Cow teats; goose manure; horse teeth. These are not only the names of farmyard things, but also of the Klein Karoo’s field gems.
Little did we know when we meandered around the bends of the R62 route, coffee in hand, that Kannaland would yield so many surprises.
It was just festive time in Calitzdorp – Vétplantfees. This exhibition, organized by the town’s Succulent Association, is not carnival time in Rio because it’s just a bunch of sneakers and boots that come to kick up dust here next to the train tracks every year. However, what makes up in numbers is generously made up by the heart and passion of the “vet planters”. And there is no lack of humor either, because as I walked past I heard one of the exhibitors call out: “Aloe, is it me you’re looking for?“
Before we went to the station for the exhibition, we first dismounted, there at the foot of the rust-brown hills outside the town that date back to long before Die Mens – a picture that makes you forget to breathe for a moment.
Hostess Petro had already packed the fire, just ready to light it, and the pre-ordered barbecue food was prepared by an experienced hand and ready for the coals.
With the candlelight’s flickering shadows on the walls and Petro’s hot water bags under the sheet, we half-slowly greeted the day with all its beauty and newness. The quiet in our heads and bodies was only interrupted for a moment with a peacock’s call to its mate.
Our field trip with the famous botanist Kevin Koen was arranged for the early afternoon the next day, so a calorie-laden breakfast was a requirement. A garden restaurant on the main street caught our attention and we were rewarded with ample energy in the form of the towering melted cheese and egg sandwich that hit the (hollow) spot right in the middle.
Right before Jakkalskop, Kevin waited for our group in the cold with a warm smile. There are believed to be 3,200 plant species in the Klein Karoo which form part of South Africa’s succulent Karoo biome and is one of our country’s three biodiversity hotspots.
I believe our skilled guide knows most of these plants by name. One of them, the Gasteria koeniior rather Osbergbeestong, was even named after Kevin after he discovered it in 2014 in the Matjiesgoed Valley’s gorge at the foot of the Swartberg.
Kevin made us stop every now and then for two hours. We then bent down, looked, smelled and felt all that was interesting bush, rush and succulent. Although it is a semi-desert world, there was good rain and the field, as far as the eye could see up to Besemkop, was covered with splashes of color of white, purple, yellow, deep orange and hot red.
Kevin told stories, patiently answered our questions and pointed out a host of interesting things that we would never have noticed otherwise. I only think of the “k’s” in themselves – cannibald, coconut bush, cat bush as well as “chews” which, as Kevin tells us, were fermented by the local people in the old days and used as a kind of anesthetic.
We gained a new respect for the resilience of aloes and marveled at a small plant which, unlike the Venus flytrap, drawing in flies but then spitting them out intact to enjoy the rest of their short-lived lives. “Ceropegia fimbriata, or rather the Umbrella plant, mimics carrion. Although it doesn’t stink like other plants in the family, it also attracts flies for pollination,” says Kevin. The fly enters the flower through the umbrella structure at the top, moves in a narrowing calyx to a round cavity at the bottom where it then pollinates the plant. The flowers usually only last for a day and when they wither the fly is released again. “The poor fly gets nothing from this cheating.”
By sundown we were back in town and went to seek warmth at a restaurant where the pizza oven and lantern heaters outside on the veranda soon dispelled the cold. So in between reminiscing about everything we learned from Kevin, memories were exchanged with the Harley enthusiasts at the table next to us.
When we got home to our weekend cottage it felt like we could touch the stars. The outlines of the cups were etched in the moonlight and the silence almost deafening. After a blissful retreat under the blankets, we boil the kettle and pack our bags again and so, too soon, our Kannaland visit comes to an end.
But on the way back I hear Coenie’s “Karoonag” in my head: “Do you smell catnip? and kambro, if it rains in the Klein Karoo. My Hantam Wind; my pick-up, tonight…”
- Lizma is an award-winning radio journalist and presenter and founding member of the Cape radio station, Smile 90.4FM. She has a master’s degree in journalism.