Near Gansbaai, RICHARD HOLMES finds a fynbos sanctuary at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, where a florilegium has been established to celebrate the unique nature of the Cape Floral Kingdom.
MICHAEL LUTZEYER has never been one to shy away from a challenge. In the early 1990s, enchanted by the coastal land- scape of the Overberg, he sold up his business interests and took the bold step of creating a fynbos conservancy in the hills above Gansbaai.
Having established Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, he set about convincing overseas tourists that a fynbos safari was just as good as a Big Five adventure. To the surprise of many, he succeeded. Grootbos was a runaway success, winning awards along the way and expanding the offering to a pair of luxury lodges.
So when Covid hit in 2020, Michael – true to form – didn’t batten down the hatches to ride out the storm; he went out to meet it. He demolished Garden Lodge, the original thatched lodge built in 1995, and began rebuilding from the ground up. Today, the reimagined Garden Lodge is a glorious new addition to the reserve, rising above yet melding seamlessly into the surrounding milkwood forest and landscaped garden. The new lodge and the 11 spacious free-standing suites were rebuilt on the existing footprint, with architect Vaughan Russell making subtle tweaks to maximise the dramatic location and coastal views.
Along with reimagining the entrance to the lodge (a landscaped staircase flanked by ponds and high timber-clad walls) “the most important aim was to capture the view,” explains Vaughan. “We lifted the building and pushed it forward, thus opening up the views incredibly.”
Those views wash over both the elegant lounge area and the main dining room, while side doors lead out to a sheltered terrace and a grassed pool area. A children’s playroom (Garden Lodge is the more family friendly of the two lodges) is tucked away off the lobby and supervised by well-trained staff.
Interiors in both the lodge and suites were sourced mostly from local artisans and craftsmen and are a “seamless extension of the architecture, while complementing the natural land- scape,” adds Vaughan. “Timber furniture, colourful rugs and fabrics, copper detailing, botanical wallpaper and fabric art pro- vide a contemporary stylish palette.”
But as lovely as the lodge is, the real joy of being at Grootbos is spending time out in the 3 500ha reserve. Accompanied by ex- pert guides, we head out on daily nature drives in canvas-roofed 4×4 vehicles that wouldn’t look out of place in the Kruger Nation- al Park. The coastline of Walker Bay stretches out before us in an arc towards the Klein River lagoon and Hermanus as we rumble along the sandy track, stopping frequently to admire a new plant or soak up the evening birdsong of the Afromontane forest.
In shady valleys game trails wind between the trees, paths trod- den by the shy bushbuck and Cape grysbok that call the forest home. And claw marks on tree trunks hint at the presence of the Cape leopard that roams wild here, though it’s rarely seen.
Further on we learn that the fountainbush (Psoralea pinnata) is often sought by farmers looking for water, as it thrives in wet and marshy areas of the Cape. As we admire its lilac-coloured flowers, the thick bush comes alive with the southern boubou’s distinctive call, a common sound in the pristine fynbos of the Cape. As if one element in a two-part harmony, it’s joined by the rasping call of the Cape rain frog.
The array of flora is remarkable and it’s little wonder that Grootbos is hailed as a hotbed of fynbos biodiversity. Today the reserve is home to 800 plant species, of which more than 400 are considered threatened and six were completely new to science when first identified on the reserve. Many of these – such as the striking Lachenalia lutzeyeri – are almost endemic to Grootbos, found only in isolated pockets within the region. Another stand- out is Erica magnisylvae, commonly known as the Grootbos erica, which was first identified by the reserve’s conservation director, Sean Privett, in 1997.
In autumn a highlight is the chance to see the hillsides cov- ered in the pink flowers of Erica irregularis. Commonly known as the Gansbaai erica, it grows only on a tiny pocket of limestone between Stanford and Gansbaai. Fortunately, most of its population is protected within the boundaries of Grootbos
Since the Gansbaai erica relies on bees for pollination, beehives are placed across the estate to support the spread of this rare species. There’s an upside to this for Grootbos guests too, who have the opportunity to sample rare single-blossom honey harvested from the hives. It’s just one of the ways in which executive chef Ben Conradie brings the fynbos experience into the culinary adventure on offer. Although he subtly incorporates fynbos into the à la carte offering, it really comes to the fore in the fine-dining focus of the multicourse Fynbos Menu.
“The botanical menu really focuses on the elements foraged on the reserve and on the coastline near Grootbos,” explains Ben. Think exotic mushrooms scented with wild sage from the gardens, trout from nearby farms cured with fragrant confetti bush, and pea purée enlivened with nasturtium leaves.
To accompany the culinary experience, Grootbos boasts an impressive wine list. It has long been a passion of Michael Lutzeyer, who has built up an enviable collection of wines from the annual Cape Winemakers Guild auction.
Today head sommelier Barry Schofield, previously at Rust en Vrede, looks after the wine experience and oversees a cellar of ap- proximately 900 wines. “Although we have key wines from other parts of South Africa, we focus on the Agulhas and Overberg region,” he says. “What I try and do is drill down into what we do best here and then put them against key examples from the best in South Africa. There’s a real terroir specificity that you can play with in this area, and it really demonstrates the diversity of the region.”
Diversity – and triumphing over adversity – is certainly what defines Grootbos. Whether it’s the nature walks amid the pristine fynbos or a gourmet adventure of food and wine through the best the Cape has to offer, Grootbos is sure to charm, challenge and enter- tain you. Over nearly 30 years it has become an icon of the Cape and a champion of both conservation and community. And, thanks to Michael’s bold vision, it’s looking better than ever. Book your visit without delay.
A FANTASTIC NEW FLORILEGIUM
The remarkable botanical diversity of the Cape Floral Kingdom has found an exciting new creative expression on Grootbos in the form of the Hannarie Wenhold Botanical Art Gallery.
Set just a few steps from Garden Lodge, this purpose-built gallery space – the first of its kind in Africa – plays host to a specially com- missioned collection of botanical artworks. Known collectively as a florilegium, the works celebrate the remarkable fynbos of the southern Overberg.
In total 44 artists from nine countries contributed to the florilegium, showcasing 124 rare, endangered and endemic species of the fynbos found in the southern Overberg. Every artist was host- ed on the reserve, some for more than a week, selecting a flower and spending long hours observing and sketching their subject. “As botanical artists we want to spend a lot of time in the field, with the plants, to see how they grow and where they’re sited,” says Chris Lochner, artist-in-residence at Grootbos.
Spread across seven exhibition rooms, the Hannarie Wenhold Botanical Art Gallery is a space that rewards patient discovery, where each room focuses on a specific element of the fynbos ecosystem.
The ‘Diversity’ room is a celebration of the soils, species and varied organisms that perform a delicate ballet out there amid the fynbos. In ‘Ecology’, the focus is on the symbiosis between plants and insects. ‘Pollination’ shows there’s more to the natural world than the birds and the bees, adding moths and mice to the pollination equation.
‘Heritage’ is especially fascinating and shines a light on the ancient role of fynbos as ‘the larder, chemist and hardware store’ for communities within the Western Cape. ‘Forests’ records the lush Afromontane forests of the region and the ancient milkwood trees that are so carefully preserved on Grootbos. Here the highlight is surely the striking rendition of a leopard by Zimbabwean artist Liberty Shuro.
Throughout the gallery, also look for the magnifying glasses left on corner plinths. A helpful aid for discovering the remarkable de- tail in many of the works, they are especially useful for delving into the gouache pieces by Jenny Hyde-Johnson, whose technique of opaque watercolours reveals layer upon layer of detail.
“Many of these works speak to the interconnection within nature. Plants don’t exist on their own, they exist in networks,” says Chris. “Our hope with the project is that this will celebrate not just Grootbos, but the Cape Floral Kingdom as a whole.”
The book Grootbos Florilegium, produced by Quivertree Publications, is a beautiful 324-page collection that includes prints of each artwork, with accompanying text by Sean Privett giving additional context and insight. Proceeds from the sale of Grootbos Florilegium, as well as other prints in the gallery boutique, go towards the conservation and outreach projects of the Grootbos Foundation. V