South Africa: Grootbos Private Nature Reserve offers safaris with a difference

It's morning and in reserves across South Africa, excited nature-lovers are stepping into open-topped Land Rovers, cameras ready, extra blankets packed, to head out on safari. I am no exception.

This safari at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve on the Western Cape, however is not about seeing the Big 5, nor the Magnificent 7, and certainly not the Ugly 5 (though there are Cape dune mole-rats). It's a flower safari, and one the reserve's botanist and naturalist guides promise will transform how we see and experience the landscape.

The setting is unique. A two-hour drive from Cape Town, Grootbos is home to 800 species of plants, including six newly described species. It's the most diverse flower kingdom in the world, and cascades of wildflowers carpet the area. When we pull up for our first stop, our guide, Christoff Longland, bounds ahead to point out the king of the jungle here, the protea.

It's a bit early in the season for the full blanket of the pink blossoms of Erica irregularis, a flower found only in the Walker Bay Region from May through July, but there are patches of pink, yellow, orange and red across the hills. We unfurl the petals of the blood red candelabra and lie on a "bushman's bed" made of lavender and sage.

All the while Longland is schooling us on the birds and the bees. All that colour has a practical purpose, he reminds us: to attract the attention of the pollinators such as sugarbirds and bees. Hive boxes are dotted around the reserve to help the continued pollination of the unique plant species. There's an added bonus for us, the bees produce the honey that can be sampled on the Grootbos menu as a condiment, a glaze and in their famous homemade fynbos (native shrubbery) ice-cream with honeycomb crumbled on top.

Tenacious honey badgers have been known to eye-off the hives, and pretty much any animal that gets in its way.

"[Honey badgers] are smart, tough and brave, they can give a pride of lion attitude," Longland says,  Longland before telling us these fierce creatures with thick skin and sharp claws have guillotine-like fangs that have been known to bite the scrotum off a bull. Frightening stuff.

Further up the sloping reserve, Longland informs us about the controlled burnings that keep the fynbos (or fine bush) thriving and how the flora survives in some of the worst soils imaginable.

"The fynbos has developed amazing techniques to survive," he says, before looking out to Walker Bay, deep in thought. "When we are pushed in life, we adapt."

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This should be a meme, or at least put on a T-shirt and presented to Grootbos owner, Michael Lutzeyer.

Lured by the views across Walker Bay, the Lutzeyer family first purchased a section of the land in 1991 in the hope of building a B&B. As time passed, the family purchased more land and built a luxury eco-lodge. Then, about 12 years ago, a major wildfire swept through, burning the resort's Forest Lodge to the ground. Lutzeyer prefers to see the positive side: the blaze created a new opportunity for rare plant species to germinate and flourish.

Now, the rebuilt sustainable eco-resort is a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World. It has two wings, the Garden Lodge, which is best for families and the Forest Lodge, plus two private villas that come with a chef and butlers as well as a pool, gym and private cinema.

I'm staying in one of 16 free-standing suites in the Forest Lodge wing, set high on the hill, each separated by a winding path under milkwood forest. The design is contemporary, with sleek lines and soft hues and natural accents including exposed brickwork and timber beams. There's a giant private deck (with an outdoor shower) from which to spot Southern right whales or watch the sunset over Walker Bay. There's an infinity pool next to the main lodge and, down another milkwood-lined path, the spa, where locally sourced products are used in treatments.

At the Forest Lodge's restaurant, breakfast is on the deck, while dinner can be enjoyed by the log fire, accompanied by a fynbos-infused gin, or down in the wine cellar. Over a group candlelit meal in the cellar, where the highlight is the pairing of crispy homemade gnocchi and goat's cheese fondue with Teddy Hall Maria Van Swaanswijk Chardonnay, Lutzeyer  shares his vast knowledge of local wines. This drop is extra special, he tells us, it's been sourced from the annual Cape Winemakers Guild auction.

Grootbos is not just a luxury eco-resort, The Grootbos Foundation was set up 15 years ago as a non-profit organisation that works to conserve the fynbos, while also focusing on the training and skills development of the surrounding communities. Included in this is the Growing the Future food production and social upliftment project, based on the reserve. The organic farm provides the local community with skills in organic agriculture, sustainable animal husbandry and beekeeping. The produce from the farm is used in the resort's restaurants. Children staying here can join the team to collect fresh eggs every morning and guests can tour the organic farm after a horse ride through the reserve.

There's adventure off-site, too, including winery tours, cave tours and the opportunity to see the marine Big 5 (whales, dolphins, sharks, seals and penguins) on a boat tour off Gansbaai to Dyer Island.

Lutzeyer is also developing a new Grootbos safari that will bring in top entomologists to guide guests into the reserve's world of insects. Perhaps the "Tiniest 5" can be their catch-cry.

On a final stroll back to my suite in the afternoon light I'm applying my newfound knowledge of the reserve's flora and admiring the fynbos, spotting pincushion proteas and daisies (Gazania Pectinata according to the reserve's thorough field guide) along the way. It's a focus so precise that I almost don't notice the 180-degree views of Walker Bay to the distant Cape of Good Hope, nor the changing colour of the sky as the sun dips, not even the rustle in the distance which may or may not be a honey badger stirring.

Andrea Black travelled as a guest of Grootbos and South African Airways.

TRIP NOTES

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FLY

South African Airways flies from Perth to Johannesburg daily with connections through to Cape Town, and code-shares with Virgin Australia from the eastern states. See flysaa.com

Stays at Grootbos start from ZAR10950 a night, including full board and activities. See grootbos.com

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