Thousands of flora native to the Cape
Fynbos: The who what where
3 December 2018 by Kiera Greenwood
It’s Dutch for “fine-leaved plants” – vague, we know – and a word that you’ll see banded about a lot when doing your pre-South-Africa-trip research, but “what actually is fynbos?” we hear you ask. Well it’s a good question. And one that has no definitive answer because ‘fynbos’ actually encompasses a whole range of diverse flora that’s native to the South Africa’s Cape Region. In fact, ‘fynbos’ could refer to any one of over seven thousand different plant species. Yep, really.
At large in the National Parks that protect it, the low, nondescript shrubbery makes for quite the unassuming tourist attraction. From a distance, we’d even go as far as to say that you’d be struggling to hide your disappointment. Why on earth is it spoken so highly of then? Well, get up in the thick of it and what appeared to be so uniformly green and brown from a distance becomes anything but upon closer inspection. Vivacious pinks, oranges, yellows and reds mark out the varying proteas that vie for your attention, whilst the minute flowers of the humble restios (cape reeds) define this vegetation’s presence.
The sheer diversity of the plants that make up a fynbos patchwork is astounding. The whole of Europe put together may grow 20 differing types of heather, but when you realise that the Cape’s fynbos – that only covers 6.7% of the country’s diverse landscapes – includes a whopping 652 (mostly endemic) types of the same plant, its unique qualities start to speak for themselves.
It’s thanks to fynbos that the Western Cape is both the world’s smallest and richest floral kingdom in the world, its biodiversity beating that of the world’s rainforests – even the Amazon. But due to destruction of their habitats, the spread of alien plants and unsustainable picking, a lot of fynbos has become extremely rare of recent years – with a near 2000 types on the brink of extinction. In light of this, fynbos is actually one of the world’s most improbable UNESCO World Heritage Sites. So yes, it really is one for the bucket-list.
Although now struggling through no fault of its own, fynbos consists of extremely hardy vegetation (able to endure cold winds, a baking sun and very little water) which is why these endemic species have survived for so long without human intervention. And interestingly, rather than being decimated by fire, like much vegetation often is, fynbos uses fire to spread its seeds, so actually thrives from the destruction. So, are they tough enough to defeat the odds you ask. Hell yes, their tuss – er we mean tough – enough. And with all of South Africa now rooting for their survival, the fynbos certainly looks like it’s here to stay.
Oh, and don’t forget to look out for the country’s national flower – spot the mammoth crown of distinctive petals that make up a King Protea and you’ve basically spotted the lion of a plant safari. All sounds a bit mad, doesn’t it? But if one thing’s for sure, green-fingered or not, fynbos will have you fanatical about flowers in no time.
Best places in the Western Cape to see fynbos
Table Mountain National Park
When you think South Africa, it’s likely that a few things come to mind immediately: safaris, wine and Table Mountain. It’s the most iconic sight in the country, so of course a trip up to Table Mountain’s flat peak is on the top of your to-do list, which, luckily for you, means ticking off that all important fynbos sighting too. Stretching from Cape Town’s Signal Hill all the way along the peninsula to Cape Point – Africa’s very southwestern point – the undulating mountains and cliff-top plains of Table Mountain National Park are practically carpeted in the stuff. And with 1,500 plant species residing on the verdant slopes of the Table Mountain alone, you won’t even have to stray from the Mother City to see your fair share of this UNESCO listed attraction.
Perhaps more well known for its verdant vineyards and divine wine offerings, pretty Franschhoek is also home to a whole lot of fynbos. Think miles of the “fine-leaved plants” stretching as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the regimented rows of wine estate vines that groan under the weight of their plump grapes. If nature is your thing, head to Mont Rochelle Nature Reserve and make the climb to either of its peaks for views of Franschhoek’s fynbos blanketed valley that are nothing short of spectacular.
Garden Route National Park
Ah, the Garden Route. There’s something so incredibly special about this scenic road trip. And, encompassing various parks, a stop in the Garden Route National Park is guaranteed to reward with plenty of fynbos sightings. So, if you’re thinking a flower safari may just be right up your street then the wilds of this incredible route should be your go-to. Between fynbos and forests you’ll be in for a treat. For reefs, rivers and dramatic coastal scenery to accompany your search for delicate fynbos, Tsitsikamma National Park is our favourite.
Wherever and however you see it, fynbos is crucial to understanding South Africa’s natural world history. After sighting miles upon miles of this unique vegetation, you’re soon able to imagine a time when cities were non-existent and lions ruled the lands that are now only protected by national parks in pockets today. The wild and hardy character of these “fine-leaved plants” encompasses the spirit of this country as a whole. Holidaying here will show you how to get back to life’s basics and appreciate the all the finite details that make our planet so special. And fynbos is one of those details. Promise.