In January, if you had asked me what I expected my favorite Semester at Sea field program to be, I think I might have answered my trek in Sapa or perhaps my Fez & Blue City tour; but after traveling through 10 countries on 22 different SAS field programs, my favorite travel experience was a botanical safari In South Africa’s Fynbos.
Yes, looking at plants was my favorite memory from 4 months of travel with Semester at Sea.
Before you close out your browser window in boredom with my plant talk, hear me out about why I loved my botanic safari so much. There aren’t that many places that really surprise me anymore, but this was one of them.
I had no idea that South Africa was home to one of the world’s floral kingdoms. Essentially, a floral kingdom is a group of flora species that exhibit similar characteristics and there are only 6 in the world. For example, all of North America is one floral kingdom. The floral kingdom of South Africa is most frequently referred to locally as the Fynbos, which essentially translate to “Fine Bush.”
What is special about South Africa’s floral kingdom? Well, it is that it is the smallest kingdom (by a lot) but it is also the densest. There are over 9,000 species of endemic (native) plants in this area, and new species are still being discovered every year.
What that means by comparison is that there is more biodiversity in the tiny tip of South Africa than the entire island of Great Britain.
I had no expectations going in and was completely blown away by the incredible natural scenery of the Fynbos landscape. Looking at the Fynbos from a distance, it just looks like a barren, arid landscape, like what you might see in the Mediterranean.
But as you get closer and really start looking, you see that it is a complex network of shrubs, flowers, plants and trees that are all intertwined to create a blanket of vegetation over the landscape.
The Fynbos is truly stunning up-close. There are so many different colors and textures, all coexisting together in a harmonious dependent ecosystem — and all of them are probably plants you’ve never seen or heard of before. It’s incredible.
The guides for our botanic safari were resident botanists and entomologists who had such a breadth and depth of knowledge about the Fynbos. There were so many species to learn about and new species are still being discovered every year. For example, it is thought that for each known plant, there are 7 unknown species of insect that depend on this plant to thrive.
I also found a new favorite flower, the Protea. This is one of South Africa’s national symbols so I hardly “discovered” it, but I learned a lot about the different species of proteas that exist in South Africa. I found proteas beautiful but also really interesting. Their seed pods can harden and live for 5 years as they wait for the next wildfire to come. They also have a special species of bird, the sugar bird, that pollinates it.
One of the things that I found particularly fascinating about this ecosystem is its dependence on wildfire. I knew that there were wildfire-dependent biodiversity zones like this around the world, but I never really understood what that meant.
In the Fynbos, there are species of bugs and plants that only appear after a fresh fire. They can only be seen for maybe a few weeks or months after a fire and then lay dormant until the next fire which can be 10 to 15 years later. Scientists still don’t entirely understand how the plants know when to appear, but they suspect there is a chemical that triggers growth that only appears in the post-fire environment.
Furthermore, the Fynbos cannot be replanted or recreated. It depends on a complex root system and dormant seeds that aren’t well understood by botanists. Once a section of Fynbos is ripped up for something like farming or residential reasons, it can never be recovered. The Fynbos can only grow as a wild, native-growth system.
Another reason why I loved my time in the Fynbos was the silence. When you live on a ship, everything is artificial and everything is noisy. There is always a sound, always a vibration, always an engine rumbling away to keep you moving forward. Which I found deeply comforting; I sleep like a baby on the water. But it also means that there is no where to be silent, nowhere to be alone.
I didn’t realize how much I missed the feeling of solitude until I was in the Fynbos. The dense vegetarian absorbs all of the man-made sounds of modern life, and replaces them with the trills of birds and insects, the rustling of leaves in the wind and organic sounds of a quiet wilderness. It was so restorative. We did a silent meditation session under a blanket of trees which was one of my single favorite moments from the entire voyage because we got to simply listen and be silent.
The Fynbos is a deeply threatened ecosystem as more land owners make the decision to switch to agriculture, so NGOs focus on telling the unique stories of this ecosystem to entice property owners to endow the land into trusts for protection and preservation.
All of my experiences in the Fynbos were coordinated by the Grootbos Foundation, a local conservation NGO in this region of South Africa. Grootbos Foundation is the non-profit arm of the Grootbos Nature Reserve, a private luxury eco-lodge and resort in the heart of the Fynbos. The foundation is funded by profits from the resort in order to preserve and conserve this unique natural resource.
The resort itself is one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World and sits on a stunning piece of land overlooking Walker Bay, which is home to one of the largest communities of Western Right Whales. You’ll pay a pretty penny to stay there but I can imagine it would be a magical few days. Our visit was coordinated through the foundation’s volunteering and internship program, so we actually stayed in their volunteer lodge on a different part of the property. In my opinion, it was a luxe volunteer center with its own private lake and trails to explore the Fynbos.
Grootbos Foundation was probably my most impactful experience on Semester at Sea because it showed me something special both in the Fynbos ecosystem, but also in their interesting business model. By funneling profits from their luxury resort into their conservation work, Grootbos gives back to the community in which they work while also inspiring their high-end guests, who may not be passionate about environmental sustainability, to care for the environment in which they’re staying.
Although a botanic safari might not be as exciting as searching for the Big 5 on a game reserve, I think it is a meaningful and worthwhile experience to have while traveling in South Africa. It will open your eyes to a pristine corner of the world that is unlike anywhere else you’ve ever seen and hopefully, will give you a new appreciation for the importance of local conservation.