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Wandering the Cape’s twisting mazes and labyrinths

Wandering the Cape’s twisting mazes and labyrinths

My first experience in a maze was not a good one. It started well – two excited kids at Hampton Court Maze, (the oldest surviving maze in the UK). We made it to the centre in two minutes under the average time (yes!) and had just turned around to find our way back out, when the heavens opened.

The torrential rain revealed our obvious South African-ness, when everyone else whipped out umbrellas and raincoats and promptly disappeared. Tots, T-shirts and teeming rain are not a good combination, particularly when you have no idea how to find the exit.

Merriment versus mysticism

mazes and labyrinths

The magnificent maze at the Village Grill
& Butcher restaurant in Franschhoek is a fun way for the kids to get rid of some energy.

Not to be beaten by a spot of rain, a few years later we attempted the Serendipity Maze in Mouille Point, Cape Town. Created more than 20 years ago by owner Johnathan Durr who, with 1 400 hedge plants, claimed it as
the third-largest maze in the world.

Johnathan was passionate about his maze and devoted much of his life to its upkeep. My children found him and his tales of magic wishes coming true, and fairies in the centre, thrilling. Sadly, Johnathan passed away last year and the maze now has fallen into disrepair.

The difference between a maze and a labyrinth is that a maze is designed to be a puzzle to solve using left-brain skills while a labyrinth in its unicursal path is intended to be used as a right-brain meditative stroll. Mazes may have a couple of exits and entrances, while a labyrinth has only a single, no-branching path leading to the centre and returning the same way.

A labyrinth walk can mirror our journey through life, as walking to the centre is to reflect inwards, or to let go of issues that no longer serve us. In the middle, there’s a period of possibly achieving inspiration or clarity, before walking out to embrace the world or find resolution. There are no specific rules and each person experiences a labyrinth differently. Because they are meant to be walked contemplatively, labyrinths don’t require the high hedges that are typical of mazes. So, it’s merriment versus mysticism.

However, the concepts have been confused, as with the legendary Minotaur, said to have been hidden in a labyrinth for safe-keeping by the King of Crete at Knossos, but which, in today’s understanding, would have been called a maze. Labyrinths usually come in circuits that typically range between three and 17, although seven-circuit labyrinths are probably the most common.

Plant mazes are an art form

mazes and labyrinths

Lydia Carstens takes on the prickly-pear maze at Babylonstoren. Although relatively short, is fun to walk provided you stay in the centre of the path.

The maze in the 3.5 hectares of cultivated fruit and vegetable garden at Babylonstoren outside Franschhoek intrigues me, when I hear it’s made from prickly pears (Algerian pink turksvy). French architect, Patrice Taravella designed the garden, which comprises 15 clusters of vegetable areas, stone and pome fruits, nuts, citrus, berries, bees, herbs, ducks and chickens, a prickly-pear maze, and more. What’s remarkable, is that every one of the
300 plus varieties of plants in the garden is edible or has medicinal value.

We head off to view the maze firsthand and discover that there are in fact three mazes/labyrinths made from prickly pear, spekboom, and the one next to the tea room, from stones. We pace them all and the prickly pear maze is our favourite. It’s not difficult to find your way around, but the spikes add excitement.

On to Franschhoek where, at my favourite coffee haunt, Terbodore Coffee Roasters, I notice in the adjoining restaurant’s garden, a maze. Dominique Dear, one of the partners and the manager at The Village Grill & Butcher, happens to be around when I take a stroll in it. He’s from the UK and chats easily to me about the restaurant. “The maze was one of my partners Irmela Alberts’ passions. I confine myself more to the interior than the exterior,” he quips.

Later I chat to landscape designer, Mark Atkinson about his creation at The Village Grill. “I wanted to create something of interest that would draw people,” he says. “Plant mazes are an art form, a thing of beauty that has become rare in the modern landscape. They bring a sense of history and tradition to any formalised landscape. I also wanted visitors here to interact with the landscape, to enjoy it, to be amazed, and to spread the word.

“This is a circular plant maze and, although designed by me, it’s based on, or has some similarities to, the target maze at Villa Pisani, between Padua and Venice. It has five circles, one entrance and one exit on opposite sides, with a number of dead ends. Due to its height, it’s not a very complex maze and can be fairly easily navigated. The idea is to enter from the main water-trough path, find the fountain in the middle, then exit the opposite side, to continue enjoying the garden.”

Magic happens

Labyrinth, Rustenberg

Terry de Vries takes a leisurely stroll around the labyrinth she built at Rustenberg Wine Farm.

Next stop is via the Helshoogte Pass to Rustenberg Wine Farm just outside Stellenbosch, where I find myself balancing precariously on a stone pillar, to get a more aerial view of the labyrinth in front of me.

Terry de Vries builds labyrinths, and this is one of her largest. It’s an 11-circuit Medieval Chartres-style labyrinth made from brick and river stones. Terry is also responsible for building the labyrinth in the Jan Marais Nature Reserve in Stellenbosch and is currently building one at the Rustenburg Health Hydro.

“An image of a labyrinth was found on a piece of mammoth ivory in a tomb in Siberia dating back to 5 000BC,” Terry tells me. While studying yoga at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in the US in 1997, she noticed the calming effect walking a labyrinth had on her young son Joshua. “When I returned to South Africa, I started researching labyrinths and that’s where my interest started. Once the labyrinth bug bites you,” she says with a smile, “you are forever changed.”

Initially, she started building labyrinths for friends. “Then, having completed a facilitator’s course, I started leading labyrinth workshops and retreats. My passion became my work.” Terry explains how you can build labyrinths from anything. “Bricks, stones, weeds, herbs, and then temporary charity ones using shoes, donated tins of food and anything else.

“Magic happens when you walk a labyrinth. I walked the Barrydale labyrinth with my mum after I lost my dad. Both of us could feel him with us. Most people walk a labyrinth to help overcome stress, depression, grief or gain insight and ideas – it’s as if you find a different rhythm, become more focused and creative. It helps you slow down.”

The cats will approve

Mazes, cape

The start of the Labyrinth Terry de Vries is building at the Rustenberg Health Hydro just outside Stellenbosch.

Last on our route is the tiny Greek Orthodox chapel of St Luke’s in Onrus. It took a fair amount of ingenuity to find it, tucked away as it is in a side-street (the locals we asked for directions were clueless as to its existence).
This privately-owned chapel is the smallest and most southern in Africa. St Luke is the patron saint of artists and healers, so it’s appropriate that its construction was by the late artist Maxie Steytler and artist Tertia Knaap (in 1983). Just outside the chapel, we walk the small seven-circuit classical labyrinth.

We return home to Cape Town tired but inspired, and I’m determined to build a labyrinth in my own garden. The grass went with the Cape drought, so I have the space to create our own stress-releasing space from stones. I believe the cats will approve.

Photos Ann Gadd and Terry de Vries

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