This account will be published in the next newsletter of the
Nerine and Amaryllid Society in the UK (Andrew Lanoe, Guernsey - E-Mail)
Three years ago when I first met Cameron and Rhoda McMaster and was able to spend a couple of days with them as they travelled into the Western Cape countryside doing what McMasters do, I promised myself I would return for a longer trip. It was on this visit that I saw my first wild Nerines - N. sarniensis, midsummer, on a recently burned rocky outcrop, N. humilis on an unbelievably dry and barren rock slab, and others in bone dry stony soil. All dormant of course. Oh to see them in flower in the wild!
So, I left Heathrow in snow and frost early in February 2009 and arrived in Johannesburg, and 30+ degrees. A few days there with my wife's relations, and on to Port Elizabeth to join the small group with whom I would be spending the next 2 weeks.
I do not intend to give you an hour by hour, plant by plant account of the two weeks. Others have done this far more effectively than I could ever hope to do. Instead, I hope I can give you an idea of what you can expect on one of Cameron's Botanical Tours of the Eastern Cape.
You will see incredibly beautiful and varied countryside, from the white sands of the Indian Ocean to the peaks of the Drakensberg, lush river valleys to semi arid desert, flat lands and steep hills. Some days you will spend a few hours in the minibus moving from one location to another, other days walking in stunning countryside. You will stay in excellent accommodation, mostly on farms or ranches, and you will eat lovely home cooked meals. You will meet the farmers and hear about their history, their struggle to survive, and about their love and respect for the countryside, and the challenges they face. You will learn how they farm land that really doesn't want to be farmed, and how devastating the effects of overproduction can be.
You will see pristine, well managed, countryside that is the result of generations of sustainable farming, and you will see terribly overgrazed, eroded land that will probably never again be productive. You will travel on dual carriage ways (but not much), on tarred roads (a fair bit), and on dirt roads (a lot). You will see a few mansions, and many, many huts. You will see brick making factories and people making bricks by hand at the side of the road. You will see and touch ancient San rock art, and if you are lucky go to a stationary engine museum.
Here and there you will see areas where by accidents of location, or actions of the landowner, the land has not been disturbed. A hill that is the only known location of a species, or a cliff that protects an outlying colony of a species that is normally found a hundred miles away. You will see the beneficial effect of fire, and the harm too frequent fires can cause. You will see recent discoveries, unnamed species. You may even make new discoveries.
You will cross the Kei river to the old Transkei lands and be saddened, and you will see new community regeneration schemes and be encouraged, and you will see failed community regeneration schemes and be saddened again.
You will see the politics in action, you will hear and smell Africa. You will feel uncomfortable, and you will feel at ease. You will meet many interesting people, and you will hear one side of the story, and you may hear the other side too. You will sense the fragility, the expectations and anger and frustrations, fear and hope.
You will visit historic villages that have barely changed for a hundred or more years. You will be able to buy genuine craft goods from the people who make them, and be driven past those that Cameron does not approve of.
You will go on little walks, and long walks, some easy and some difficult. Some will be on the flat, others almost impossibly steep. Some will be dry and dusty, others along running water, over grassland, over marshland, over bare rock, over loose shale, sand, goat tracks and dirt roads. All will be immensely satisfying.
You will learn many techniques for going through, under or over barbed wire fences, and which is best for your body shape. You will use bridges made from fallen tree trunks, timber bridges from local wood, steel bridges from England, concrete bridges, and fords. You will see wildlife, big and small, birds, butterflies, giant lizards and tiny lizards, praying mantis, frogs, huge caterpillars, jackals. We never saw a snake, though, or a tick.
You will drink plenty of water, slap on the sun screen, always wear your hat. You will get very hot, very tired, possibly very wet. Maybe, in the evening, in the mountains, you will want to put on a fleece.
You will take thousands of photos. Charging your camera batteries will become more important than charging your mobile phone. You will come to recognise alien plant species because they don't quite fit in. You will see bleached animal carcasses, and rusty car carcasses, and cattle, sheep, goats, and monkeys and baboons, and more goats. You will see green irrigated areas in an otherwise dry, brown landscape. And ant hills, many, many ant hills.
You will give up trying to keep up with Cameron, and learn to go at your own pace. You will be amazed at what he sees from 100 yards, and even when he points it out from 1 yard you struggle to see what he saw. You will be captivated when he explains why a particular plant is thriving in an area where all others have been grazed to death. You will be stunned by his knowledge of the countryside and its people.
And there were the plants. Hundreds of them. Every evening Cameron would take us through the day's sightings and patiently identify pictures on our cameras. Many of course were Amaryllids, and not surprisingly these did well in the Plant of the Day competition.
Ammocharis coranica, Haemanthus albiflos, H. coccineus, Brunsvigia grandiflora and B. radulosa, Nerine gibsonii, N. filamentosa, N. filifolia, N. angustifolia were all seen in flower and Nerine undulata in leaf. Haemanthus humilis, H. montana and Nerine huttoniae were in seed. As well as a number of Cyrtanthus - C. epiphyticus, C. macowanii, C. obliquus in flower and some others in leaf in their particular habitats. And of course the Clivias - both C. miniata and C. nobilis in habitat.
I guess for me it was never just about the plants, I don't particularly like gardens, and I would never call myself a gardener. It's about the countryside, the topography, the geology, the environment, the agricultural economy, the history, the politics, the people, their community, employment, industry, threats and opportunities. The plants are part of the countryside, and for many their survival in the wild is uncertain. Sadly, many of the colonies of plants we saw are unlikely to be there for the next human generation to marvel at.
It was a privilege to spend just 2 weeks in the Eastern Cape with Cameron.
I suppose the acid test is would I go again?. You bet.
Should you go? Well, that is your decision. You will have a wonderful, unique experience. But don't go just for the plants.
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