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The Road to Shangri-la (Harold Porter National Botanical Garden)

Shangri-la, meaning 'earthly paradise' - a permanently happy land - was the name that Harold Porter gave to his visionary garden in Betty's bay. A garden that he and just two employees started in 1950, with little more than spades, a panga and a vision of utopia. It was only after his death seven years later, when the garden was donated to the then National Botanical Gardens of SA, that it was renamed in his honor on 1 August 1959. Today, on this hot January morning of 2012, we have come to see how his vision of Shangri-la has evolved over the past sixty years.

Quite well, it seems, with the original garden having first expanded in 1962 when the Hangklip Beach Estates contributed the magnificent Disa Kloof land and then again when the Betty's Bay Village Management Board donated an adjacent erf, to effectively bring the garden to within meters of the ocean. Consequently, today the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden comprises 200 ha, stretching from the top of the Kogelberg Mountain range right down to very near the high water mark, encompassing within it an entire riverine eco-system. Over the years offices, workshops, staff quarters, an Eco-Centre and new restaurant have been built, to significantly increase the utility and experience of the gardens. And whilst much of it is managed as part of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve and requires serious hiking to see, there are 10ha of easily accessible garden on the foothills, where great improvements have been made in the form of lawns, exposed aggregate paths and happily, on this scorching January day, plenty of shady benches. 

The cultivated area is laid out with a primary path encircling a veritable web of secondary paths, streams, ponds, bridges and interconnecting spaces at its center. Each area is laid out with a specific botanical theme and there are information boards for school groups and other interested parties. 

For this visit it had been our intention to head up Leopard's Kloof and despite the soaring temperatures might have got there were it not for the jaw-dropping display of so many flowering fynbos plants in the Erica Garden. It is just about impossible to walk more than a few meters without having to stop, admire and photograph yet another stunning plant or combination of planting, much of it seen for the first time. Aulax umbellata, Mimetes hottentoticus, Leucospermum sp and so much more - a floral cornucopia of colour and light.

It is sometimes easy to forget how unique, rich and frankly, world famous, our fynbos is. At one point there was an Australian behind us who I think was experiencing some sort of horticultural sensory overload. The poor chap couldn't stop uttering superlatives while doing laps of the garden.  I did feel for him though, as at one point even I had to be ushered away from a particularly stunning Brunia stokoei that I couldn’t take my eyes off. Its flowers looked like a giant bowls of frosted strawberries floating on the crispy thin stems, garnished with bright little birds. The birds are so tame. If this place isn't a paradise for the everyman it certainly is for birders, as all manner of birds constantly flit and dart through the shrubbery. We also saw tortoises, small rodents and even caught a sobering glimpse of a snake's tail vanishing into some pond reeds.

When I was eventually dragged out of the Erica Garden we started up the kloof, full of good intentions but, I'm afraid, very little conviction. We succumbed to the noonday sun at the first bench - upon which we enjoyed the view for a while before retreating into the shaded woodland of Disa Kloof, a deep gorge cut through by a stream punctuated with waterfalls, ponds and crisscrossed with bridges and giant boulders. The vegetation is dense and cool, as the canopies of numerous Milkwoods, Cape Beech and tree fuchsias converge to cut out all but slivers of light. I must confess the water in one pool looked so alluring it had me toying with the idea of a swim - until I spotted a sign on a nearby tree -  “No Swimming' followed by the appeasing “No life guard on Duty” and then the clincher “Water Snakes and Eels in the Water”. Well, whoever wrote that sign could have saved themselves the hassle of the first two warnings because if I wasn’t persuaded by them the third one sure put paid to any plans I had for a cheeky dip.

Leaving Disa Kloof we reconnected with the circumference path and followed it back down, past the amphitheatre, through the dune ecology garden, the wetland garden and the forest ecosystem garden, to arrive hungry and tired at the Leopard's Kloof Restaurant, where we enjoyed a cold beer and the biggest chicken wrap - ever, while planning our next trip out here to the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, the secret Shangri-la of the Overberg. 

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Posted: 4/30/2012 (2:34:06 PM)

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