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Landing in Oz: Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Table Mountain, a mountain of many and varied moods. Seen on our way from the Cape Town airport...our destination perches on its flank.

Eros School. Teach me tonight?

Something special was bound to happen. It's September 18, 2015, and a ragtag band of Americans, led by me and Leon Marais of Lawson's Natural History Tours and Custom Safaris, is making its way from the airport to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens near Capetown, South Africa. 

We were all pretty much flattened by our respective trips, and the easy walking, fresh air, spectacular birds and botanicals of KBG were just the ticket. It was take it in or fall flat on our faces. We walked, zombielike, from one amazing sight to the next. 

A giant bird of paradise, Kandis and Barb firmly in its bill. Wak Wak!
Look out Jennnyyyyyy!!! Those things are ravenous!

Such sights we never had seen. This gaudy little member of the Iridaceae (Iris family) has the common name of Blowsyblom. Love it! Blowsy it is, but hardly frowsy.

Right off the bat, I'm seeing plants and having no idea what they are. Most, I can't even get to family. Thank goodness for tags. Sorry, I didn't catch the name of these beauties. They remind me of lobelias, but chances are vast that they're something not-lobelia.

I do a bit better with the birds. This is a Cape bulbul. I kept rubbing my red-rimmed eyes. It's all so different and lovely.

A Cape spurfowl strolls by, all vermiculate tweedy feathers and red legs.

We quickly learn that the Cape is all about proteas. These big, gorgeously architectural darlings of highbrow florists grow everywhere in the Fynbos, a shrubby vegetational type found all over the Cape, in the western coastal part of South Africa.

And where there are lots of proteas, there are Cape sugarbirds! 

These thrasher-sized charmers drink nectar with specialized bills and feathered tongues.

Adult males have spectacularly long swirly tail feathers, and they sing a squeaky song. And Kirstenbosch is the easy place to see them up close. Don't miss that tail...

What a charmer. It seems you see dozens of females and immature birds for every long-tailed male.
It's such a treat to see a specialist like the Cape sugarbird be reasonably common. 
Well, so are proteas. The sugarbirds seem to travel in small flocks, feeding madly on nectar, then moving on to the next blooming patch of proteas. The photo ops are many and delish.

One of the really fun parts of blogging is going back through my photos and finding hidden treasures like this one: a Cape sugarbird who has nabbed a bee in mid-flight! Might want to click on this one to see the bee. Whoop! Thank you, Canon, for your nimble 7D.

I grow these sweet periwinkle blue Cape daisies in hanging baskets on my porch back in Ohio. So many of the flowers I was seeing have been adopted by horticulturists the world around. That's what made visiting the Cape region such a hoot for me, as an avid gardener. Here, Rootie and Barb page through their field guide, puzzling out something they've just seen.

One of the first things I found upon entering the garden was a giant hissing cockroach, rooting around in some mulch. Picked it up and showed it to everyone as it squirmed, kicked and cussed in a high thin voice. It was a kind of icebreaker, to reaffirm that we'd be appreciating a little bit of everything on this trip. I was pleased by the women's collective interest. No yikers or shudderers here! Jenny even asked for a lesson on holding such a creature. The only thing: not to fear it.

Egyptian goose was to be our most ubiquitous bird country-wide, being seen on every single day of the three-week trip, from highlands to seacoast.

But we'd never see the "Gyppo," as Leon calls it, better than we did on this day!

 Forest canary was a target bird, and the small green birds didn't disappoint. So pretty, and so confiding.

Helmeted guineafowl were pretty much everywhere, too, talking and squawking and walking through the gardens. The moire of their plumage casts a hypnotic spell if you stop long enough to appreicate it. Yes, the domestic ones have barely changed from their wild progenitors. Except, of course, where we've seen fit to breed them pure white. Why? How is that better than padded in elegant dotted Swiss?

It was windy and cool and so refreshing, looking out over Capetown from the heights of the botanical garden.

Mountain light played over indigenous metal sculptures of dinosaurs, stomping through ancient cycads.

We looked, rested, talked, got to know each other. 

I practically needed a bib to make my hurried way through the garden's nursery shop. I was drooling over baby plants I was sure I could grow in my greenhouse. No, Zick, you can't take ANYTHING home with you. You're flying, remember?

So I got a little glass-beaded zebra for Liam back home. I needed a souvenir already; it was that kind of trip. We filled our empty bellies with delicious food at the garden's cafe (I got a Middle Eastern platter)

and resumed our leisurely tour of this magical place

where a malachite sunbird paused for a split second, giving me my only decent look and shot of the trip. Sunbirds are maddening to photograph, staying still approximately half as long as hummingbirds do. They're the hummingbird's Old World ecological equivalent, but sunbirds are too big and heavy to hover, so they've perfected clinging!

Proteas glowed in the cloud shadows.

Protea bushes gave bursts of color in shafts of sun as the wind raked across Table Mountain.

Here, we were to learn, grow wild the progenitors of our treasured pelargoniums. Our cultivars, more flower-heavy but hardly different. Even the leaves smelt the same.

But we've nothing like proteas. Ohh proteas. They're so amazing, so primitive, sturdy, sculptural.

A school group came chattering through, each child carrying a big leaf.

A Cape robin-chat bounced on the ground while

a southern double-collared sunbird probed an aloe for its nectar inside a greenhouse
(she'd gained entry and egress by a vent)

Outside, a resplendant male southern double-collared sunbird showed his colors oh so briefly in a bank of proteas. I'd say the female got the short end of the color stick...

 As we exited the garden, Leon showed us one of the resident spotted eagle-owls (Bubo africanus), hauntingly reminiscent of our great-horned owl.

 The trip was off to a smashing start! Next: Botanical gardens are great. But oh, give me wildflowers!


Wonderful! Thanks! I look forward to more blogs on South Africa! My husband is wondering what size lens(es) you brought for your camera?

I am going to enjoy this journey with you. It will be most interesting to listen as you describe these new found treasures. Our not too long ago trip to SA also included a stop at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Loved it--and many of the plants were ones I had seen growing up just a bit north of SA.

Kirstenbosch may be my favourite garden anywhere (though I visited the Australian Botanic Garden at Mt Annam this week which runs it close) - I love that wonderful monument to the first director "if ye seek his monument; look around". Marvellous. Two favourite memories are seeing a padloper tortoise run across the lawn and briefly believing I'd scored a pangolin before I got my bins on it and seeing one of the resident geese turn the table spectacularly on a naughty three year old who was chasing it at the restaurant (it wasn't running away, just building up speed for its own charge!)

You made me feel almost as if I had just traveled through time and space accompanying you in the time it took to read this. Throw in some Daleks and you could be The Doctor.

The bee snatch shot!

Great post and you're just getting started!

Aah, now I am truly homesick! Thanks for the stunning photos.

your blog is always interesting and educational and so much fun to read - these photos from South Africa are amazing! thank you so much for sharing your trip with us.

Back in the day when I was a florist, I used proteas in arrangements - not knowing that somewhere on the planet a bird was sipping nectar from a similar flower. Thanks for the delightful post and photos.


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