Garden, Gardens

natural treasury

Christoph Hoffmann


Gushing through a rift in the granite rocks, the cascade is almost deafening – a roaring tumult that begins in Dullstroom and ends its journey in Mozambique.

At its peak in the rainy summer season the river is just one aspect that lends this garden its distinctive character. Forming the estate’s western boundary, it curves steadily eastward, meeting the Nel River en route in an expansive tranquil pool. It’s the stuff that postcards are made of, a quiet glory of sky, rock, water and space.

The Crocodile River cuts through the Cascades Waterfall on the western boundary of Nelspruit’s Lowveld National Botanical Garden. The Crocodile River cuts through the Cascades Waterfall on the western boundary of Nelspruit’s Lowveld National Botanical Garden.

‘Our garden offers a wealth of diverse experiences,’ says Sekgabo Kedijang, the garden’s marketing and communications officer. ‘Visitors come here for many different reasons but what they all have in common is a need to connect to nature.’ Some 75 000 people visit each year, ranging from school trips and wedding parties to serious hikers and birders. It’s the latter you’ll probably notice first – twitchers of the professional sort kitted out in khaki with eye-wateringly expensive binoculars – and they’ve come to the right place. From the flamboyant purple-crested turaco to the elusive African finfoot, a staggering 243 bird species have been recorded in the garden – drawn to the natural savanna, riverine and forest vegetation.

Beds of clivia lead toward the Riverside Trail. OPENING SPREAD A raised walkway takes you through the garden’s African rainforest. Beds of clivia lead toward the Riverside Trail. 

‘It’s a subtropical locale,’ says curator Taki Mamatsharaga, ‘and everything we plant grows in the area.’ Recognised as a conservation hub for rare and endangered plants, the garden is home to almost all of South Africa’s indigenous cycad species. ‘One of the garden’s specialities is the creation of a secure cycad seed bank and we’re also involved in propagating other critically endangered plants such as the wild yam and pepper-bark tree. These are slow growing with a very specific lowveld habitat, and they’re under serious threat from over collection and mining.’

Taki says that in the past the garden’s focus was predominantly on plants. ‘Of course biodiversity is critical so now we look at entire ecosystems; we pay attention to things that allow the plants to flourish – from bees and butterflies to birds and trees. Our environmental education programme is highly active and a guided visit to the garden is encouraged for all schools in the Ehlanzeni district.’

Sunset over the Crocodile River. Sunset over the Crocodile River.

Whether you’re part of a school group or simply a bush lover heading for Kruger, this verdant spot is a delight. In early spring masses of clivias line the pathway leading towards the Cascades Waterfall. From now until March all is super green and the African rainforest in particular offers a cooling, misty respite from the heat. This shady route along a raised timber walkway leads you down towards the Crocodile River and timeless lowveld views. ‘The rainforest was established in the 1980s when a team planted subtropical trees from as far afield as Ghana and Cameroon,’ says Taki. ‘The resulting canopy has created the ideal conditions for forest-floor and riverine vegetation.’

 A view of the garden’s granite formations A view of the garden’s granite formations.

Trees of all kinds form an integral part of the garden and it’s home to one of the biggest collections of South African fig trees in the country. Add to that a host of mammals, such as vervet monkeys, dwarf mongooses and a pod of hippos that emerge after dark, and you’ve got a slice of lowveld heaven.

A spring-flowering clivia. A spring-flowering clivia.

Most recently a labyrinth was added to the garden – a place where people can collect their thoughts in the midst of a busy working week. As the urban sprawl intensifies this unspoilt corner of Nelspruit is becoming ever more valuable. ‘It’s a space for everyone and for everything in nature,’ says Taki. ‘The garden has endless potential and so much to teach us. We just need to take the time to appreciate it.’

Originally published in HL December 2015.