Cameron McMaster spent his working life in sheep-farming. As manager of the Dohne Merino Sheep Breeders' Society he travelled to farms far and wide. Many visits were in the Eastern Cape, within a few hours' journey of his home in Stutterheim. As a youngster he'd been encouraged to observe the flowers, birds and animals around him, and his later visits to sheep farms enabled him to see almost every corner of his home province and broaden his knowledge of the veld. His passion for flowers led him to begin a nursery and seed business, which he runs today, with his wife Rhoda, from their new home in Napier in the Overberg.
Since retirement, Cameron has had more time to indulge his favourite occupation of roaming the veld and the forests with eyes to the ground, recording and photographing. He is an evangelist for the summer-rainfall regions of the Eastern Cape, keen to share his knowledge with anyone who loves plants.
In recent years he has offered summer botanical tours of the Eastern Cape, staying in a mixture of hotels and guest farm accommodation in some of the most lovely, if remote, parts of the region.
Thus, one January afternoon, a group of ten from the UK and Europe assembled in Port Elizabeth. We were met by Cameron and assistant Dawie Human, himself a nurseryman and leader of botanical tours. Our group comprised three professors, a nurserywoman, two very keen amateur bulb growers and four other non-specialist enthusiasts. Over the next two weeks each of us learnt a great deal as we travelled through many of the Eastern Cape's floral biomes.
We drove first to Glen Avon , near Somerset East. Bill and Alison Brown's farm proved to be everything the November 2008 Country Life had promised, and was a handy stopping off point for a visit to the Waainek Wildflower reserve. The reserve was established by landowner Philip Erasmus with Cameron's encouragement, and has a healthy population of rare Haemanthus carneus. Its bright pink heads stud the grassland, and we were delighted to find Eucomis autumnalis and Cyrtanthus macowanii as well. The establishment of this small reserve, and its subsequent careful management, is an example of how farmers can contribute to biodiversity conservation. Neighbouring land contains populations of a very rare Disa and a Dierama, and Cameron is always on the lookout to see if new reserves can be created or small ones joined up to give better protection to the special treasures within.
We drove on through Cradock and the Commando Drift dam area. Cameron knew exactly where on the roadside we might find the stunning deep red Nerine huttoniae, and he was right. This is a spectacular amaryllid and another rare plant endemic to the region. Even Cameron had not seen it until 2003, when a prolific flowering season made botanists realise that it was more widely distributed than had been suspected.
Our next stop was at Sean and Ann Bryan's Stagger Inn, on the Carnarvon
Estate near Sterkstroom. Here we had the privilege of an excursion to the top of the Andriesberg, a dolerite dome over 2100m high. All sorts of succulent vegetation, especially crassulas, were admired, along with more showy plants such as Colchicum striatum and the spectacular heads of Brunsvigia radulosa. As we descended from the heights we admired the estate, bathed in sunlight, as an afternoon storm enveloped the distant Drakensberg.
It was the Drakensberg we were heading for Rhodes to be specific, via a
diversion to Satan's Nek and then the town of Maclear. Satan's Nek provided us with some wonderful orchids, such as Satyrium species and the bizarre and slightly disturbing Disperis renibractea, as well as beautiful grassland plants such as Zaluzianskya microsiphon. Even in the rain which came as we
approached Maclear, the giant inflorescences of Brunsvigia grandiflora and the salmon pink blooms of Gladiolus oppositiflorus on the roadsides were stunning.
We arrived, rather damply, at Caroline Reeders' Lovedale Guest Farm in
Rhodes, but were revived by a fine meal at the Rhodes Hotel. We enjoyed Caroline's own wonderful cooking the following evening after a thrilling day
exploring Naudes Nek in the sunshine. Several hours were spent dawdling through the meadows and along the road verges. The ground was spangled with rhodohypoxis and lobelia and the grassland boasted orchids such as disas, brownleeas and the extravagantly fringed Huttonaea grandiflora. Kniphofias of various colours and sizes shone out and provided the foreground for numerous wide angle shots of the rolling green pastures below. The weather held for our next excursion, this time to Tiffindell. Again the extensive views and the patchwork of colour at our feet kept our camera fingers busy. Our two Swiss members, having left behind a cold and snowy winter, were amused to view the whole of South Africa's skiing infrastructure in one glance.
Graham and Margy Frost were our hosts in Balloch. "One of the most spectacular valleys on earth", their leaflet claims. We wouldn't disagree. The green hills, interrupted by dramatic sandstone rock formations in which San rock art is common, are a wonderful place to hike. Even the Frosts' cat seemed to agree, joining us for a long pre-breakfast walk on which the plant highlight was Disa porrecta, an orange-red orchid trying very hard to look like a kniphofia. A dip in the natural pool was very welcome on another sunny afternoon. We could have spent days exploring here, but the coast was calling.
On the way, we visited Cameron's home town of Stutterheim. Thanks to Neil and Carmen Potter we were able to explore around the Quanti River near its confluence with the Great Kei. Here, in 1994, Cameron had spotted a small Cyrtanthus with flared red flowers which was unfamiliar to him. Over the next two years he explored the region, finding more specimens, whilst also
corresponding with botanical authorities about its identity. Eventually it was declared a new species and named after him. We were delighted to see not only Cyrtanthus macmasteri but also the taller Cyrtanthus obliquus with
green-tipped flowers. Three species of cycad grow here too, in a combination unique to this area.
Before returning to Port Elizabeth we spent two nights at the lovely Morgan Bay Hotel, Kei Mouth. Was this Cameron's reward to us for scrambling down kloof and krantz and prostrating ourselves in the grass to better admire another new discovery? It was certainly a delightful end to our tour. The grassy cliff-tops boasted the round heads of Kniphofia rooperi, delicate spikes of Gladiolus ochroleucus and the startling red Disa polygonoides, contrasting with the sub-tropical riverine forest where pink Crinum moorei stood a metre tall amid the clivia leaves and purple streptocarpus hung from boulders above clear brown pools. The wind blew as the Wild Coast lived up to its name, but we were happy. We'd seen so much in two weeks. Cameron had seen most of it before of course, but we'd never have guessed as we watched him grin with anticipation and excitement. And even Cameron finds something new each time. So much of the Eastern Cape flora remains to be explored.
Also see -
Andrew Lanoe's account of the East Cape Tour in February 2009
Also see - External Links (websites not on this site)
Botanizing in the Eastern Cape and Lesotho by Ellen Hornig
Gallery of Images by Michael Charters
on our tour of the Eastern Cape, January 2008.
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