My happy place is up the mountain in Fernkloof. As age catches up, it’s not always possible to scale the heights, but there is the amazing Rotary Way to ease the walk. A warm, sunny and breathless spring day adds to the delight, as does the flush of spring flowers following last summer’s burn. The charred vegetation is being replaced by splashes of yellow Wachendorfias and orange Watsonia stenosiphon. Restios are re-sprouting bushy green to photosynthesise enough reserves to flower.

Geraldine Gardiner and Belle Barker (right) in Fernkloof Nature Reserve. It was Belle’s wish some years ago that instead of gifts for her 80th birth- day, contributions be given towards a story board for the reserve. This was her birthday gift donated to Fernkloof.
PHOTO: Kathy Mulock-Bentley

When I arrived in Hermanus about 20 years ago, fynbos didn’t at first appear too interesting, except maybe for the odd protea that stood out. But I soon learned that the secret to fynbos is to get out of the car, up the mountain and close to the ground. What a delight unfolded. 

My inspiration were the “greats” of Fernkloof fynbos – Belle Barker, Priscilla Drewe, and Frank Woodvine. How gratifying that these inspirational people are still with us – Belle and Priscilla now 94 years old, still with minds as sharp as ever. Frank, now approaching 90, has an enormous wealth of stored knowledge about matters ecological and the physical prowess any 45-year-old would envy. 

And let’s not forget Geraldine Gardiner and Lee Burman. Lee meticulously runs the world-class Fernkloof herbarium and Geraldine manages the Fernkloof gardens for anyone who wishes to share their botanical delights – free of charge.

Hermanus owes a tremendous debt to these greats. 

In 2005, Whale Coast Conservation bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award on Belle Barker. On that occasion Rupert Langerman paid her this tribute: 

Today, she no longer walks the very high mountains, but now her focus is on passing on her knowledge to the new generation of retirees. The Wednesday morning ‘Walks with Belle’ are a highlight of the week for her enthusiastic learners. Each walk is a book, another page turned. Perceptions are heightened. The folded hills are there as before, the fretted rocks lining the higher paths, and the vistas far below; but Belle has focused attention on another magic, the fynbos underfoot. The heaths, the proteas, the restios; and her observations bring the path to life.

Inevitably, Belle became obsessed with the vision of one of her mentors, Dr Williams: a mountain clear of alien vegetation where the fynbos could flourish in its natural state. And she set to work with a steadfastness born of her Scots background, first under his direction and later, with companions of her own.

No slope was too steep for her, no kloof too deep to descend if the enemy was there – the hakea, the pine, the acacia – and her spirit inspired her troops. Up and down the mountainside they followed her, men and women, armed with saws, clippers, secateurs, and back they would come, hours later, breathless, sweating and flushed with success. Belle would keep a tally of what each hacker had taken out and then announce the grand total. And it was grand. Hakeas, pines and acacias by the thousands over the years, and the knowledge that if they had been left to multiply the mountains would not be as they are.

It was on her fynbos walks that Belle piqued my interest in Restionaceae – followed by a decade of curating the display of these reeds in the Fernkloof visitors’ centre.

Ever the teacher, Belle passed on some of her extensive knowledge to “younger” BotSoc members. Her protegés now shoulder the enormous task of collecting, curating and identifying the hundreds of specimens on display at the annual Flower Festival and the educational displays at the visitors’ centre. She can be justly proud of her legacy.

If one acknowledges Belle, Priscilla Drewe is always mentioned in the same breath. These two ladies are not only the same age, but also the best of friends. For many years they worked closely together destroying alien vegetation in the mountains and preserving and classifying specimens in the Fernkloof herbarium. 

Frank, at almost 90, still hacks aliens, lays out walking trails and leads tourist groups through his beloved fynbos, sharing his extensive knowledge.  A walk with Frank will take your breath away – literally and figuratively.

It’s a great pity that most of the knowledge about Fernkloof fynbos resides with the older generation. Even the “younger” people who have taken on the mantle of guardianship of Fernkloof, are well into their “third age”, i.e. retirement. 

How we would welcome really young enthusiasts. It’s never too early (or too late) to become a fynbos fundi.

About the Author

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Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.

Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to

  • raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
  • to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.

WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation.  We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.

WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.

WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.

WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP).  YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.

WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.

WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.

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