Natural gems give tourists food for thought

Published May 22, 2003


Many commuters driving down Cape Town's M5 are probably unaware that they travel past a chunk of veld that is home to the rarest plants in the world.

Rondevlei Nature Reserve, which began decades ago as a bird sanctuary, incorporates a small piece of sandplain fynbos which used to cover much of the Cape Flats before the settlers arrived.

Now housing, roads, industry and agriculture have almost wiped out this unique vegetation.

These remnants of sandplain fynbos are scattered around the Flats, including Rondebosch Common, Kenilworth and Milnerton race courses and the N7 interchange.

Although it occurs nowhere else in the world, Rondevlei is the only place where this vegetation is protected in a nature reserve.

Now a group of young tour operators, Imvubu Nature Tours, have launched guided walks where they can show this biological gem to the public.

Not only that, but they feed some of these plants to their clients - in sustainable quantities.

At the launch of the tour on Wednesday, members of Cape Town's tourist organisations ate fynbos honey, scones flavoured with wild rosemary and rose-scented geraniums and drank tea made from a plant called "kooigoed", said to cure all sorts of ailments of the digestive tract and kidneys.

Graeme Arendse from Imvubu explained that, roughly translated, "kooigoed" meant "bedding material".

"The Khoi and the settlers used to sleep on it. The oils in the plant smell good and apparently also keep the fleas away," he said.

As he walked through the veld, Arendse pointed out the conebush protea which used to be the most common protea in Cape Town. Now there are a mere 500 left.

We learned that the sourfig plant is used to cure some types of eczema, that the bottom of the bulrush can be chopped up in salad and that the top was used to fill lifejackets in World War 2.

We walked past sandmounds made by the dune mole rat, the largest underground mammal in the world, saw the bakkerbos which the settlers used to burn in their ovens and the tracks made by the reserve's four hippos, re-introduced from KwaZulu-Natal.

Hippos tramped all over the Cape Flats before the settlers arrived. The first one was shot 12 days after Van Riebeeck's arrival at a former vlei which is now Church Square in the city.

Birdlife is abundant with flocks of flamingoes, pelicans and dozens of tiny waders in the vlei. A little stint from Rondevlei was recorded to have migrated to Russia and back in two months.

Rondevlei manager Dalton Gibbs said an equivalent journey for a man would be to travel 400 times around the Earth under his own power.

While Rondevlei has many gems, it has serious problems, particularly with litter and polluted stormwater run-off from surrounding suburbs.

Alien plant encroachment is a major problem and on Wednesday staff were spraying poison on Commalina africana, or "wandering Jew", which began to invade the reserve along the waterways about a year ago.

"It is smothering reedbanks and if we don't get it out now, it will soon be a massive problem," Gibbs said.

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