DURBAN has a small piece of paradise right next to the city and local guide Vishnu Moodley is happy to reveal some of its extraordinary treasures.
This week, the Independent on Saturday team joined Moodley on a golf cart tour of Botanic Gardens and his knowledge and enthusiasm created an unforgettable experience.
The IOS team was met at the gate by Moodley, who promised to show us the rarest tree in the world, a tree that changes colour, the plant that falls asleep when touched and a tree that walks ‒ among many others in the unique collection.
Durban Botanic Gardens are the oldest surviving botanic gardens in Africa and more than 90% of the trees and plants are exotic because they were collected from around the world for possible commercial use during the early days of Durban.
The gardens cover 15ha and as we set off in the golf cart in the searing Durban humidity, the shade of the trees provided a natural coolness and sense of serenity.
Our first stop was the 86-year-old fig from the Amazon rain forest brought to the gardens in 1934. While this turned out to be a failed experiment because its fruit is only the food for a certain parrot from that part of the world, its majesty could not be mistaken as it towers at the entrance.
From there, Moodley pointed out the cannonball tree from Guyana, which smells terrible but is reputed to have “one of the most beautiful flowers in the world”. The fruit can also be used to make beer.
The pod mahogany, at 126 years old and described by Moodley as “every child’s dream”, stretches its branches in every direction, creating a maze of climbing fun.
We travel through the Garden of the Senses, where we test the scent of the first cinnamon tree which was brought to SA from Sri Lanka. And for anyone who is sight challenged, there are lots of “touch and texture” plants such as the velvet elephant leaves, or they can be enveloped by the fragrance of herbs and species, such as lemon grass and peppermint.
Then we were invited to touch the mimosa pudica, aka touch me not, as this delicate plant “falls asleep” or appears to die when even gently touched. Moodley explained it was the plant’s defence mechanism.
He proudly showed us “the loneliest man in the world” ‒ Durban’s famous Wood’s Cycad discovered in the Ongoye Forest in 1895 by John Medley Wood. The cycad is estimated to be 362 years old. It is the last of its kind in the world and is under constant video surveillance and is micro-chipped.
From there, we spot the kissing tree ‒ a favourite spot on Valentine’s Day ‒ as well as the mind-boggling walking tree, which drops “legs”. These root and so make it appear as though the tree is walking. This tree was the inspiration behind the Tree of Life “Awa” in the Avatar movie. The mother tree is in the Guinness Book of Records.
Moodley described this tree as “evolution like you cannot believe, the mother tree lives for 500 years and each leg becomes another tree and lives on” as it continues its never-ending walkabout.
We take a tour around the lake, a favourite spot for birders, and spot a southern red bishop relaxing on a lotus blossom from India. These flowers drop their petals at night and the next buds open the following morning.
We travel on to look at Jack’s fruit, a tree from India and said to bear the largest fruit in the world. It tastes like a combination of pineapple, mango and banana when it ripens ‒ although, as Moodley pointed out, it’s a favourite with the monkeys who generally get there first.
Moodley said the lake was the original Curries Fountain, a natural spring that has never dried up in the history of the gardens and where elephants once used to come to drink.
Then to the tree which drinks about 100 litres of water a day ‒ the eucalyptus deglupta from the rain forests of Papua, New Guinea. Its bark constantly changes colour from bright green to rusty reds ‒ modern art in the making.
As we relax with a cappuccino from the barista at the Gourmet Coffee barrow at the end of the tour, Moodley shows us some of the family photos which he takes of visitors on the tour.
“This place is like a Garden of Eden right next to the city. It’s such a safe environment and you can sit quietly under a tree or take a tour to discover some of these treasures,” he says.
The Golf Cart Tour is R100 for adults for a 30-minute tour and half price for children under 12 years. Family photos are taken along the tour as souvenirs.
Entrance to Botanic Gardens is free, or to book the Golf Cart Tour, contact Natasha on 074 028 6936 or email [email protected]
The Independent on Saturday