. Clumps of gigantic vegetation were set across a natural amphitheatre, dark fronds curling over thick woody stems. The plants looked like huge hybrids of palm tree and fern, their weird and wonderful shapes lending the landscape a primeval air.

I was walking through a plantation of cycads – enormous shrubs that predate the Jurassic Period and are often dubbed "living fossils" because they have scarcely changed over the course of millions of years. Rare and remarkable, this collection of cycads is one of the glories of Cape Town's Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden. It seemed an apt place to start a journey around some of the natural wonders of the Western Cape.

Stretching across the southern edge of Africa, this province of South Africa is imbued with Eden-like qualities. The botany of the Western Cape is astounding: more than 8,000 plant species are found here (as compared, for example, with the 1,500 or so species in Britain). Seven out of 10 of them exist nowhere else on earth. Add to that vibrant birds and other wildlife as well as magnificent scenery – from mountains to coast and semi-desert – and you almost feel burdened by sensory overload. The clamour of Cape Town's city centre, about 20 minutes' drive north, seems a world away.

I was staying in Cape Town's leafy suburb of Constantia. Here the Cellars Hohenort Hotel is an old Cape Dutch property with dreamy accommodation, and it is a particular treat for anyone with an interest in plants. Highlights include 200-year-old camphor trees, a wisteria avenue and a small vineyard. The 53-bedroom hotel, with country-house style, was a great base for day excursions across the province – starting with Kirstenbosch just up the road.

As you enter Kirstenbosch garden you are struck by the outlook. The eastern slopes of Table Mountain form a spectacular backdrop to an estate nearly twice the size of the City of London, its grounds blending into the untamed hillside above. Plants under cultivation around you can also be seen in the distance, growing wild on the slopes.

It was back in 1659, just a few years after the Dutch started to settle in the Cape, that some of this area began to be cultivated for wine production. With the addition of fruit trees and crops an estate developed, and, in the course of time and international wrangles, ownership passed from Dutch to British colonial settlers. Mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes was the last private landlord. In 1913 the estate became a botanical garden.

The cycads were the first collection of plants to be established in the new garden. And for most visitors they remain the biggest wow-factor. Vying for attention around them are Kirstenbosch's amazing collections of fynbos plants. Meaning "fine bush" in Afrikaans, fynbos is the extraordinary vegetation that grows across much of the Western Cape. It comprises a vast and diverse range of hardy species, some of which literally thrive under fire: many of the plants have become so habituated to summer bush fires that their seeds germinate only after exposure to intense heat.

The main species are displayed in artful and well-ordered profusion at Kirstenbosch: ericas, or heathers, of which about 660 varieties are found in the Western Cape – hundreds of them growing only in this region; restios, rush-like plants, many and varied; and proteas, a diverse family of shrubs with feathery leaves and fabulous flowers. On my visit the proteas were in resplendent bloom, pale pink king protea; bright red sugarbush protea; appositely named pincushion protea in great banks of orange and yellow.

There is much else besides: a fragrance garden, an extensive glass house; gurgling streams; beds burgeoning with bright strelitzia, the bird of paradise plant pollinated by sunbirds. I gazed, spellbound, as these tiny, iridescent creatures flitted among the flamboyant flowers.

Other birds added to the sense of infinite variety: small pied barbets, lemon doves, red-winged starlings that flashed exotic colour as they flew between palm trees. The garden's resident guinea fowl, though, were the most engaging. I watched a flock of them scurrying across a wide, well-clipped lawn, such a blur of grey I could barely make out their white spots and bright blue faces. They stopped beside a group of picnickers. And then they hung around, brazenly begging like family dogs.

For a wilder perspective of the Western Cape, the next morning I set off for Cape Point. African's full stop lies about one and half hour's drive from my base in Cape Town's green district of Constantia. To reach it you enter a nature reserve the size of Paris – a haven of fynbos amid breathtaking coastal scenery, with carpets of ericas and restios coating much of the wind-lashed area. Cape Point, at the end of the Cape Peninsula, is the south-western tip of the continent. Also within the reserve, and lying a short distance to the west, is the rocky promontory of the Cape of Good Hope.

There is a frequent misconception that two great oceans meet here – but the Atlantic and Indian Oceans actually converge around Cape Agulhas further east. However, two major currents, the warm Agulhas and the cold Benguela, do collide just off these shores, adding to the navigational challenges of the area.

In 1488 the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias led the first European expedition here and he named this western headland the Cape of Storms. On his return Portugal's King John II optimistically changed this to the Cape of Good Hope in the expectation that its discovery would result in a lucrative sea route from Europe to Asia.

There are hiking paths around and through the Cape Point reserve, but the focus of most visits is a lighthouse at its tip. From a car park menaced by baboons you either walk up a steep incline to this cast-iron tower or are scooted up there by funicular. The views are stunning, the weather almost inevitably dramatic. Despite a cloudless sky during my visit, the waters around were whipped up into white horses, the cliffs lashed by powerful waves. It was staggering to think that a small, 15th-century ship survived these brutal, uncharted waters – although 12 years after his first trip, Dias was claimed by these seas, shipwrecked off the Cape of Good Hope in 1500.

From unforgiving ocean to bucolic farmland: the next day I turned north from Cape Town. The area around the quietly prosperous town of Darling, about an hour's drive from the city, is classic veld land, its open prairies a striking contrast to the rocky region of Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula. The rural reaches near Darling are, for the most part, off the tourist map, although in September those in the know make a beeline here to see the profusion of spring wild flowers: meadows awash with tiny varieties of gladiolus, purple and red wine cups, yellow ground orchids and more, while arum lilies form blankets of white under orchard trees.

At any time of year you can step into history at the Groote Post Estate. Drive along the picturesque Klawer Valley near Darling, and you reach a cluster of old Cape Dutch buildings, all gables, whitewash and thatch. There are goats gambolling around a field, while guinea fowl and ducks scuttle across the forecourt of the old manor house.

The idyllic looks belie tough beginnings. Dating from the early 1800s, the estate was originally a fortified farm, under constant threat from raiders. Today Groote Post is a burgeoning vineyard where visitors are welcomed. Aside from wine tasting in the small shop here, there's a well-regarded lunchtime restaurant and, perhaps best of all, there are nature trails around the wilder parts of the grounds, where kudu, red hartebeest and springbok roam.

For a final take on the prodigious variety of the Western Cape I headed east on the N1 from Cape Town. Beyond the formidable Du Toitskloof mountains lie the beginnings of Karoo country, an area of semi-desert with rich plant life despite the arid conditions. The sense of venturing into strange new territory is amplified by the drama of V C the route: from the Cape Town region you need to drive either straight through the mountains along the Huguenot Tunnel (Africa's longest, at 3.9km) or over Du Toitskloof pass at 1,995m. I chose the latter, taking in jaw-dropping views as I wound up and down spectacular inclines.

The bustling agricultural town of Worcester, about 120km from Cape Town, offers a striking introduction to the Karoo environment. Tucked away on the northern outskirts is the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden, presenting an almost lunar-like rocky landscape where many of the plants look as if they might have wandered in from the set of a sci-fi movie. Huge candelabra trees, a type of euphorbia, towered over carpets of vygies; the blue-grey trunks of strangely shaped quiver trees stood out from the greens of the shrubland; perhaps weirdest of all were the squat botterboom trees with enormous, swollen-looking stems.

Yet I had inadvertently saved the best till last. About half an hour's drive south-east of Worcester is a hidden gem of a garden. Soekershof near the small town of Ashton exudes a sense of magic. Back in the 1950s an amateur botanist, Marthinus Malherbe, created an extensive succulent garden here, growing not only indigenous plants but nurturing species from across the world.

After Malherbe's death it lay neglected for 24 years until a Dutch couple, looking to retire in South Africa, bought the property in 2000. Herman van Bon and Yvonne de Wit were smitten by the place.

Despite having very little gardening experience they set about reviving Malherbe's great celebration of succulents. Not only that: they also planted a large maze in which visitors stumble upon stories in Afrikaans and English as they seek their way through.

This is an eccentric, joyful garden, where about 2,500 species now flourish. You are bowled over both by the strange beauty of the plants and by the passion of the owners, who willingly answer questions and offer guidance to visitors. As I was taken around by Yvonne, I felt I was being introduced to members of the family. A huge old euphorbia was patted affectionately: "Aged plants are so fascinating," she said. "They really show the passage of time, like a human face." But the small plants grabbed her attention too – sea-urchin-like echinopsis, striped haworthia and much more. Time evaporated as together we toured a small patch on hands and knees, lost in wonder at these mini miracles of the Western Cape.

Getting there

*The writer travelled as a guest of South African Tourism (0870 155 0044; ).

*British Airways (0844 493 0787; ), South African Airways (0871 722 1111; ) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; ) fly non-stop from Heathrow to Cape Town.

Staying there

*Cellars Hohenort, Constantia, Cape Town (00 27 21 794 2137; ). Double rooms start at R2,250 (£178), room only.

*Waylands Farm Guest House, near Darling (00 27 22 492 2873; email: Doubles start at R500 (£40), including breakfast.

*Leipzig Country House, near Worcester (00 27 23 347 8422; ). Double rooms start at R990 (£79) including breakfast.

Visiting there

*Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, Newlands, Claremont, Cape Town (00 27 21 799 8899; ). Open daily 8am-7pm; admission R35 (£2.80).

*Cape Point Nature Reserve, Table Mountain National Park (00 27 21 701 8692; ). Open daily 6am-6pm; admission R75 (£6).

*Groote Post, near Darling (00 27 22 492 2825; ). Winery open Mon-Fri 9am-5pm and weekends 10am-2.30pm. Wine tasting within reason is free for groups of less than 10. Restaurant open for lunch Wed-Sat, dinners by arrangement.

*Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden, Worcester (00 27 2334 70785; ). Open daily 7am-6pm; Aug-Oct admission R16 (£1.30), at other times it is free.

*Soekershof, Klaas Voogds West, near Ashton (00 27 23 626 4134; ). Open from 11am Wed-Sun except the last two weeks of Feb when closed. Most visits take at least two hours; R60/£4.80.

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