Cape Town - There’s a flash of brilliant blue as the malachite kingfisher darts into the water from its reed perch and emerges with something glinting silver in its rapier-like beak.

Overhead, a grey heron sails serenely past, while in the high distance an unidentified raptor slowly circles. A pair of waterbirds – possibly little bitterns, as they appear and disappear again too quickly for non-birders to be certain – shoot past into a thick reedbed.

If Faye Alkana had been seated at the table on the deck of the new tearoom at Rondevlei Nature Reserve, she would probably have been able to tell what species these birds were. She’s a registered tour guide for this reserve, who did a bird-identification course as part of her training.

But Alkana is inside the modest wooden structure, directing her assistants, who are laying out a breakfast buffet spread for patrons.

The gregarious and effervescent host was head-hunted by the non-government group Friends of Zeekoevlei and Rondevlei to run this new operation in the small reserve. It has always been highly popular as a bird-watching area and busy environmental education centre. More recently, it has also become a Cape Flats nature destination for locals and tourists.

The very active Friends group – whose areas of interest include the two vleis and the broader False Bay Ecology Park – came up with the idea of the small, maximum 40-seater, tearoom where visitors to the City of Cape Town-owned Rondevlei Nature Reserve near Grassy Park could get something to eat and drink.

But the idea took several years to bring to fruition, due to the city’s bureaucratic nature and the need for an environmental impact assessment and proper planning approval.

The wooden structure, funded by the city’s tourism department at a cost of about R200 000, has been constructed on the water’s edge adjacent to the reserve’s little-boat harbour, and not too close to any existing bird hides.

The new facility is being run on a trial basis for six months to see whether there is sufficient demand and ensure that its impact is acceptable.

While some question the desirability of locating a tearoom in a nature area, the False Bay Ecology Park steering committee believes it will play an important role to draw more visitors to Rondevlei and win support for critical conservation imperatives in the city.

Committee chairman Stephen Granger says the ecology park – an area of rivers, vleis and coastal dunes that includes Rondevlei, Zeekoevlei and the Strandfontein Sewage Works – harbours an amazingly rich natural environment. But densely populated communities across the socio-economic range live right on its borders, and many of them have never set foot in the park.

“In the old days, conservation was about putting fences around nature areas and telling people to keep out. Protecting important ecosystems is still very much part of our mandate. And 11 out of the 20 endangered ecosystems in South Africa occur in Cape Town, so we have to conserve them.

“But we’re also in an urban context here, and we have to recognise that part of our mandate is to integrate people with our conservation areas, and (show) them the benefits of nature conservation.

“These are the places where they can learn about nature and experience it for themselves, rather than just hear about it – and so learn to love it.

“Rondevlei now offers a unique experience for the people we want to attract to the reserve.

“Internationally, there is a growing understanding of the importance of conservation in urban areas – of integrating people and nature as opposed to a ‘keep-out’ mentality, to safeguard critical natural resources.

“So, this tearoom is an example of the new order of conservation thinking – nature providing direct benefits to people, including entrepreneurial and job opportunities in nature reserves.”

And Alkana breathes entrepreneurial spirit. She’s a resident of Grassy Park, where she runs a 30-sleeper backpackers lodge and a busy catering business that has been going for the past 12 years, after she’d had enough of her former job in the legal department of a banking institution.

“I’m over-loaded with the best of people – I have the world in my house every day.”

Alkana was already well known to the Friends group through her catering, and she jumped at the chance to take on the new tearoom.

She employs seven young women from the Eastern Cape to help her in her various business ventures, including the tearoom that is open from 9am to 4pm, although she will open earlier for breakfast at 7.30am by arrangement.

The facility is already proving popular, particularly with twitchers (birdwatchers). Alkana has hosted a Barney-theme children’s birthday that went “very well”, and she has a booking for a 60th birthday party.

“I think it’s the best thing ever – it’s the cherry on top that has come my way.” - Cape Argus

* To make a booking, phone Alkana at 083 436 9974.