Alien’s beware. Betty’s Bay residents are passionate nature lovers, and won’t tolerate invasive vegetation in their Shangri-La on the Overberg coast…
Words and Pictures: Marion Whitehead
The hills of Betty’s Bay are alive with more than just gorgeous proteas and graceful restios. There’s a bunch of armed irregulars lurking about in scruffy jeans, hats pulled down low, on the lookout for aliens. They wield chainsaws, sharp knives and deadly herbicide.
Look a little closer and you’ll find they’re passionate pensioners, pouncing on hakea, Port Jacksons and any nasty plant that dares invade the pristine beauty of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. This is the rich heart of the Cape Floral Region, smallest floral kingdom in the world and the only one confined not just to a single country, but almost entirely to the Western Cape.
Betty’s Bay is a tranquil spot on the narrow coastal plateau that draws nature lovers like bees to fynbos flowers. Their hack group is the oldest continuously active in South Africa and is still going strong after more than 50 years of defending the fynbos and its unique endemics. They meet on the first Sunday of each month, local retiree numbers swelled by weekenders from Cape Town, just an hour away. Mid-week, a smaller group of extra-passionate fynbos warriors meet again, hence their ‘irregular’ nickname.
“We’re not irregulars! We’re the Wednesday Group,” exclaims Frik Potgieter, who retired here from Johannesburg in 2001. When advocate John Whitehead (no relation to the author) retired here from Grahamstown, he thought rooikrans was a nice tree – now he takes a chainsaw to the Australian invader.
Why do they give up their leisure time like this? “To protect the fynbos,” replies veteran, monthly hack convenor Ed Silberbauer. “If we didn’t, it would all be wiped out by aliens.”
“It’s great fun, lots of exercise and we don’t have to pay gym fees,” quips Jan Joubert. “And we get beer afterwards,” laughs Carol Wilson, who lives here when she’s not visiting her children on different continents.
Their crusade has certainly paid dividends. Thirty years ago, an area nicknamed Ed’s Valley was thick with invasive aliens. It took the hack attackers three-and-a-half years to clear. “But we stuck to it and now it’s almost pristine,” Ed says proudly.
“The name of the game is patience – and persistence,” explains Frik over beers afterwards, when I meet more hackers – a former anaesthetist from Canada, an ex-military officer, a teacher and retired businessmen.
The area’s floral abundance is most easily accessed at the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, which stretches from the top of the majestic Kogelberg mountains, down steep kloofs cradling the 10 hectares of cultivated garden, all the way to the sea. Originally called Shangri-La by Harold Porter, an ardent gardener who donated the land, it’s part of the first biosphere reserve declared in South Africa, and part of the Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site.
“It’s an awesome garden that has mountains and sea – and Leopard’s Kloof waterfall,” says curator Berenice Carolus. “The tranquillity here feeds the soul. It’s serene and special.” Among the rare plants are the red disas (Disa uniflora) that flower on the cliff edges in Disa Kloof in December, the sky-blue endemic Nivenia stokoei and the delicate Nerine sarniensis, which I was lucky to see in March.
The new concert stage in the garden is proving popular and Berenice says the Gugulethu Tenors are a real hit when they perform on balmy summer evenings.
Betty’s Bay is crawling with plant lovers. Botanical artist Vicki Thomas has exhibited at the prestigious Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art in London’s Kew Garden and her paintings have been published in the Highgrove Florilegium, a prestigious publication of botanical paintings of plants growing in HRH Prince Charles’ garden – but she chooses to live in Betty’s Bay and commute to Stellenbosch University when teaching scientific illustration.
“Our fynbos beats everything hands down – and it’s ten times richer in diversity,” she exclaims.
Out in his workshop, her husband Robbie is doing his bit to save the Cederberg cedar (Widdringtonia cedarbergensis) from extinction. With the skill of a surgeon, the retired businessman is grafting it onto rootstock of the Baviaans cedar (W. schwartzii), which is able to handle a wider range of habitats. “It’s an experiment,” he emphasises as he expertly slices stems and wraps them tightly with grafting tape.
In his garden, I ooh and aah over a gorgeous mace pagoda flower, so rare it was believed to be extinct until it was found growing on a peak in the Kogelberg. In his efforts to grow it for Vicki to draw, Rod grafted the endangered Mimetes stokoei on to pincushion rootstock and it’s thriving here.
Nearby in his studio, potter John Ellis says Betty’s Bay is so beautiful it’s a mission finding somewhere to go on holiday that’s as nice. “We have the sea, surfing and mountains,” he explains, adding that he and his family moved here from a wine farm outside Bot River 12 years ago.
Capetonians escape to Betty’s Bay for weekends away from the hustle and bustle of the city and it has a sprinkling of swallows who return to Belgium, Germany, Spain and the UK during our winter, when storms rearrange the long, sandy bays and fishing is not so keen.
“Betty’s Bay has more holiday houses than permanent residents,” says Tom Prinsloo, former chairman of the local tourism organisation. “Of the small holiday towns on our stretch of coast from Rooi Els to Kleinmond, it has the most attractions.”
Prime among them is the penguin colony at Stony Point, where I meet another passionate nature lover. “Stony Point is the only penguin colony that is expanding,” says Cuan McGeorge, CapeNature’s senior marine ranger, pointing to the penguins spilling out of the protected area, where a boardwalk takes visitors right to the point, and crowding the slipway where boat owners now have difficulty launching their vessels.
Since pilchard populations collapsed on the West Coast and guano collectors destroyed their island homes in the 1970s, penguins have moved east in their search for food, shelter and security.
Stony Point is also home to South Africa’s largest colony of Bank Cormorants, their cries mingling with the braying of penguins returning from their day of ocean foraging.
Ironically, this is the site of what was a whaling station less than 100 years ago. “It shows how far humans have come,” remarks Cuan wryly.
As I leave Stony Point, I see a group of penguins in their trademark tuxedos waddling down the road away from the sea. They look like a group of suits setting off for a night on the town. I have to chuckle. They’re another bunch of Betty’s Bay irregulars, only they’re much more smartly turned out than the ones I met in the hills.
Where to Eat
The best fish and chips is at Stony Point’s On the Edge restaurant (060 720 7885) and the most tranquil setting is The Red Disa (028 272 9946) in Harold Porter National Botanical Garden. The Tides (028 272 9835) in the small cluster of shops on the main road is popular for its slow-roasted lamb shank, Cabernet-braised oxtail and very yummy crème brûlée.
Where to Stay
- For accommodation www.SA-venues.com or rent a holiday house from Holidayscape, 028 271 5775, [email protected]
- Betty’s Bay Hack Group 028 272 9314 / 084 600 9891
- Harold Porter National Botanical Garden 028 272 9311
- Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve Oudebosch section 021 271 5138
- CapeNature Stony Point 028 272 9829
- John the Potter 028 272 9623