I arrived in Grootbos on a golden winter’s day caught between head-banging cold fronts. The ‘green season’ is the time to visit this corner of the Overberg, wonderfully rich in winter blooms. From my suite at Forest Lodge, the coastline drifted in a pretty arc around Walker Bay to Hermanus, backed by jagged peaks that stretched away to ghostly Cape Point on the horizon.
It was this very view that inspired Grootbos founder Michael Lutzeyer to purchase a farm here in 1991 as a vacation home. This led to a modest tourism venture that took a new direction in 1997 when a young botanist, Sean Previtt, signed on as guide and conservation manager. Soon, Shun realized that they were sitting on a treasure trove of floral variety.
Since then, botanical studies and conservation efforts have intensified and a large number of plant species have been discovered. Grootbos has grown to encompass around 3,500 hectares and has become a leader in sustainable luxury tourism, transforming the lives of the local community and preserving the region’s botanical treasures.
The best introduction to the reserve is on a 4×4 flower safari. I joined guide Thea and You as we made our way down the slope through rich expanses of fynbos, stopping to check out the plants, insects and birds. Being in the middle of winter, the hills were shining with a very rare pink blush Irregular heatheralso known as Gansbaai heath.
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“So far, 946 species have been recorded in the reserve,” Thea said. “Among them seven are new to science, four of which are found nowhere else on the planet. Our researchers have also identified 32,000 species of insects, including 67 different species of bees.”
From Thea, I learned about the great variety of means of pollination, the importance of particular insects or birds in the process and why pollinators are attracted to particular flowers. I also learned about the vital importance of fire for rejuvenating plants, helping to clear fields, allowing pods to explode, spreading their seeds and awakening those that have been dormant for years. We moved up the slope from limestone soils to sandstone soils and into the densely wooded Kloof of Afromontane forests, each realm housing its own flora and myriad pollinators.
I later learned from wildlife ecologist Mike Fabricius that four Cape leopards frequent the reserve. Mike manages to plot their favorite trails with the help of camera traps and his loyal border collie, Monks, who is able to sniff out big cats (and plenty of other animals, including bush hog and aardwolf). On a walk in the woods with Mike – among beautiful hard pears and stinking white wood – hardworking monks led us straight to trees with scratch marks made by leopards.
Botanical art and bubble trees
Next, I visited the Hannari Wenhold Botanical Art Gallery to see the wonderful artwork of Grootbus florlegium, a botanical project undertaken to catalog the floral kingdom of the Cape. The gallery serves as a permanent home for the flower, the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
This unique collection of botanical illustrations by over 40 local and international artists depicts native plants and includes the story of each specimen and its pollinators. Grootbos Florilegium is a manifestation of the reserve’s commitment to ecological research and was created to instill a passion for fynbos and inspire others to embrace a conservation mindset.
Another way to immerse yourself in nature for Grootbos is to “bath in the woods,” an activity offered by ZenGuiding’s Grant Hine. The practice of shinrin-yoku gained momentum in Japan during the 1980s and later became a cornerstone of preventative health care, and is believed to have the potential to counter a range of modern ailments and ailments.
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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 include walking barefoot, listening to trees with a stethoscope (I heard water bubbling up through the trunk), and learning to appreciate the richness and diversity of one’s surroundings. Forest bathing is about taking your time, breathing deeply, being caught in the moment, and giving your body and mind a chance to slow down and embrace nature.
On my last evening, I sat by a wood-burning fireplace overlooking vast expanses of Strandfield and Fynbos—all preserved, immaculate and precious. A cold front has blocked the western horizon, threatening to decapitate with another powerful blow. I drank a My Dear Erica cocktail (Grootbos gin with buchu, resurrection bush and honey bush): Like almost everything else on the reserve, my drink paid tribute to the local flora, as well as the décor, botanical teas, cuisine, local honey, art and even cottage design.
I was also thinking about how a small reserve could become a powerful site for celebrating the floral crown jewels of the Cape, and how Grootbus floriligium was the culmination of this project. In South Africa faced with darkness, both literally and figuratively, Grootbus stands as a beacon of light. Everything there is busted for conservation, and it’s a research powerhouse that includes flora, fauna, geology, and human origins. It gives the visitor a sense of immersion unlike other safari experiences, and encourages understanding, curiosity, and respect. DM
There’s no shortage of things to do in Grootbos, from whale watching and Marine Big Five excursions to 4×4 fynbos drives and horseback safaris, as well as excellent wine, dining, and wellness treatments at the spa.
The reserve also has a number of hiking trails (guided or on your own) and jungle bathing experiences.
Secret Seasons prices for South Africans (including meals and many activities) start at R5,950 pp to share. Tel. 028 384 8008, email [email protected] Or visit www.grootbos.com
This story first appeared in Our Weekly 168 newspaper, which is available nationwide for R29.