Author Archives: fynbosblog

A Fynbos Safari

This is it!  The spring explosion.  A few weeks ago little Babiana fragrens was the mere harbinger of spring and now the mountain is covered in thousands of blooms.  We had Peter’s daughter to stay with her fiance on Saturday night and friends who are avid Fynbos Blog followers, so on Sunday morning after a restorative breakfast, we took them up the mountain for the year’s first Fynbos Safari.

With the spring came the wind: all night and well into the day we were torn into by howling, screaming, chimney rattling winds.  You’d think you wouldn’t be able to stand, yet when you are on the mountain you often find shelter – some parts are exposed of course, but often you find yourself on a path in the lee and a fine spring day emerges.

We strolled and chatted and pointed flowers out to one another.  We saw at least twice as many as are posted here – an endless variety of gorgeous things.  When I go home to Ireland I am amazed by the lushness, but find that I miss the diversity.  An Irish hedgerow is a beautiful thing, but five metres of fynbos will yield an endless variety of life from the hard unpromising landscape.

Rather than talk my way through every flower I have put most in galleries and if you click on the gallery, or the picture, you will find the name of the flower.  That said, the first is Leucodendron tincta.  Only a couple of posts ago I put up the pale lime-yellow flower and promised to post the same when it took on it’s spring colour – here it is: magnicifent and parts of the mountain glow with this stunning terracotta, pinky coral.

Another wonderful sight from the Protea family is the lovely Leucospermum lineare, that rare and delicate flower known as “The Vulnerable”.  It seems to be thriving – several new plants have seeded themselves over the years that we’ve lived here, and they have come within reach and easier to photograph.

Ericas are inevitable – with many more to come when I return from a trip overseas.  We’ve seen this one before, it’s prolific on the farm.


Erica imbricata

The real joy of the spring flowering is the bulbs which come in so many variations.  This is only a small selection of what we saw.  Hopefully some that we couldn’t capture in the howling wind will still be there when I get home.

A few more flowers deserve mention – they are everywhere on the mountain, illuminating our runs with little splashes of delight.

Typically with so much happening on the mountain, I am boarding a plane.  When I get back in a week there will be a whole new world of flowers to report on.

A highveldt run

This morning’s run was at an altitude of 1700 metres. Johannesburg is a city of trees built on rolling hills on a high plateau in the middle of South Africa where the rocks were once filled with gold and the plains hosted huge herds of antelope and other game. Both are now gone, replaced by a vibrant African city that epitomises everything good, and bad, about the new South Africa.

None of that mattered particularly on the run this morning. Fellow runners came in all shapes, sizes and colours, as did the impatient drivers in their flashy SUVs breaking the traffic laws, driving straight through the red lights and making road crossings highly hazardous for a country runner like me. The spring has broken through here, birds busily building nests in all those trees, gardens blooming with early flowers.  As I ran along the suburban streets up the final hill, lungs heaving in the oxygen depleted air and on the point of giving up, The Boss came on the headphones and told me we were “Born to Run”.  Up came the head, out went the chest and I sucked in the thin air and pushed up the hill triumphantly kicking with my heels.  One step closer to fitness.

Back on the farm rain and mild weather have brought in the spring with the first flowering bulbs, the crocus like Babinia fragrens. A veritable trove of light and colour is everywhere, the crisp lime green of the leucodendrons, the brilliant scarlet of Microloma tenufolio climbing through the branches of Mulratia heisteria, the delicate lilac of Morea tripetala, the endless tiny bells of many different Ericas in assorted pastels and much more that has emerged in the last month.

It has been a week of travel, in Geneva and Johannesburg. I am already looking forward to Monday morning, and a damp cool run with the wolfhounds to see what’s flowering next.

Coral colours Microloma tenufolia climbs through the branches of Muraltia heisteria

Coral colours Microloma tenufolia climbs through the branches of Muraltia heisteria

Morea tripetala, like a tiny tiny Iris, grows along the drive, and in other cool damp places

Morea tripetala, like a tiny tiny Iris, grows along the drive, and in other cool damp places

A Flight of Flamingos

I read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia when I was still a teenager.  The book is about his time with the communists in Barcelona fighting against Franco.  He describes a time when the communists were the most right wing group in the city as the anarchist movement took hold and there are memorable descriptions of what anarchy might actually look like in terms of politics and non-adminstration.  He moves up to fight Franco’s army in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains where he is shot through the throat.  As they evacuate him on a stretcher, dripping with blood and certain he is going die, the leaves of a silver poplar tree brush against his face.  “How lucky”, he thinks, “I am to be alive in a world where silver poplars grow.”  There were silver poplars along the lane I rode down most days as an Irish teenager and those words often came to mind.  One morning last week I was up early and driving to the stables to ride here in South Africa.  The valley was dark but the sun was just climbing over the mountain behind me and as it climbed it caught in its fiery dawn light a flock of flamingos flying in stately formation overhead, brilliantly pink, astonishing and uncommon, even here.  How lucky I am, I thought, to live in a world where I can see a flight of flamigos in the dawn.

And this morning, running with the dogs, I saw this.  Despite the dry winter and then the  torrents of rain last Friday, this brilliant coral-red Gladiolus watsonius has chosen to emerge in the winter cold.  The wind was howling today and I could not get a great shot, but it is too good not to share.  Last year we saw it in June, the same plant, and got a wonderful shot of it which I’ve included here.  The slightly shabbier ones are from today.

After a wild and windy day the sunset last night was magnificent.  Occasionally, just for a moment, the entire mountain behind us is light by the flooding last light of the sunset.  I usually miss the moment.  Last night it happened just as I pulled into the car park and I sprinted down to the dam wall just in time to capture it.

Dawn Run

Dawn Run.  Until today those words evoked a racehorse, an Irish mare so famous that she is commemorated in bronze at Cheltenham Racecourse.  In a totally different context the words came to me this morning as I trotted down the drive and saw the pink tinge to the cloud across the valley against the Paarl Mountain.

The start of the Dawn Run

The start of the Dawn Run

The number one rule of a blog is frequent updates to keep your audience interested.  If I still have an audience I apologise to you.  The point of this blog is to share the morning run and the flowers on the mountain.  The long end of summer and autumn drought means far fewer flowers than in previous years.  A newcomer would still be astonished by the nature and variety our winter flowering season, old hands like us are a little disapointed by the lack of profusion.  The other restraint might be that I’m doing a lot of writing:  first, a book.  I think it might be a good one too, though I am a little daunted at the challenge of finding a publisher.  Secondly a new business and the need to develop a more business related “online presence”.  All that means a lot of writing and perhaps the blog has suffered because of that.

Even with fewer flowers this mountain rewards every run.  The winter has been odd, a bit too dry, a bit too mild.  Out running that’s not bad at all.  Seamus in particular relishes winter, even a mild one, and gets a new lease of life when summer’s heat gives way to the autumn cool.  He’s an old boy now but he lights up when the running shoes come out.  The girls are always enthusiastic; they put up an antelope again the other day.  Luckily their passion for hunting far outweighs any skills they may have.  Other signs of life include porcupine quills on the road, and little holes where he digs up the wild bulbs during the night.  We can spare them and I love that while we sit in the study in front of a winter fire, high up on the mountain the porcupine snuffles along the road where we will run in the morning.

Flowers there are and we’ve taken the time to capture them.  Witness the first Leucospermum lineare of the year.  This lovely pincushion, known as “The Vulnerable” and a member of the protea family, is endangered so it’s wonderful that it grows here.  Even better that this one comes from a new plant, so it’s thriving on the farm.  There will be more photos of this as the flowers appear over the coming months.

Leucospermum lineare "The Vulnerable"

Leucospermum lineare “The Vulnerable”

More of the Eriocephalus africanus, the wild rosemary, is appearing at last.  Not as prolific as in other years, but some are covered with these gorgeous tiny white flowers.

Our winter jewels especially include the many varieties of Oxalis whose brilliant flowers stud the banks, the lands and the olive groves.

The waterfall is low, but still falling and beautiful on a weekend morning.  Near it grows the magnificent Protea Nitida.  Not so many flowers this year and not so easy to get close enough to take good pictures as they seem to like steep slopes.

Another winter delight is Leucospermum salignum.  The flowers are a wonderful yellow lime green and the plants glow on the mountain in the dull light of a winter dawn.  The male and female flowers are completely different but the shrubs like to grow side by side.

Wolfhounds in the mist

April was the driest since 1952.  And May won’t be far behind it, certainly the first half.  I have always seen the month of May here on the mountain as a kind of mini-spring, an awakening of the land after the long dry crackling heat of the summer.  Not this year.  We have permanent streams on the farm, pouring out of the mountain above us in a flow that most often roars but that trickles now.  The dams below us are emptying, a worrying sign; it will take the entire winter’s rains to replenish some of the biggest.  There are flowers, there are always flowers here; the proteas I have already posted continue to flourish, impervious to the water requirements of other, lesser plants.  And a few plants flower all year round, like the gorsey Mulraltia heisteria.  At this time of year there should be thousands of Oxalis, of many different varieties littering every bank, every part of the lands, every flourishing spot.  There are hardly any.

At last the drought has broken.  For the first time we have had a dull cloudy week with actual rain.  Not masses of rain, but light, steady, falling through the night, showering through the days.  There is heavy rain forecast next week and every farmer in the province must be praying that this massed gathering of life-bearing cloud does not disappear off into the southern oceans but this time hits us fair and square.  Those in Cape Nature whose task it is to clean up after the massive fires on Table Mountain will feel more ambiguously.  They need the rain to help the fynbos recover, of course.  But their biggest concern is the massive and almost inevitable landslides that will be the result of the dry, brittle, burnt soil with nothing to hold it to the mountain.  Meanwhile our dogs love the damp misty weather.  Maebh, caught in the early morning mist here looks like an impressionist painting.

Maebh in the early morning mist

Maebh in the early morning mist

Just before leaving for New York a couple of weeks ago I caught a glimpse of something pretty and pink high on the bank above the drive.  It had almost finished flowering.  I think it was a Nerine but it was too high and too far for me to confirm it.

This on the other hand is highly distinctive.  Chironia baccifera,known as the Christmas berry it gives us the lovely mass of pink flowers that I posted in December and then these red berries in the autumn.

Chrionia baccifera

Chrionia backfire

Running up the mountain in the mist I saw at last that the wild rosemary is coming into flower.  The tiny white flowers are exquisite and will appear soon in this blog.  It is worth waiting for the right light and the right shot.  They are among the first shrubs to flower and then delight the eye for months during the winter, covering the lands in white confetti.  I’m sure there will be some to blog about soon.  The other little harbinger of hope that I saw was a few green leaves of Babinia that had broken through the hard, sun-battered earth of the road as I ran towards home.  By now these are usually everywhere, little bulbs preparing to throw out their beautiful blue crocus-like flowers in late July and early August.  Still, even one is a good sign.

In the meantime this is a place of spectacular beauty.  The moon sets in the early morning behind Paarl Mountain.  The sun sets behind the Paaderburg and the last splash of colour is reflected in the dwindling dams below us.  This is a beautiful place, autumn replaces the winds of summer with a still calm that brings thoughts of cathedrals and holy places, here on the mountain.

Back on the Run

A combination of trips away and what my father used to call the dreaded lurgy have kept me off the mountain.  Indeed many things have conspired against blog updates in the past few weeks but none so much as the weather.  Almost the end of April and still not a drop of rain beyond a couple of localised showers.  This may not be the first time it’s happened but its the first time since we’ve been on the farm.  We have permanent water here, but it’s slowing down to a trickle yet this spongey, water-filled mountain range must feed the whole of Cape Town in the dry weather.  Dams are half full; which is fine, if it rains soon.  There is nothing beyond a drop or two in the 10 day forecast.

So after two exceptional years this could be a poor one for flowers on the mountain.  By now we usually see the first signs of winter bulbs to come, the pushing up of determined leaves breaking through the hard summer burned soil as the first rains arrive.  This year, nothing.  The runs and flowers inspire this blog; we may be in for a slow year.

Some shrubs have to flower now, it is their season.  Despite the dry, there are signs of life. Senecio pubigerus is out this year with more determination than flourish.

The quality of today’s photos is not fantastic, I’ve been playing with the iphone’s camera and clearly got these exposures wrong.

The Phylica (I never know which one this is) though less prolific than usual is starting to show, .

The Selago corymbosa is doing better.  It likes damp areas and where there is seeping water it is flowering away quite happily.

This is new, I don’t think I’ve posted it before.  I suspect it’s Monopsis though I’m not convinced it’s Monopsis lutea, the more common variety.

Monopsis (lutea?)

Monopsis (lutea?)

The one dazzling display is the Protea Repens which seems not to mind the harshness of the elements.  Every plant is covered in bees.  A delight and a sign that life goes on, no matter how tough the conditions.

I took the dogs for a walk at sunset tonight.  Despite the lateness of the season the air still holds the last vestiges of summer, mild with that hint of warmth and faintly dusty, it envelops the skin like silk.  The atmostphere on a still evening is hard to describe, the great mountain protecting our back and the glorious evening light to the west.  As we walked the sun set over the Paardeberg and I took photos of the changing sky.

The Day After the Hottest Day

Yesterday, March 2nd 2015, was the hottest day in Cape Town for 100 years.  Fires raged on the Cape Penninsula and we could do nothing but think of our poor friends all over the Cape evacuating their homes, of the animals that had to be evacuated and of the wildlife on the mountains that must be suffering terribly.  In many areas all that is left is a bare lunar landscape.  This blog is dedicated to all our friends who have been battling the fires for the last three days.

All the more terrifying because we live on a mountain that is overdue a big fire, and beside a huge pine forest.  As we worried about our friends yesterday a small fire broke out on our mountain, but was quickly contained by our local fire services.

The strange weather has contributed; on Sunday this wild windy sunset light the sky, and was followed by unbelievable howling winds that stripped the young olives off our trees.  The wind howled all day on Monday and then dropped in the evening, to be followed yesterday by a day of searing heat all over the province.  We quite often get temperatures of over 40 degrees down in the valley, but almost never here on the mountain.  It was 42 all over the Cape yesterday, even here on the farm at 5 pm as we wound down from a long hot day.

As quickly as the heat appeared it was gone.  This morning was remarkably cool and I went for a long run with the dogs.  The sky was cloudy and drops of rain spat from the sky. This weather is most bizzare.  There are not many flowers on the mountain, but some signs of life to come all the same.  A pink tipped Protea Repens and a Pelargonium that can flower all the year round but still amazing that this plant should choose this hottest driest month to show it’s enchanting face.

Pelargonium myrrhifolium var myrrhifolium

Pelargonium myrrhifolium var myrrhifolium

The air was still and cool but the remains of the great heat still came as a powerful beat from the earth; there is no proper rain in the forecast and we can only pray that the Gods are kind to us and that fire does not come to claim us this year.

Writer’s block

For several weeks now I’ve been wondering why I haven’t written a blog.  After all I’ve been running on the mountain, in fact my fitness is pretty good. The dogs and I have had several splendid morning and evening runs.  The weather is fabulous for us – this has been the coolest summer we’ve spent on the farm and dogs and humans have relished it.  We love the sun, but extremes, often as high as 40 degrees, can be harsh.  I did go to Europe for work a couple of weeks ago – to a freezing cold and rather depressing Paris, a city I dearly love but which was in mourning not only for Charlie Hebdo but for the loss of freedom that accompanies terrorism.  The weather was as bleak as the mood although a cancelled meeting meant some rewarding shopping and one or two excellent dinners helped cheer me up.

So why no blog?  The question resolved itself yesterday when I was running on the top road.  At this time of year the flowers die back – the middle of summer here is like the winter elsewhere, with little new growth.  The point of this blog is to share the amazing beauty and variety of flowers that grow here on the farm.  And the flowers hide from the heat and the harsh sunlight.

Then yesterday I saw a splendid flash of pink at my feet.  An Erica had burst into flower.  Of course there are 660 fynbos subspecies of Erica, so they are not always easy to identify, and lots of them have pretty pink bells like this one.  Given the season and the dark pink flowers this could be Erica pulchella.  Tiny and absolutely lovely.

The other flower that is in full bloom is this yellow pea called Aspalathus divaricata Subs divaricata (Franschhoek form).  A long name to describe a pretty rambling Cape Gorse that flowers in the driest period of the year.

Although there are few flowers, there is plenty of life stirring and getting going.  The Leucadendron salignum which lights up the mountain on dark winter days with it’s lime green colour is putting out new reddish pink growth at the moment.  And the Protea repens, the most common Protea on the farm, are covered in sticky buds, just about to flower – indeed the very first flowers have just emerged.  Could it be a sign of early rains to come?  They always flower before the first rains.  We had a cloudy morning the other day – it’s rare and pleasant at this time of year, and the new growth coloured the mountain.

Then there are the shining grasses.  As we drive down the road in the evening the light floods the new vines planted just below our neighbours house and the grasses literally dazzle the eye in pink and white.  I sent this photo to our neighbour and she commented that “they shouldn’t be there” so I daresay that next year the grass will be cleared and this extraordinary display of light will disapear.  For the next few months these shining grasses line the roads and catch the light in a display of pink and white luminosity;  I absolutely love them.

Other excitement included the dogs putting up a tiny duiker who shot up the mountain and then ducked behind a buchu plant.  The girls were giving chase and didn’t even glance at its hiding place and I pretended to see nothing and continued up the mountain.  Not long afterwards the girls were still gamboling in the lands and a glossy chestnut coloured rhebok jumped out in front of us.  Seamus was just ahead of me, but supervising the girls and although she was only a couple of feet from him, she looked at us in astonishment and leapt for cover so quickly that he didn’t even see her.  Or pretended not to.  So much for being a sighthound.

Maebh on the hunt

Maebh on the hunt

The sunsets are often incredible.  On that cloudy day the dying rays caught the cloud above the dam and turned it perfectly pink, which was then reflected in the water, a perfect end to another wonderful day at home in Africa.


Back on the run

Just when all is going swimmingly, and I’m bouncing up the mountain with two in-laws who are both 20 years younger than me but not running any faster… then…. splat!  We went to a fabulous New Year’s Eve party and of course I can never resist wearing high heels at a party.  I’m not very tall, you see, which is a nuisance at parties.  And it was a farm party so I wore wedges which are comfortable on the gravel and in the grass.  Only you are not supposed to dance on unlevel fields in wedges.  The music started, a gorgeous if rather drunken German friend invited me to dance and off we went.  Then off I went, off the high wedge, over on my ankle and into the “ouch” zone.  Sprained ankles are the most common of atheletes injuries apparently, so I will just tell you that horrific though it was – incredibly painful, swollen and black and blue – I followed the rules: rest, ice, compression (ie bandaging) and ice.  And took the anti-inflamatories for the first couple of days when it was really sore.  And used a wonderful patch anti-inflamatory called “Transact”.  Finally I bought a tailor made magnetic bandage to wear at night to stimulate the healing further.

The splendid result of all that is that I’m back on the run only two weeks later, with an ankle that is almost completely back to normal.   AND, importantly, I danced with gusto at the wedding.  Ola, the new daughter-in-law was cross enough to lose her running companion; she’d never have forgiven me if I’d failed to dance at her wedding.

Meanwhile despite one lovely night of respite from the heat when it poured with rain for four or five hours the mountain is dry and not much thrives in the dry summer weather.  I can see the proteas preparing for the winter – new growth at the tips and the green buds of pinky white Protea Repens flowers already showing – they are the first to come through, before the rains.

Quite a few shrubs flower all year round and Erica abetiana is one that really seems to thrive when it gets properly hot.  This one lives on the driveway and gives us a glorious flash of coral red as we drive up.

Erica abietana

Erica abietana

Another perennial flower is the Salvia africana – the blue flowers are a delight all over the mountain and the flowering is prolific now. I keep posting it – I love Salvia’s and particularly this one that thrives in the heat and dust of the Cape summer.

Salvia africana

Salvia africana

We have migratory birds who visit the farm year after year and in particular one buzzard who likes to keep watch from the tall pine trees in front of the house.  He seems to tease the dogs when we run down the drive – as we pass his tree he drops of and flies down the valley along side us – calling in either outrage or amusement.  He is a magnificent bird and we always believed him to be a Steppe Buzzard.  We were having lunch after the wedding with Peter’s cousin, Yvonne, who is a devoted twitcher and when we pointed out a similar bird she said, “you know it could be a Honey buzzard, they are very special and I know they live around here.”  We go home and look it up – the Steppe buzzard hardly calls when he’s here, whereas our bird yells out all the time.  I play the call of the Honey buzzard and sure enough, that’s it.  I know Yvonne is good but how does she perfectly identify a bird she hasn’t even seen?  Birds are tricky when compared to Fynbos flowers. There are only about 800 to be seen in “Southern” Africa (and Yvonne has seen almost all of them) while there are 660 Fynbos subspecies of Erica alone.  Flowers however have one massive advantage; they don’t fly away just as you think you’ve got the salient features and might be able to identify them.

The dogs of course are thrilled to be back to running (and will equally be devastated when I get on a plane to Paris in a couple of days time).  Though the light was quite poor I cannot resist sharing this little gallery of Maebh on an evening hunt.  She is all power and muscle, a wonderfully fit and agile wolfhound.

Finally, appropriately, a sunset.  They are stunning at this time of year when fires rage in the Cape and the smoke diffuses the light in a wind-ravaged sky.

Fiery sunset

Fiery sunset

The result

Christmas, a wedding, and a little contemplation

Christmas and a house full of family and friends.  Running on the mountain continues with a bride (Peter’s son gets married on 8 Jan and they are staying with us) who is keen to keep her figure elegant through the Christmas indulgence so the running is serious and the opportunities to stop and take pictures infrequent at best.  We’ve been running through the pine forest that adjoins the farm; in the warm summer weather the stately silence of the trees and the dappled cool of the forest is a welcome break from the heat and the wind.  Because the dogs get protective I tend not to run in the forest except on Sunday mornings and at Christmas when the foresters take a break.

We did a farm run for a change this morning and saw this Tritoniopsis burchellii; the guests were good enough to wait while I snapped it.  I’ve been waiting for it to flower – I first saw it last year about this time.  They are an incredible shade of scarlet that seems almost surreal on this photo.

Tritoniopsis burchellii

Tritoniopsis burchellii

The Salvia africana is also in full bloom on the mountain – it flowers beautifully all year round and I can never resist taking a shot of it when the light is good.

After I posted the Gladiolus liliaceus before Christmas quite a few more came out above the waterfall and we went back up to take some photos of better flowers.  Peter came with me once again, the dogs followed.  We spent a happy half an hour finding the best flowers.  I took a shot of the same flower in the morning to show how remarkably they open up in the evening light.  The dogs of course take great delight in watching our antics.

Seamus and Maebh watching Peter as he inspects the fynbos flowers

Seamus and Maebh watching Peter as he inspects the fynbos flowers

It’s a funny time of year this.  We love it, there are great friends who come to stay and family as well.  The house is full of noise and this year, Peter’s first grandchild.  There is a tinge of sadness as well.  Most of the precious people I’ve lost have gone between the middle of December and the end of January.  It’s a well known phenomenon that people pass away at Christmas, for many reasons and all of them different.  So in the celebration and coming together there is also sadness, regret and reflective moments.  Loss.  These days are busy and full of treats and fun.  As we run on the mountain with the dogs bounding after Ola who bounces along ahead like the resident klipspringers, tiny antelopes with spongy feet that allow them to spring across the rocks, I follow and in the beauty of these mountains I think of those who have departed, and quietly remember them.  Not always sadly; there is pleasure in the memories, they are gone but they were wonderful and we were lucky to have known them.

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