Garden, Gardens

A natural sanctuary

Sean Calitz


Makaranga is one of Durban’s best-kept secrets, a magical, 30-acre private botanical garden in the mist belt of Kloof. Quietly developed over 20 years by passionate billionaire plantsman Leslie Riggall as Fern Valley Botanical Garden, it’s a breathtaking collection of camellias, magnolias, rhododendrons, azaleas, bromeliads and rare orchids, many imported from the East, France and the US. Leslie created an idyllic setting for them, opening a series of ponds off the stream that winds down from a waterfall in a corner of the property, and fashioning an authentic Japanese garden at its heart with stone bridges and lanterns brought back from his travels.

The aerial roots of a pandanus tree form a sculptural feature The aerial roots of a pandanus tree form a sculptural feature

Long-time neighbours Danna and Chick Flack watched all these developments with interest. Danna, too, is a devoted gardener, product of a childhood spent pottering in the grounds of her parents’ hotel in Inyanga, Zimbabwe, and when Leslie put Fern Valley on the market in 2002 to move to Panama, the couple didn’t wait. ‘Leslie had tried to buy our place over the years but we were too emotionally attached to it; it was where we’d raised our children,’ says Danna with a laugh. ‘Buying Fern Valley from him was a dream come true!’

Makaranga managing trustee Colleen Wilson (left) and her mother, owner Danna Flack, escape into the Enchanted Garden Makaranga managing trustee Colleen Wilson (left) and her mother, owner Danna Flack, escape into the Enchanted Garden.

They combined the properties as ‘Makaranga,’ named for the Macaranga capensis wild poplars lining the stream and the Makaranga people of Inyanga, she explains. ‘Our vision was to establish a five-star garden lodge with wheelchair-friendly paths, a haven where everyone, but particularly the disabled, can escape and experience the healing peace of nature.’ (Danna worked with the Multiple Sclerosis Society after Chick’s late friend and business partner was diagnosed with the condition some 30 years ago.)

A Magnolia sargentiana blooms large against a pale sky. A Magnolia sargentiana blooms large against a pale sky.

While Chick developed what has become a 22-room luxury boutique hotel, conference centre and spa, Danna devoted herself to the garden. Leslie was a visionary, she says, but essentially a plantsman: ‘things were popped in haphazardly’. Working with her ‘landscaper extraordinaire’ Phil Page, garden manager Vernon McLuckie, assistant gardener Hendrelien Peters, and a staff of 16, Danna shaped and consolidated Leslie’s exotic collections, and introduced indigenous species. These now make up half of the garden in a mix that creates colour all year round. Camellias, azaleas, magnolias, erythrinas and 15 varieties of aloe glow brilliantly in winter, while cream and rare burnt-orange Clivia miniata peep shyly from forest floors in spring. Come summer, sky-blue agapanthus, purple hydrangeas and a kaleidoscope of lilies festoon the pathways.

The dappled Makaranga pathway draws in visitors The dappled Makaranga pathway draws in visitors.

Equally importantly, the garden staff created open sweeps of lawn where day visitors now picnic with gourmet hampers or pizzas from the wood-fired oven at the lodge’s new Nonna restaurant and deli. This was part of a major revamp last year, spearheaded by Danna’s daughter, Colleen Wilson, a managing trustee tasked with ‘enhancing the Makaranga experience’. As a mother of two – Sofi-Jade, 8, and Jonno, 3 – making the gardens more child-friendly and educational is a key part of this, and the Enchanted Garden now lures children to a glade set with stone toadstools, hammocks and mobiles. Each child receives a Makaranga ‘pledge card’ and undertakes to respect and protect the garden – to smell the flowers, not pick them, to watch the insects, not stomp on them, to feel the grass below bare feet and count the myriad birds, from sunbirds, to hawks and narina trogons.

Macarenga capensis and pink azaleas surround a secluded romantic pavilion in the Japanese garden, a setting for many proposals. Macarenga capensis and pink azaleas surround a secluded romantic pavilion in the Japanese garden, a setting for many proposals.

For adult visitors, Colleen is cultivating the ‘spiritual richness of the nature experience’. Inspired by a tour of southwest France with American author Kathleen McGowan, she and Danna have created an exact replica of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth on a secluded sunny slope. ‘It’s a contemplative space,’ she explains. ‘Focusing on following the path seems to suspend the left brain, freeing the creative right brain. Traditionally, you walk into the labyrinth with a question within your heart, find the answer at the centre, and walk out with a sense of peace.’ Makaranga, 1A Igwababa Rd, Kloof, KwaZulu-Natal, Makaranga.com

The Chartres labyrinth replica provides a contemplative space The Chartres labyrinth replica provides a contemplative space.

Originally published in HL October 2012.