A Singular Place

Nestled within fynbos slopes overlooking Walker Bay, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve offers one-of-a-kind experiences. By Magriet Kruger

Stopping for drinks at the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve with Walker Bay in the background.

“THIS IS DUNE SPINACH, which we like to marinade in citrus and serve with fish. It adds a lovely texture to a dish,” says Ruben Harmse, a chef at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, as we pick our way along the Walker Bay shoreline.

“I like to think of dune spinach as our ancestors’ Simba chips – an easily accessible, salty snack,” says nature guide Jono Durham. We are at Stanford’s Cove foraging for ingredients from nature’s larder, an excursion that highlights the biodiversity of this coast. We taste samphire – “great for pickles”, according to Ruben – and investigate sea pumpkin, also known as dune daisy.

Over the past two years, the Grootbos kitchen has been experimenting with wild flavours. From the fynbos on the reserve, the chefs get wild sage, wild rosemary and buchu while the rocky coast offers a range of marine ‘vegetables’, including kelp. “Fish steamed in kelp is unlike anything you’ve tasted in your life and it’s very healthy thanks to the high iodine content,” explains Ruben.

Looking out from Klipgat Cave.

“It is actually one of the oldest cooking techniques in the world, from before people invented pottery,” says Jono, picking up a length of the fleshy marine plant to show us that it is hollow. “The earliest inhabitants of these parts would have stuffed all kinds of shellfish inside: mussels, whelks and limpets. When the whole piece of kelp is put on the fire, the seafood inside is perfectly steamed within 5-10 minutes.”

The abundance of marine life along these rocky shores is thanks to a combination of factors. The confluence of the cold Benguela and warm Agulhas currents creates a unique ecosystem where an astonishing diversity of sea plants, fish and molluscs thrive. From the high tide mark down to the low tide line, there’s also some 30m of continuous rock where varieties of shellfish can grow.

“These are virtually the richest rock pools in the world. You’ll struggle to find as many species and sheer abundance anywhere else,” says Jono while we admire starfish, anemones and sea urchins.

Inside the spiny casing of the sea urchin hides rich red flesh that must be gingerly coaxed out. The Japanese call this uni, a seafood prized for its deep umami flavour and velvety texture. For the chefs, both the shoreline and the fynbos slopes provide abundant inspiration and ingredients. The ultimate expression of this is in the Botanical Menu, a nine-course meal that features flavours of the landscape – think fish served with a wild nettle foam.

Foraging for food along the shore. A dish inspired by the Grootbos landscape.

It is telling of how Grootbos does things differently. The landscape isn’t merely a beautiful backdrop to the lodge, it informs every aspect of this venture, from the cuisine to the architecture to the experiences offered to guests. “Our purpose is to conserve this remarkable piece of the Cape Floral Kingdom. You can get great views and wonderful accommodation anywhere. The soul of this place is what makes it different,” says general manager Sean Ingles.

Grootbos is a member of The Long Run, a global community of nature-based tourism businesses focused on holistic sustainability. The Grootbos Foundation is a sign of how seriously the business takes its responsibility. With 40 full-time employees, the Foundation drives conservation work, offers vocational courses for young people and runs sports and educational programmes for kids.

One example is the Green Futures Nursery, where local youngsters learn to propagate endemic plants for use in the lodge gardens or to restore areas in the wider Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy. As Sean says, it’s simply not possible to untangle conservation from community, culture or the commercial side.

The pristine shores of Walker Bay welcome guests for nature and beach activities. For the Botanical Menu, chefs devise dishes that celebrate homegrown ingredients.


Our time among the rockpools sets the scene for visiting Klipgat, a cave in Walker Bay Nature Reserve where evidence of human habitation from 80000 years ago was found. We approach the cave along Die Plaat, a pristine stretch of sugar sand dotted with seashells but almost no beachgoers. This is where Grootbos Private Nature Reserve brings guests for beach activities. You could come for a swim in the protected waters, have a seaside picnic or end the day with sundowners, depending on your whim.

Days at Grootbos don’t follow a fixed schedule; instead, guides meet with guests at the beginning of their stay to tailor activities to their tastes and preferences. “We are always trying to push the boundaries in terms of catering to individual interests. We do a lot of what we call dream weaving, so if guests mention something in conversation with any of our staff, we arrange a suitable event or surprise them with a topical gift in their suite,” says Sean.

A heritage tour of Klipgat Cave highlights the area’s significance.

For natural history lovers like us, the coastal tour is absorbing. On the beach, Jono picks up a mermaid’s purse; the seemingly delicate casing is in fact a secure capsule for shark’s eggs. When we come to a freshwater stream, he rinses a limpet shell and offers me pure spring water in one of the first receptacles available to humans. It is a clue to why these coastal caves made such sought-after homes.

Over aeons, the combination of water, salty air and wave action excavated a large cavern out of the limestone rock, creating shelter close to a supply of drinking water.

The empty cave comes alive in Jono’s retelling of prehistory and we realise just what a special spot it is. During the last ice age, this would’ve been one of the few hospitable places left on the planet. With much of the earth transformed into frozen wastes, this landscape’s distinctive features provided a welcome bounty. “Because of the abundance of shellfish, plus the amazing edible and medicinal properties of fynbos, humans could survive right here, on the south coast of South Africa,” says Jono. Middens inside Klipgat Cave bear testament to the people who once lived here, with shells, bones, pottery shards and stone tools offering clues to their way of life.

The picture windows at Forest Lodge frame the beauty of land and sea.


After lunch, the walk back to our suite takes us through a corner of the reserve’s milkwood forest. It is peaceful among the gnarled trees dripping with old man’s beard. It is hardly surprising that this is the biggest milkwood forest in the world – Grootbos is that rarity: a space where superlatives are commonplace.

The accommodation is exceptional too. At Forest Lodge, suites are positioned for privacy and to make the most of the view across the fynbos to Walker Bay. Floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors mean you always look out at the natural splendour, whether you are lying in bed, taking a soak in the bathtub or relaxing in the lounge. The interiors also help to bring the outside in: wooden detailing, floral patterns and botanical art complement fabrics in nature’s shades. A weekend seems too short to savour it all. Although I can easily see myself spending the next few hours on the secluded deck, the botanical safari beckons.

It is just as thrilling as any game drive I’ve been on. Through Jono’s eyes we discover the many stories and countless connections playing out among the plants. He tells us how the contrasting stripes on pelargonium petals act like landing strips for honeybees.

He explains why fire is so essential for fynbos, removing old, woody plants to let in sunlight, replenishing nutrients in the soil through ash and prompting some species to seed and germinate. He demonstrates the ingenious pollination strategy of the golden sage: when a sunbird probes the flower for nectar, its beak depresses a lever that allows the anther to dust the bird’s forehead with pollen, ready for delivery to the next flower.

One of the most charming stories is that of the male monkey beetle.

The strongman of the fynbos, he uses his powerful legs to turf rivals from the flower where he is courting the female monkey beetle. Daisies, such as Gazania pectinata, take advantage of this, luring males to visit by mimicking the female’s appearance: white spots on a brown background at the base of the petals. “When the male beetle sees the white dots, he dives in headfirst and although he gets disappointed, he also gets covered in pollen,” Jono says.

Incredibly, a researcher proved that covering the white dots in brown paint meant that those daisies got 80% fewer visits from monkey beetles, their primary pollinator.

Locally sourced fish and seafood feature on the Grootbos menu.

At dinner, the chef has a special amuse bouche for us: the sea urchin foraged earlier in the day. It’s a reminder of what connects us to this coast’s first people, to the landscape, to a life in sync with nature. This is the genius of Grootbos. Not only the beauty of the setting or the lodge’s luxurious environment, but the opportunity to reconnect with the singular place we call home. V