The secret forest

2009-09-19 00:00

IF you drive out of Howick on the Karkloof Road the tar eventually gives way to dirt and the roads change from “N” for “national­” familiar to a city dweller, to “D” for “district road”. Then you take the D583 that clambers up and down the hills and bends and twists like a ride on a dragon’s tail. Just when you get to where cellphones don’t reach and you think that you are beyond the bounds of civilisation (i.e. finding a decent cappuccino), you come upon a treasure that must surely be another of the marks of cultured society: a garden.

Benvie Arboretum is a 30-hectare piece of paradise that has been in the Geekie family for six generations, since 1882 when it was purchased by the founder John Geekie. A cabinet-maker from Dundee who came out from Scotland in 1856 aged 20, bought and sold timber, and became a successful Pietermaritzburg businessman. The garden is named after the parish in Scotland where he worshipped.

Geekie bought the land that is now Benvie for its south-west orientation in the high-rainfall mist belt. He set about establishing an arboretum that is like a small piece of foggy Scotland transported to misty KwaZulu-Natal. He completed the task in five years, 1882 to1887. To understand how astounding that feat was, you have to appreciate that it wasn’t just a Saturday morning’s work involving a trip to a nursery in a 4x4. After all, it was the 1880s, not the 1980s.

He had seedlings brought by ship from all over the world, transported from Durban to Merrivale by train and finally taken to Benvie by oxwagon. Conifers were brought from Inverness in Scotland and hydrangeas, magnolias and other flowering trees from Birkmams Nursery in Augusta, Georgia, which is now the golf course where the U.S. Masters tournament is played. The garden has cedars from Japan­, Gingko bilobas and Dawn Redwoods from China and Grass Trees from Australia. Geekie also obtained azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons from the Botanic Garden in Durban. Thanks to his vision, the garden boasts numerous large specimens of trees more than 120 years old and azalea varieties “impossible to count”.

According to Jenny Robinson, great-granddaughter of the founder, Benvie is probably the largest exotic garden in the southern hemisphere, and certainly the largest in South Africa. She and husband John live at Benvie where she manages the garden and runs the timber farm.

Geekie did the landscaping himself, which includes a series of four small lakes, avenues of stately trees, meandering walks of flowering shrubs and flowing lawns. “He planned it well,” Robinson said, “making sure there are big open spaces to let you appreciate the trees, especially their size. Many varieties of azaleas have been produced from the four to five main groups originally imported. These include unusual varieties, like Japanese deciduous mollises that vary from yellow to salmon pink through orange and scented Ghent varieties from Belgium. One of the Australian Grass Trees in the garden featured in Thomas Pakenham’s book on Exceptional Trees of Southern Africa.

“Benvie is also a recognised birding site on the southern KZN birding route and is home to 170 varieties. The birds here include the Orange Ground-Thrush, Cape Parrot, White-starred Robin, Chorister Robin-Chat, Knysna Turaco, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Grey Cuckooshrike, Narina Trogon, Forest Buzzard, Bush Blackcap, Lemon Dove and Buff-spotted Flufftail. We have had visitors from all over the world who come to enjoy the birdlife or the garden, and sometimes both.”

Pepper Provenzano said: “When you plant a tree, you plant a legacy”. This is certainly true of Benvie, which the Robinsons hope will remain as John Geekie’s legacy to many more generations to come.

Benvie will be open to the public from September 20 to October 4. Find it 65 km from Pietermaritzburg and 35 km from Howick on the Karkloof Road. Entrance fee: R20 per person. Call Jenny and John Robinson at 033 502 9090.

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