“I come here almost every day to relax,” says Nashlin ‘Nash’ Groenwald. “And I often let images of what might have happened here long ago fill my thoughts. It’s like stepping into one of those illustrations of human evolution showing primitive man to modern man, walking through time.
Nash is an assistant guide at Grootbos, a private nature reserve in the Western Cape of South Africa. He took me along the cliffs west of the reserve to Klipgat, a complex of limestone caves above the dazzling stretch of sand at Walker Bay. Along the way, we picked mussels off the rocks, bagged them for delivery to Grootbos’ kitchen, then added sprigs of dune cabbage – salty and surprisingly juicy – to the supply.
The largest cave is a natural auditorium, looking out over the beach. Abundant fresh water and shelter must have made it a favorite spot for those who discovered it around 85,000 years ago. The last inhabitants to have left traces were fishermen-hunters-gatherers, between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago.
“They called themselves Khoikhoi, which means people,” Nash explains.
“And you consider them your ancestors? I ask.
“Absolutely. My dad is a fisherman, and if your life revolves around the ocean, you’re very aware of your surroundings. In his case, it made him think about his connection to the land and his lineage.
Nash is from Arniston, a coastal community about 60 miles east of Klipgat Caves. His father, Nolan, like many other South Africans born under apartheid, was given an arbitrary label: mixed race. Growing up, he had no way to explore his family’s ethnic identity, Khoikhoi.
“So he decided to go see a Khoikhoi chief for history lessons and a five-step rebirth ritual,” Nash says. “He was baptized in water, covered in honey, dressed in traditional antelope skins and took on a new name, Oriqaga, which means ‘Mountain rising from the sea.’ His life has totally changed; he became an activist for Indigenous rights. Since our people have protected this landscape for generations, they believe we deserve to have a say in its future.
While Walker Bay was the cave-dwelling Khoikhoi’s fishery, the fynbos-covered slopes immediately inland were their pantry and pharmacy. They must have known these rare plants intimately. It was a matter of survival: some brought nectar and nutrient-rich seeds, others cured ailments or soothed muscles. Today, it’s up to Grootbos to protect this corner of the Cape Floral Kingdom – the region with the highest concentration of botanical species in the world. To date, 879 plant species have been recorded in the 2,500 hectare Grootbos reserve; seven species new to science have been discovered in recent years.
Ecologist Michael Lutzeyer, founder of Grootbos, has found a new way to celebrate the complexity of the reserve. “We have created an Anthology,” he told me.
In turn, botanical illustrators have painted the plants that grow here, along with the insects, birds, and mice that pollinate them. Just downriver from the remarkably redesigned, carbon-negative Garden Lodge at Grootbos, a new gallery dedicated to this unique art collection is rapidly taking shape. Opening later this year, the Hannarie Wenhold Botanical Gallery will be a space where occasional events such as creative workshops, talks and fynbos-infused gin tastings will appear among the paintings.
“We hope to help people understand the true meaning of African biodiversity,” says Michael. “It’s not just about rhinos and elephants. It’s about how every living thing connects.
He has a point. On a safari it’s easy to focus on seeing charismatic animals, you don’t see the wood for the trees – if you see the trees at all. But Grootbos is different. While the camera traps prove that it is indeed home to mammals, the plants are the stars of the show.
Nash guides me around the sea of green, pointing out his favorite species: exuberant scarlet candelabra flowers, wild sage (a cough remedy), sour fig trees (a natural antiseptic) and centuries-old milk trees.
Reflecting on his father’s story, I ask him if he’s also considering reclaiming his Khoikhoi identity. “Right now, taking care of nature and my daughter are my top priorities. I believe that if you have positively touched the life of one person, you have played your part,” he says. “But my father wants me to follow his example, and I am tempted. Learning about the past is a good way to start building a better future.
How to do
Suites at Forest Lodge and the brand new Garden Lodge at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve from $980 (£804) based on two sharing, including full board and guided activities such as cave tours and botanical tours. Flowering plants are best from June to December.
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