The Africa Journals
Lost in the Jungle
Beyond the productive vinyards and lush grasslands of the Western Cape live the Nama, the sole survivors of the indigenous Khoi, or Hottentots as they were called by the Dutch colonists. Though their lands are vast, they used to live and roam far to the north, shepherding their great herds of cattle. Then came the day when powerful black tribes drove the smaller Khoi peoples to the south and into the deserts.
Those who resisted and looked back were turned into trees called halfmens (Namaquanum pachypodium), meaning “half-human” in Afrikaans. The tree grows to the height of a man and has a crown of thorny leaves that always turns to the sun. Some have branches that grow outward and upwards at shoulder height, just like someone pleading. The tree is very rare. There is a small one in the Glasshouse at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.—adapted from a folklore tale in The Story of South Africa by Ron McGregor
The motor coach ride to the world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens took us through pleasant forest land to the back side of Table Mountain. Created in 1913, the gardens cover 89 acres planted with indigenous trees, shrubs, and flowers, and also features a conservatory with plants from different areas in Africa. All together, the gardens cover five of South Africa’s six biomes (ecosystems).
Though I was up for a walk through these gardens, I was particularly zoned in on seeing the halfmens tree noted in the legend above. When I asked, Brian said we would be at the conservatory at the end of our tour.
And so we began by entering at the Garden Gates, a small, almost inconsequential entry point with scarcely enough room for a coach to pull off the two-lane road and disgorge its tourists. The advantage to this point of entry soon became obvious—we would be walking downhill in the hot African sun.
Our very knowledgeable local guide identified and pointed out plants of interest, such as the silvertree which is endangered and protected in South Africa.
|Close up of silvertree branch.|
Another plant he introduced by saying he was going to show us a flower that was both white and blue at the same time. I did not get this at all as I couldn’t see anything unusual in it. I’ve seen many multi-colored flowers. I’m still puzzled, but dutifully took photo of the plant. It shows up often on my screen saver slide show as if it’s trying to tell me something. It’s haunting me, I think.
We walked slowly downhill past abundant flowers and shrubs and into a cool grove of trees where we spotted a couple owls.
We passed spectacular blooms called fireball lilies and were warned not to touch them, or suffer the stinging consequences.
At a small pool, the guide filled our water bottles with sweet, pure, cold water.
On and on we walked, past families picnicking with goslings almost stumbling over them in their desire to be close enough should any morsel land on the ground.
Eventually, we arrived at the main entrance which was a nice courtyard surrounded by various shops and cafes and one-way turnstiles. Before I went through the turnstile, Brian steered me to the conservatory where the halfmens tree supposedly resided. I walked around and around the tiered exhibit, reading dozens of small identifying plaques, search for something that was a mystery to me as I had no idea what it looked like.
|Inside a part of the conservatory.|
I was about to give up, realizing that I had been in there a long, long time and Brian might be searching for me, when I saw a young couple looking at plants. The man was pointing out various things to the woman, so I asked him if he knew where the halfmens tree was.
One tier down, he showed me the ID sign. There it was, the fabled halfmens tree, rare and hard to find: a single stem of cactus about three feet tall, almost hidden by other plants. Well, maybe if I return in a century or so, I might see the branches that look like arms.
|The elusive halfmens tree, the skinny, prickly, armless little thing in the center..|
I left the conservatory to join the group, except I saw no one I recognized in the courtyard. I hesitated at the turnstile. If I went through, I might not be able to return to the gardens.
Instead, thinking I should return to where we entered, I started uphill in the general direction of the Garden Gate. I had been so occupied taking photos and gawking at the flowers, I didn’t really recall the route by which we had descended, but I figured up and to the left—away from Table Mountain— was the best option.
I was in a hurry, afraid the coach was waiting for me and I had violated Brian’s PROMPT edict. Soon I had sweat running down my face….so I stopped to take photos of a particularly beautiful flower, or sign, or whatever. I estimated that I was about three-quarters of the way back to the Garden Gate when something occurred to me.
Would Brian drop us off at that upper gate only to make us walk back uphill under the African sun when the tour was over? Our local guide had, after all, said goodbye and left us just before I went in quest of the halfmens tree. And what about the lack of parking at the upper gate? Surely there was more than one huge coach delivering visitors to this renowned place.
I turned around and headed downhill at a much faster clip, passed through the turnstile, and found…
No one I recognized. Oh, man. Brian was going to be mad. Maybe they’re waiting in the parking lot, wherever that was. I rushed past the shops and cafes luring me with cold drinks and spotted….
I wasn’t late after all, I wasn’t holding up the trip, and I certainly wasn’t going to tell Brian what I’d just done.
|Bird of Paradise design on building at main entrance.|
|The coach that hadn't left me.|
More photos from Kirstenbosch. Don't ask me what they are.
|rain spider nest|
|Notice the trunk of this tree.|
|Kirstenbosch is the green area below Cape Town.|