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MEET THE CURATOR

Spring central

‘The flower feast has taken my breath away during my first spring in charge at Hantam botanical garden,’ says Simphiwe Madlala

BY PATRICIA McCRACKEN

MEET THE CURATOR

Spring central

‘The flower feast has taken my breath away during my first spring in charge at Hantam botanical garden,’ says Simphiwe Madlala

BY PATRICIA McCRACKEN

“I consider myself privileged to be working and staying in a national botanical garden which is a quiet and pristine environment,” says Simphiwe Madlala, recently appointed garden manager at Hantam National Botanical Garden in the Northern Cape. Photo by Gerrie Koopman

IT WAS ONLY FEBRUARY THIS YEAR that Simphiwe Madlala (36) was appointed garden manager at Hantam National Botanical Garden in the Northern Cape and now he is enjoying the thrill of his first spring in the iconic garden near Nieuwoudtville, aka ‘the bulb capital of the world’.

In this biodiversity hotspot on the Bokkeveld plateau, Hantam is considered a wild botanical garden because most of its 6 000 hectares are kept natural, more so than any other South African national botanical garden.

“We have natural flower beds where plants grow according to their preferred soil type,” says Simphiwe. “We don’t have manmade flower beds or propagate plants like other botanical gardens.”

TRANSFORMING THE LANDSCAPE

“Our main focus is to conserve the rich treasure of endemic plants and other biodiversity here, from the animals that roam freely to the microscopic life not visible to our naked eye,” he says. “Since I arrived here, I have seen the veld transform from dryness in February and March to lush vegetation in July and August just after the winter rainfall.

“I feel privileged that I am in contact with nature in my daily life so I see what others often can’t. Right now, I am fortunate to be experiencing one of the best flower seasons every day and sharing it with the visitors who are also impressed with flower diversity.”

WHERE FLOWERS RULE

Hantam is one of the jewels of the Nieuwoudtville spring flower season. The winter and spring rains prompt astonishing carpets of bright flowers to pop up at Hantam, usually from August to October. Even well into November, plenty of interesting plants can be found in flower.

“This year we had good winter rain and recorded nearly 230 millimetres from the beginning of June until end of July,” says Simphiwe.

Flower season stretches the garden’s small staff of five permanent and 17 temporary people and adds an important extra duty on top of staff management and admin for Simphiwe.

TOUR LEADER

“During flower season, I spend much of my day in the field, sharing knowledge with visitors, or preparing to go out,” he says. “We do a guided walk each morning from 11am to 12.30. Then I fuel up for the afternoon safari drive from 1.30pm to 4.30.

“The tours also give me plenty of opportunity to observe and learn about how the vegetation types in this garden function. And coming from KZN, I am also learning to conduct tours in Afrikaans!”  

Renosterveld Pride

A key to Hantam’s special flower feasts is its renosterveld vegetation, which is found here in both tillite and dolerite soils. On tillite, often called vaalgrond, various bulbs and geophytes appear as splashes in among the dominant renosterbos and kapokbos.

These include blue pride of Nieuwoudtville (Geissorhiza splendidissima, photo by Graham Duncan), which is highly localised, according to SANBI, and has already lost more than 80% of its habitat to agriculture. Others are indokwe or kalkoentjie (Gladiolus scullyi) and, from the iris family, the widespread growweuintjie (Moraea ciliata). 

(Back) Hedwig Slabber, BotSoc national council member, and (front) Amanda Jones join Hantam NBG manager Simphiwe Madlala for a flower-season tour. Photo by Gerrie Koopman 

PRECIOUS SOILS

On the heavy red dolerite clay soils, known as rooigrond, there is a high diversity of annuals and bulbs. This is where you can see harlequin evening flower or perdeblom (Hesperantha vaginata) or the vulnerable rooikatstert (Bulbinella latifolia subsp. doleritica), for example.

“Both these soil types become critically endangered because they are so popular with farmers for agriculture,” says Simphiwe. “We need to protect the remaining areas of these precious soil types so we do not lose the endemic flowers which are particularly adapted to them.”

Part of Simphiwe’s responsibility is to strengthen relationships with scientists and researchers, who can visit the garden to do conservation and horticultural research.

LOOKING & LEARNING

The move to Hantam is an exciting learning experience for Simphiwe.

“I have enjoying been seeing flower species for the first time,” he says. “A highlight recently was seeing some Sparaxis elegans, for instance – the flower looks so interesting.”

In his previous post as a project manager in the nearby Tankwa Karoo National Park, Simphiwe worked with mostly succulent karoo and Roggeveld mountain renosterveld vegetation types.

“Because this is a wild botanical garden, as a manager you need to understand conservation concepts as well as botany and horticulture to interpret what is happening in the veld and to local soil types, plant diversity, weather patterns and animal diversity,” Simphiwe explains.

The distinctive brown markings on the yellow flower of Hesperantha vaginata lead to one of its common names, harlequin evening flower. Researchers have found that the plants of this species have a very close evolutionary relationship with the monkey beetle (Clania glenlyonensis). Photo by Graham Duncan

 

FLIGHT CHANGE

Simphiwe’s childhood dream was to fly over South Africa’s natural treasures, protecting them as a fighter pilot.

“I grew up and went to school in Umlazi township in Durban,” he recalls. “I loved school and was very focused but even so my grades were not up to military entry standards, unfortunately.”

Meanwhile Simphiwe had also been captivated by his biology teacher’s inspired lessons. So he followed his interest in plants, going to Mangosuthu University of Technology, where he graduated first with a national diploma in nature conservation in 2010 and then a BTech in 2013.

“I am fortunate to have done a lot of in-service training with SANBI and I also studied drylands soil conservation techniques while I was at SANPARKS – but I still owe myself a master’s degree,” he says with serious determination in his tone.

CAREER PATH

Simphiwe began his varied work career as a conservation intern at the Mountain Zebra National Park in 2009, detoured into tourism training for a while, interned in environmental education at eThekwini Municipality and first joined SANBI as a trainee estate manager at the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden in 2013.

Next he worked as a project manager, first in fire and alien invasive plant management and then in ecosystem rehabilitation for Sanparks.

“This made me decide to work towards a future as a fire ecologist to help make sound management decisions that can mitigate environmental problems we may encounter in our botanical gardens in the future,” he says. “I believe passionately in learning, experience and observing professionals who have been in the field way longer than me.”

Hantam NBG manager Simphiwe Madlala and Angeline Cloete discuss specimens of ranksoetertjie (Dolichos decumbens) for the Living Specimens exhibition. Photo by Paton Persens

PAYING FORWARD

Simphiwe would like to help local young people to have some of the opportunities he has enjoyed but there has previously not been any formal environmental education program at Hantam NBG. Simphiwe has also noticed that even in flower season, not many young people visit the garden.

He hopes to close this gap by establishing a programme for Namakwa schools and communities as part of the garden’s biodiversity management legacy.

“I would also like to establish a Biodiversity Careers Expo to inform young people about opportunities they could find in this sector and equip them to decide on their career path,” he says. “There is definitely a gap in local, qualified biodiversity experts who may be required by SANBI gardens in and around the region in future to manage South Africa’s biodiversity treasures.”

SECRET SEASON

Simphiwe envisages running the expo in March – “because it is the garden’s secret season with some interesting flowers.”

The garden’s different seasons and its benefits, such as ensuring clean, quality air and providing nature-based tourism activities, all need to be better known, he believes. He is thinking about launching some weekday afternoon events and adventure activities, as well as making fuller use of social-media platforms to strengthen the garden’s relationship with local and international visitors in partnership with the BotSoc Weskus branch.

“I am proud to be continuing the Living Specimen Flower Display during the flower season,” says Hantam NBG manager Simphiwe Madlala. “It was initiated by the previous curator in partnership with BotSoc Weskus branch. It helps visitors study the plants in close detail without disturbing the delicate soils and plant networks in the veld.” Photo by Hedwig Slabber

TIME TO CELEBRATE

Amid all this whirl of activity at Hantam, Simphiwe’s thoughts do also turn to his family, who are now in Eshowe, Zululand, and his fiancée Nosipho Ndlovu, a professional nurse.

“We are planning to get married next year,” he says. “In my Zulu culture, a young man does not just engage with someone’s daughter without going through the necessary customs between the two families. I have completed most of these now.

“I am a member of the Nazareth Baptist Church – Ebuhleni, which is also linked to my culture. That combination gives me strong cultural and religious values in my daily life.”

STRENGTH OF CHARACTER

Simphiwe believes that the way he was brought up “with respect and manners” has helped shape him for success in the adult world.

“I was never a disobedient child or involved in dramatic events,” he recalls. “I saw things happening in front of my eyes – anything you can think of that happens in the township. I learned from mistakes that happened to my peers around my neighbourhood. I never had an interest on doing what others would do as part of the township style.

“I have been very careful about having kids without a foundation that would enable me to support them. Not having a plan on how to raise them causes unnecessary suffering.

“I used to observe our ‘not so good’ situation at home and realised that as much as kids are a blessing, when they come unplanned they add stress. I am now in a state where I can confidently have kids and be able to support them without worrying.”  

Simphiwe has one particular piece of advice that he will pass on to his mentees and his family: “All life paths have challenges, honesty is crucial when advising young people because life is not always an easy path.”

3 Comments

  1. What an inspiration Simphiwe is ! I wish him all the best for his wonderful ideas to educate the young in his area and to get them involved. I will certainly look him up next time I’m in Nieuwoudville – one of my favourite places.

  2. So proud of Simphiwe, whom I got to know as an intern at SANBI as part of the Groen Sebenza programme. All the best to this wonderful young man.

  3. Thrilling. Thank you for sharing this article.
    Neil McGregor was one of the most inspiring person I ever met. And it sounds as if young Simphiwe is another inspiring young man.
    I will send a donation if you give me contact details.

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