I couldn’t beleive where I was and what I was staring at. Less than two hours from Cape Town in the heart of the mostly tree-less fynbos biome and I was standing in the shade of a forest. Not some pine plantaion or a stand of eucalyptus: a real, indigenous milkwood forest. Head guide Kevin Jansen paitiently waited for me on the pathway as I soaked up the atmosphere of this place. He has a knowing grin on his face and as I snapped out of the momentary spell this ancient wood had placed me under. I hadn’t even seen my room yet and I felt like I already knew where I wanted to spend the majority of my time during this stay.
At the edge of the forest was the room. It was depressingly sexy, considering I was staying there on my own. Beautiful wooden finishes, a fireplace in the corner and a deck with a breathtaking view of the Indian Ocean. There was a warm berg wind blowing into my face and as comforatble as the room was I was eager to meet my guide and see the reserve.
Clayton Niemand is about as enthusiastic as a guide gets, and he was eager to show me the Gootbos Reserve and reveal the secrets of its botanical wonderland. How refreshing it was to be in a luxury Cape reserve celebrating the glory of the fynbos. After all, it is one of the planet’s most diverse botanical communities. Over 750 species of plant have been documented on this reserve. We spent a lazy afternoon drifting through the rolling fields of restios and ericas, catching a fleeting glimpse of a Cape grysbok and parked on a hill top with an expansive sea vista. The setting sun lit up the petals of the leonatis flowers like coals while a jackal buzzard hunted overhead.
After the taste adventure of an incredible 6 course dinner I opened the doors of my bedroom and my head hit the pillow with the the sound of waves crashing and the smell of a fresh sea breeze.
In contrast to the dreamy stillness of the lodge the next morning was a high paced thrill ride: we set off by boat in the Walker Bay conservancy for an action-packed marine safari. Bottle-nosed dolphins danced through the waves. The shadow of a prehistoric looking southern giant-petrel passed over our deck. Thousands of Cape fur seals and a handful of African penguins justled for the best position on the rocks of Dyer Island while ten times as many cormorants lifted in breath-taking unison and dipped and weaved their way across the waves like a giant black snake. And to top it all off the water’s apex predator, the beautiful great white shark surfaced momentarily near our boat before dipping into the blue once again.
Back at the lodge I stood on the deck and watched a powerful front brewing over the ocean: a dramatic wall of rain approached us at speed and I knew my exploration of the forest was going to have to wait. The rain arrived and stayed for a day. Often on safari rain is seen by guests as a disappointment or an annoyance, but looking at the guests relaxing around the lodge fireplaces I noticed total peace, as if the weather had just added to the atmosphere and the charm of the surrounding forest.
The clouds eventually seperated and I set of on a five hour walking trail which was to be the real highlight of my stay. Forest is probably my favourite of all habitats: full of presence, adventure and atmosphere. The Afro-montane and milkwood forests I eventually descended into were Tolkienesque and dripping with magic. It is one of the largest forests of its type left in the world. Some of the trees are over 800 years old. The voice of a thousand white eyes filled the air as they flitted around the canopy like nymphs. I bent down to collect a porqupine quill and the silhouette of a herd of grey rhebok interrupted the light rays as they tiptoed deeper into the woods. I searched the ground desperately hoping to find a track of the elusive Cape leopard: a few baboon had recently crossed this path but I saw no sign of the secretive cat. Curtains of lichen hung from the ancient trees along with the orb webs and their collected jewels of moisture. A pair of curious Cape batises followed me for a while, scouring the foliage along the pathway for their insect quarry. Sunshine flickered intermitently between the membranous canopy. The whole forest seemed to creak and groan as a gentle breeze pushed hundreds of skeletal branches up against one another. A bushbuck barked its surpise and darted into a nearby thicket. It felt eerie and surreal and beautiful all at the same time. If you want to treat yourself to a little known, highly unique and endemic ecosystem make sure you spend some time in the company of these ancient milkwoods. You will be spellbound.
A FEW NOTES:
Activities: few lodges can boast such a diversity of activities available to their guests. Horse riding, flower safaris, a visit to a world heritage cave with stone age history, beach walks, whale watching, shark cage diving, wine tours and scenic flights. And, of course, a walk in the forest.
Special mammals: Grootbos is refreshingly focused on the botanical realm. Having said that grey rhebok, Cape grysbok, and Cape dune mole rat are a few of the special creatures that can be seen here. Cape leopards have been recorded on their camera traps.
Photographic tips: The boats trips are rocky, but a monopod can bring some stabilisation. The forests are quite dark and a tripod is very useful for these low light conditions.
Contribution towards conservation: By visiting Grootbos you are helping to conserve three forests of only eight of their type in the world which fall into a conservation area. The Grootbos Foundation are passionately involved in empowering local people to live and work sustainably.
For the birders: over 120 species of bird can be seen here, with black harrier, forest buzzard, Agulas long-billed lark, Cape clapper-lark, Southern tchagra and Knysna woodpecker among the specials.
The best time to visit: Grootbos is magical year round. If you want to coincide your visit with the Southern right whales, then July to October are the best months.
Food: Had to be mentioned… top drawer.
Getting there: The journey from Cape Town is an absolute pleasure, and takes less than 2 hours. If you’re not in a hurry take the spectacular coastal route (an extra half hour).
Guides: The highly enthusiastic guiding team is ably led by Kevin Jansen, a very experienced guide formally of Singita.