Early in the nineteenth century, Hermanus Pieters, used to walk ‘over the mountain’ from Caledon, year after year, to camp at the coast and enjoy the abundant fish and shellfish he found there. Shell middens on Hoy’s Koppie tell us that 50 000 years earlier, other people had also found Hermanuspietersfontein a good place to live. From the nineteenth century into the twentieth century, the village grew apace. Eventually some far-sighted residents recognised the botanical richness of the area in which they lived and realised the need for preserving what they could for posterity.
Three special men were responsible for the establishment of a mountain reserve above a then small seaside town. Otto J Prillewitz, Mayor of Hermanus and one of five freemen in the history of the town, pushed it through administrative channels. His love for the environment had brought him into touch with another freeman-to-be, Dr Ion Williams, botanist and former acting Mayor. Eric Jones was the third player in this environmental drama, nurseryman and founder/chairman of the Hermanus Botanical Society in l960.
In the same year, Doc and Eric dreamed up the idea for a cliff path along the coast and began plans for a botanical centre in the newly-established reserve.
Fernkloof did not resemble the nearly 2000-hectare sweep of montane and coastal fynbos encompassing some of the Kleinrivier range and most of the completed cliff path which forms its boundaries today. Then it was a mere 100 hectares in size, starting at a gravel pit used for making bricks and not much more.
A Fernkloof Advisory Board was formed on which Prillewitz, Jones and Williams served. While Eric wrestled with the administration, Doc, a qualified civil engineer, took on the task of laying out paths.
Harry Wood who had been appointed as the curator of Fernkloof had been told to establish a garden using plants from the Caledon division. A small nursery was started to supply his needs and water came from the Rockfill dam and from a well behind the present Botanical Centre. But when in l971 the size of the reserve increased dramatically to 1440 hectares, all efforts were concentrated on the paths and removal of alien vegetation. The gardens were allowed to fall into jungle status until they were lovingly restored again from 2003 onwards.
In the 70s Botanical Society efforts succeeded in erecting a centre which included an herbarium, lecture hall, office and kitchen. A visitors’ centre was built further up the road from which trails radiated and a weekly display of wildflowers became a feature – and still is.
Today the reserve has more than 60km of graded paths and the herbarium, having been awarded international status, houses 3500 pressed specimens.
A small hut was built on Galpinkop for the overnight use of members and visitors. The indigenous plant nursery does a thriving business.
The cliff path, started in 1960, meanders 11 km along the coast from the New Harbour to Piet se Bos – most of it forming part of the reserve. It has wheelchair paths and bridges, thanks to the efforts of the Cliff Path Management Group, working under the auspices of the Botanical Society.
We have come a long way from the day in 1923 when the first Freeman of Hermanus, Meester William Paterson, took local wildflowers to England and won a cup. He was secretary of the Horticultural Society founded the following year and is credited with finding the elusive Marsh Rose – and losing it to fire.
Flower shows were held sporadically over the following years – in halls and hotels. The first, held in Allen’s Bioscope Hall, raised 73 pounds 18 shillings and ten pence. Last year more than R100 000 was raised towards conservation and eco-education at the Hermanus Flower Festival in Fernkloof.
Jose Burman, in his book on Hermanus, quotes Ion Williams as saying in those early days: “We thought we were going to turn Fernkloof into a lovely garden – we knew nothing about conservation.” A sundial in front of the botanical centre in memory of Otto Prillewitz bears testimony to his love of Fernkloof.