Next time you’re in Nelspruit don’t be too quick to dash through town. There’s a 160ha garden hiding in a river gorge just behind the car dealerships and the malls…
It took me several years and a Parlotones concert in the Lowveld National Botanical Garden to find out what I’d missed out on all these years. At the concert it felt surreal to rock and dance among the cycads and baobabs while Purple-crested Turacos flashed through the trees, and a family of mongooses looked on. I just knew I had to come back and explore a little more. Six years down the line I still find new places here.
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As Ruhan Koekemoer, who runs Adventure Boot Camp for women, says, “We are spoilt rotten by this garden; it’s a hidden jewel that many people don’t know about.” For the girls who get there to exercise at 5am there is always the possibility of a hippo encounter. Those visiting in the evening will see the fireflies. For everyone, it’s a chance to understand why cycad cones get to wear pantyhose, or to spot the elusive African Finfoot – for non-birders this is not some kind of scuba diver.
Taki Mamatsharaga, director of the Lowveld National Botanical Garden, explains, “Other botanical gardens have wide open spaces but this garden is unique, with its small, intimate spaces. You can be 20 metres from other visitors and not even know they are there.” Eighty per cent of the garden is under shade which is ideal in the tropical Lowveld climate.
Through it run two great rivers, the Crocodile and the Nels, which converge at a spectacular viewpoint. Percy Fitzpatrick leased this land from the government in the 1890s and wanted to name his farm The Cascades for the beautiful waterfall in the garden. If you happen to be passing through this area after a big storm make sure you check on the Croc River in flood pouring over the rocks and creating a small rainforest of its own. There is a wonderful walkway on the western side that allows many different views over the river.
Much of the garden is wheelchair-friendly, with wide walkways and bricked paths. But the Riverside Trail is for the more adventurous, taking you into the gorge where you can see interesting geology and the unusual plants along the river. My legs were stiff for days afterwards but I wouldn’t have missed it.
I never got to see the African Finfoot (a real special for twitchers) but I did hear a Fish Eagle call and baboons bark on the cliffs. Keep a sharp eye out for creatures scurrying in the undergrowth and, on a winter evening, you might be lucky and see a bush baby.
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Lou-Nita le Roux, who educates visitors about the gardens, sees herself as a storyteller. “I take the information and make it as interesting as possible,” she says, pointing out that pantyhose on the cycad cones prevent cross-pollination, and stops weevils laying eggs. And if you see a sign that says, ‘Oopsie, this is hippo poopsie’, it’s true. Hippos live in the Croc River and in the evenings move downstream to feed in the gardens. Taki lives in the garden and has occasionally found a hippo that has overslept. If you step quietly you might also see bushbuck, monitor lizards and a variety of birds and reptiles.
The Garden’s Crowning Glory
But as the name suggests the garden is really about plants, and for those who love plants it is Plant Heaven. Taki says they are very proud of their cycad collection of 39 of the 41 species in South Africa. They have also created a gene bank for cycads and a cycad nursery is now open where you can buy one for yourself. Taki’s favourite place in the garden, the African Rainforest, where you walk high on walkways in the tree canopy, is not to be missed and the cicadas sing louder here they are so happy. There is a Dry Bushveld area containing aloes and succulents, a South African forest area, a baobab collection, clivias, Barberton daises and a wide variety of trees whose flowers and fruit attract insects and birds.
It’s a haven in all seasons, but for me the magnet is the coolth it gives on a hot Lowveld day, and the Riverside Trail. But in spring I won’t miss the Barberton daisies (gerberas) and the sausage trees with their huge wine-red flowers, and in winter (which is never really cold) what better than a meal at the restaurant or tea garden, and a stroll. I might even get to do Boot Camp just so I can see the fireflies and bush babies.
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Highlights during spring
- Look out for the wild pear (Dombeya rotundifolia).
- The clivia and flame creeper vie for first place in the colour stakes.
- Taki’s favourite tree, the Lowveld chestnut (Sterculia murex), has beautiful, yellow, star-shaped flowers.
- The sausage tree (Kigelia africana) has large wine-coloured flowers that attract birds and bees. Mind the large, dangling sausage pods that can drop at any moment.
Highlights during summer
- It’s cool, shady and lush, has rivers, and it all adds up to visitors being spoilt for choice when it comes to great picnic spots.
- Look out for the perfumed vlei orchid (Eulophia angolensis) and the wild pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina).
Highlights during autumn
- Strelizias flower in profusion.
- Many trees, such as the brown stinkwood, have beautifully coloured autumn foliage.
Highlights during winter
- This is the most popular time as the weather is warm and mild.
- The garden is designed to be largely evergreen, a welcome change from the Highveld browns at this time of year.
What to do
- Walk the African Rainforest.
- Visit the lookouts over the Crocodile River and at the confluence of the Nels and Croc rivers.
- Walk the Riverside Trail. Don’t miss the medicinal plants section.
- Look out for the baobab collection.
- As you enter the gate turn left and browse through the Visitors Centre.
- Eat at Kuzuri Restaurant overlooking The Cascades.
- Find out what events might be on – there are often picnics and concerts as well as fun runs.
- Take part in Adventure Boot Camp
+27 (0) 13 752 5531; [email protected]
Words and Photography Sue Adams