Botanizing on South African farms
The purpose of this page is to make foreign tourists (especially from the USA) aware of how to travel to South Africa to see succulent plants – and all other nature subjects – in habitat. We know that many Americans are very hesitant to travel to Africa in general, including South Africa. There are some adjustments to make – for sure – like driving on the “wrong” side of the road, but after a few days travel in South Africa this becomes second nature. We hope this farm information encourages more individuals to travel to South Africa on their own.
We should note that we have not visited these farms as part of an organized tour. We used booking engines such as Safarinow.com or contacted the owners directly via email. Prices at these farms are very reasonable – considering the amazing habitats literally at our doorsteps and the comfortable and very private cottages. Certainly, they were much less expensive than in the US for comparable lodging.
We have been visiting South Africa since 2002 and we never tire of returning. Our first two visits in 2002 and 2004 were work-related and on those occasions we took 2 weeks after work to visit succulent habitats, primarily in the western part of the country. In 2007 we returned for two weeks to the Cape area and we also drove to Namibia to spend several more weeks. Finally we returned to South Africa for longer trips in 2013 and twice in 2015. In 2013 we made two important “discoveries”. The first was the availability of 4×4’s fully equipped for off-road exploration (including roof top tent, refrigerator, cooking fuel and utensils, table, chairs, dual batteries, dual spare tires, extended range fuel tanks). After three rentals from Bushtrackers we shamelessly recommend them. The second discovery was the existence of fully-equipped cottages on many South African farms. These two discoveries have reshaped our travel strategy in southern Africa.
South Africa is a succulent-rich country yet there are relatively few reserves that focus on protecting succulent plants compared with the many reserves that protect larger (and often dangerous) game animals. Many good habitats to see succulents are on private land. And botanizing the South African roadsides is not easy, since fences along most roads tend to be very sturdy and the best habitat is (naturally) on the other side of the fence – on private property. There is little land in South Africa comparable to the easily accessible public lands of US National Forests or those of the US Bureau of Land Management. Staying on large farms allows for relaxed and rewarding exploration of the succulent flora as well as any fauna that might be present.
Large South African farms are comparable to “ranches” in the US – except that sheep are more common than cattle on most South African farms. Many farms are working farms, and usually rent anywhere from one to four or more cottages that are fully equipped for self-catering (this term is widely used in other parts of the world and means that you do the cooking, but they provide the cooking facilities – a complete kitchen with utensils). The advantage of staying at these farms is that the farms tend to be large (hundreds to thousands of acres) much of which is in a near-natural state, and that guests have access to this land for exploration. We have stayed on many farms during the past few years and the time spent was very fruitful (for succulent plant photography) and enjoyable, with freedom to explore the different habitats available.
On most farms there are no restaurants or food available, but on a few you are able to purchase items such as vegetables, eggs and on some you can also order in advance cooked meals and fresh bread. All of the farms provided comfortable accommodations and cooking facilities and we cooked most of our meals.
Although the idea of cooking on a vacation might seem a bit odd to many tourists, it is not only practical but relaxing in a number of ways. Eating at restaurants is impractical in many parts of South Africa – not because there aren’t very good places to eat (and we do eat out from time to time), but because the farms are often a long distance from restaurants that are in the towns. Eating dinner at a restaurant can then involve a long night drive back to the farm. Some farms we have stayed at are 30 miles or more from the nearest restaurant. There are other advantages to cooking your own meals. At the end of a long day in the field we are a bit tired, and we need to download and backup our photos from the day. Or, to look at guidebooks to identify or read about what we have seen. Or plan for the next day. Many farms don’t have wireless, but some do, and so we take this time to send messages or read about the next destination. All these things Mike can get done while Rosario is preparing the excellent evening meal (Mike’s comment).
Since our 4×4 vehicle has an excellent refrigerator (it can easily freeze items if needed) many items that are cooked one night are stored for meals on the following days.
Some farms are off-the-grid and use solar and wind power. Roads to most of these are navigable with a regular sedan car, but we felt better having a high-clearance vehicle. Such 4×4 rentals, nearly unavailable and very expensive in the US, are affordable in South Africa.
In the following pages we will describe aspects of the many farms we have stayed at during our travels in South Africa. A few of these locations are not conventional farms, but are in National Parks, where it is feasible to walk (no dangerous game) and observe succulent plants on (or off) trails. Others are associated with lodges which have extensive property for nature observation.
A Google Earth kmz file provides the locations of the farms discussed here (download the file to use in Google Earth). This has some advantages over looking at them in Google Maps, which are also included below and in the description of each location.
Organization of the farms
To present the farms we will travel from the far northwest to the far southeast. Thus, we are generally progressing from drier to wetter environments, though as we cross mountain ranges things can change quickly. We are providing links to Google Maps views of each location, screen captures of zooms or oblique views of key parts of the farms, and a series of photos showing the farm cottages and some of the plants found on the farms (or very nearby). We will add text to explain the various features seen on the farms.
Of course, there are many more farms that offer guest cottages – we have only stayed at a very small percentage of those out there. However, we have been selective in our stays. We look first at Google Earth satellite imagery to evaluate how natural the farm is likely to be, we read the webpage descriptions by the farms and then read reviews of the farms. Together, these usually give us an idea of how good the farm stay might be for succulent plant exploration. Most tourists aren’t focused on succulents, but it is not a foreign concept to the farm hosts we have talked with. In fact, many farms advertise their natural assets.
If there are other farms “out there” please let us know about your cottages and landscape. We are glad to encourage this type of tourism.
The farms and their flora
We provide short descriptions below of the farms we have stayed at. We also provide the web addresses of the these farms – where they exist. Because we wanted to include quite a few photos for each farm (when we had enough good ones) we decided to link to our Google photos site, which has more hard drive space available than our WordPress account. So, when you click on some of the links below you will go to “Google photos”. Using Photos has some quirks, so we explain here what you need to do to see the information related to each photo. For example, clicking on the link for Tanqua Karoo cottage 1 will bring up a mosaic of thumbnails looking something like this:
Now, you should click on any one of the thumbnails to get a larger image. You can adjust the size of your window to get an image up to 1680 pixels across – the size of the images we uploaded (from their original size of 6000 or 4800 pixels across). After getting the larger image you should then click on the small “i” icon (information) in the upper right corner. This will open something like:
Now you will see the “info” side panel. Any text we have added to explain the photo will appear here at the top, followe by the camera settings and the type of camera. (The size of the image is after my reduction – the originals were larger.) Note that if we didn’t add any text the line may say “OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA”or something similar by default.
Practical information for independent travelers to South Africa
Beside the farm accommodation, South Africa also has a very good selection of guesthouses, lodges and Bed and Breakfasts (B&B’s) to choose from if you prefer to stay in towns or cities. In fact the B&B’s are more widespread than in the US, of better quality, and much less expensive. Their only downside is that they are in towns or cities, so not as suitable for nature activities as are the farm cottages. We almost always stay in B&B’s when we are needing to stay in cities.
American visitors might be confused in not seeing many hotels or motels along highways, or even as they enter towns. There are however, B&B signs, colored much like the brownish US National Park signs to indicate many private B&B’s. So you need to do your homework in advance (ideally) and reserve (“book”) you room. Safarinow.com is a convenient website to do this.
Finally, American visitors will be amazed at the lack of advertising billboards along highways in South Africa. It apparently must be prohibited, so the views are much nicer than traveling along US highways. Of course, this lack of signs makes it more difficult to be aware of the kinds of restaurants in the next town and other such information – but we rarely miss such information (your auto GPS – an essential item to travel with, will have it).