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How South African communities are giving safari luxe an eco overhaul

The finest new retreats are rapidly redefining safari luxe in South Africa. Grootbos Private Nature Reserve is a prime example, incorporating smart conservation ideas that empower local communities.

By Emma Gregg
Published 12 Jun 2022, 08:00 BST
Coastal safari with Nashlin Groenwald, assistant head guide at the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, South Africa.

Coastal safari with Nashlin Groenwald, assistant head guide at the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, South Africa.

Photograph by Emma Gregg

“I come here most days 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 inside one of those human evolution illustrations showing early man to modern man, walking through time.”

Nash is an assistant head guide at Grootbos, a private nature reserve in South Africa’s Western Cape. He’s brought me along the cliffs west of the reserve to Klipgat, a limestone cave complex above Walker Bay’s dazzling stretch of sand. On the way, we’ve plucked mussels from the rocks, bagging them to deliver to Grootbos’ kitchen, then added sprigs of dune cabbage — salty and unexpectedly juicy — to the stash.

The larger cave is a natural auditorium, gazing onto the beach. Ample fresh water and shelter must have made it prime real estate for those who discovered it, around 85,000 years ago. The last residents to leave traces were fisher-hunter-gatherers, between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago.

“They called themselves Khoikhoi, meaning people,” says Nash.

“And you consider them to be your ancestors?” I ask.

“Definitely. My father’s a fisherman, and if your life rotates around the ocean, you’re very aware of your surroundings. In his case, that got him thinking about his connection to the land, and his bloodline.”

Nash is from Arniston, a coastal community around 60 miles east of Klipgat Caves. His father, Nolan, like many other South Africans born under apartheid, had an arbitrary label forced upon him: coloured. Growing up, he had no means to explore his family’s ethnic identity, Khoikhoi.

“So he decided to go to a Khoikhoi chieftain for history lessons and a five-stage rebirthing ritual,” Nash says. “He was baptised in water, covered in honey, dressed in traditional antelope skins and took a new name, Oriqaga, which means ‘Mountain that Rises from the Sea’. His life has totally changed; he’s become an activist for Indigenous rights. Since our people have protected this landscape for generations, he feels we deserve a fairer say in its future.” 

While Walker Bay was the cave-dwelling Khoikhoi’s fishery, the fynbos-covered slopes immediately inland were their larder and pharmacy. They must have known these rare plants intimately. It was a matter of survival: some delivered nectar and nutrition-rich seeds, others cured ailments or soothed muscles. Today, it’s down 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. 

Conservationist Michael Lutzeyer, Grootbos’s founder, has come up with a novel way to celebrate the reserve’s complexity. “We’ve been creating a Florilegium,” he tells me.
One by one, botanical illustrators have been painting the plants that grow here, with the insects, birds and mice that pollinate them. Just downhill from Grootbos’s strikingly reimagined, carbon-negative Garden Lodge, 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 pop up among the paintings.

“We’re hoping 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 safari, it’s easy to become so focused on watching charismatic animals, you don’t see the wood for the trees — if you see the trees at all. But Grootbos is different. While camera traps prove it does indeed harbour mammals, plants are the stars of the show.

Nash guides me around the sea of green, pointing out his favourite species: exuberant scarlet candelabra flowers, wild sage (a cure for coughs), sour fig (a natural antiseptic) and centuries-old milkwood trees.

Reflecting on his father’s story, I ask whether he’s also thinking of reclaiming his Khoikhoi identity. “For now, caring for nature and my daughter are my top priorities. I believe that if you’ve touched just one person’s life in a positive way, you’ve played your part,” he says. “But my father wants me to follow his example, and I’m tempted. Learning about the past is a good way to start building a better future.”

How to do it

Suites in Forest Lodge and the brand-new Garden Lodge at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve start at $980 (£804) based on two sharing, including full board and guided activities such as cave visits and botanical tours. Flowering plants are best from June to December.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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