Another day another ‘crocodile’ Giants Castle
The group soon settled into roughly two camps, the ‘walkers’ and the ‘wimps’. At our morning meeting point to set out on our day’s excursion, there would be the ‘NorthBerg Facehaus’ group doing gentle warming up exercises, jogging on the spot, 50 press ups and that sort of thing. Whereas ‘the rest‘ would be checking they had all their camera equipment and weighing up the option of jettisoning the waterproofs to make room to cram more sandwiches in their backpacks. As my physique falls/flops into the ‘built for comfort, not speed’ category, you can imagine I slumped into the last group. It was more apparent when I later looked at my photographs and there were a number with a long line of people stretched out in a ‘crocodile’ along the trail in front of me – well someone has to be last, and I did take a lot of photographs.
Gladiolus watermeyeri (West Coast gladiolus)
Lesotho could be an article in itself. It just instantly made me think ‘National Geographic’, with a vast landscape with minimal human habitation, round stone huts with thatched roofs, and then there were three Lammergeier (bearded vulture) circling about half a mile above our heads. Under pressure from your editor for space I will just mention three of the many plants seen, the first being a tiny white Dianthus basuticus. I don’t know why but I just didn’t expect to see a dianthus at 10,500 feet. It takes its name from Lesotho’s old name of Basutoland, for the stamp collectors amongst us. (Philately will get you everywhere! – sorry, I couldn’t resist it.) On a little exploratory walk we saw, peeking coyly from a roadside bank, Diascia integerrima. Back once again in our carriage I had my revenge on our driver by frightening the life out of him with a yell of ‘Stoooop!’ Fair play to him, there was no ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’, he just slung on the Land Rover’s brakes. The cause of the excitement was a patch of white, which turned out to be what I still know as colchicum, but which, ‘they who must be obeyed’ deem to be Androcymbium striatum. It has keel-shaped, white-striped-green, six-inch-tall flowers (strictly bracts) and the sight of it will stay with me for many a year.
Anyway, back on theme, I have to say, over the two weeks, I have never before seen such quantity or variety of orchid. Orchids in South Africa are not the ‘hothouse’ varieties. These are tough, by the roadside, on the moorland or in the hills varieties, and in these quantities they can obviously compete. A good example of this was the very tall Satyrium longicaude, also known as the Blushing Bride, which can have up to 60 pink-veined white, hooded flowers with pink tips, up a stem over twelve inches tall.
There was also the very pretty, moist shade-lover, Disperis fanniniae, with its white, flushed pink or green, hooded flowers with bright apple-green stems. Its relative, Disperis cooperi, was spotted on the same marshy site on the road down from Lesotho as the Kniphofia caulescens – when we stopped to hyperventilate! The white split-lipped Brownleea parviflora was also an exciting find, but the robust Disperis oxyglossa with its rusty brown/red acanthus-like flowers on strong stems summed up their ability to cope with all that the elements could throw at them.
Of the 600 species of Helichrysum worldwide, 245 of them occur in South Africa with 102 species in the Drakensberg, making it the largest genus there. I only knew of them as an annual I grew about half a lifetime ago – ‘everlastings’ as they were quaintly known. They are a fairly strange range of plants but you can see how they are perfectly adapted to the climate. When I mentioned ‘summer rain’ above, you were probably thinking of a nice gentle shower. What you actually get is a monsoon-like thunderstorm with lightening and the works, so you don’t get too many delicate daisy-like flowers as they would get smashed to pieces in the deluge and just rot. Instead you get these imitations made of sterner stuff and able to withstand all nature throws at them. In addition, quite often they have silver hairy foliage to cope with the sun. Whilst a good proportion of them are yellow flowered and, I don’t know why, but they seem less interesting because of it, Helichrysum auriceps had a flower head comprised of what appeared to be very shiny, golden ball-bearings (so shiny it made them very difficult to photograph). There were a number of them that had a low growing habit and were really pretty with loads of flowers. One that we seemed to come across in various places was H. adenocarpum with red, pink or white flowers, which all looked good against its grey woolly foliage.
And finally, I can’t let you go without describing the excitement of seeing Asclepsis macropus, which seems like a drumstick primula head, but in auricula colours of greeny-yellow and fawn, in perfect condition on our last walk. Just a stumble away we found the striking Zalunzianskya natalensis, whose four petals are zingy red on the outside and pristine shiny white on the inside. However, the most impressive plant saved itself till last. We brought the airport-bound coach to a screeching halt when a flash of red, seen the previous day from the coach window, was located and turned out to be Brunsvigia grandiflora, with its bright pink starburst flower heads. What an encore on behalf of the Drakensberg!
A more unexpected find was a group of tree ferns, Cyathea dregei, usually associated with New Zealand, but also indigenous to the Drakensberg. They made an exotic sight growing in rolling grassland below Cathedral Peak. Also surprising were some grey-leaved shrublets, of the type normally associated with hot, dry spots, here revelling in moisture. These included Sopubia cana, with narrow silver leaves and bright pink flowers, parasitic on grasses, and Lotononis galpinii, with small rounded silver foliage and violet-blue flowers.
There were inevitably other attractive shrubs which I have been unable to identify from my photographs, such as an evergreen with long clusters of small green and red berries, and a deciduous shrub with lobed, heavily veined leaves, the young ones being a rich dark red edged with green.
I had expected to see kniphofias, eucomis, agapanthus and other herbaceous plants, but to find so many different shrubs came as a complete surprise, as did the wonderful grasses, a whole new subject in themselves.
Click here to enjoy a gallery of these plants and the beautiful South African landscape.