Durban Botanic Gardens is a historic gem — with surprises

Tree sculpture Durban Botanic Gardens

Tree sculpture at the Durban Botanic Gardens, South Africa

Lying in bed this morning in the still-dark, wondering whether I should get up or embrace the deliciousness of the early morning doze, I heard it. The distinct haa-haa-haa-de-dah call.

And writing this piece — it is now several hours later — I just heard it again. Haunting, penetrating, distinctive: haa-haa-haa-de-dah.

When you come to the South African Indian Ocean city of Durban — and I am specifically saying when, because you must — if you make your way to any part of the city that has gardens and trees and this is not difficult as there are many (gardens and trees), you will get to hear the cry of a hadida in flight.

You’ll not only hear the bird, but in the morning or the evening, or somewhere shady during the day, you’ll most likely get to see a hadida, which has a brown body a bit bigger than a rugby ball but not quite as round as a soccer ball, and iridescent pink shoulder feathers that glint pinker in the right light. Chances are the bird will be on the ground grubbing with its long beak in the grass, or a flower bed, or any patch of moist earth, for worms, bugs and other hadida treats.

Crumpets and hadidas

Crumpets and cream scones at gardens

Crumpets and cream scones with the works at the tea room.

And if you go to the Durban Botanic Gardens — founded in 1849 and Africa’s oldest surviving botanic gardens — you might just have the unusual experience of sharing your crumpet “with the works” or cream scone “with the works” with a hadida.

I’ve visited the Durban Botanic Gardens many times over many years, having grown up in the city before creating a lifestyle that let’s me spend time between California and South Africa.

I have been to the Botanic Gardens to see the orchids in the orchid house. For children’s birthday parties by the lake. For concerts. (There is year-round music in the park, usually on Sundays.) I have been there to see the birds; to take children to play; to watch plays in the al fresco auditorium; to snap photos of plants and trees; to simply hang out in the shade. It’s a magnet for couples and lots of people go three to hold hands and smooch.

And many Durbanites, often accompanied by out-of-town friends, go simply for coffee and crumpets or tea and scones.

Since 1963 volunteer groups of women from different auxiliary and church groups have manned the Botanic Gardens tea room. The funds they raise from the tea, coffee, snacks and treats they make fresh each day go to SANTA (the South African National Tuberculosis Association) to fight TB.

The tea room is open every day except for Good Friday and Christmas day. Some Durban residents swear these are the best scones with jam and cream (“the works” in tea garden lingo) available in the city. I recommend the double crumpet with syrup and cream (“the works”).

A hadida in the Durban Botanic Gardens

A hadida in the tea room waits to steal a cumpet or a scone.

The resident hadidas, if they could talk — and given their boldness in staking out and laying claim to a large piece of my mother’s crumpet, which was stolen right off her plate — I am sure would agree.

About the Durban Botanic Gardens

The origins date back to 1849 when the then Natal Agricultural and Horticultural Society set up an “experimental allotment” to test potentially useful commercial crops on the banks of the Umgeni River, which exits into the Indian Ocean at Durban’s Blue Lagoon.

In 1851 this was replaced by the botanical garden in its present Durban Berea site. In the early days crops including coffee and tea were tested for their economic viability. Sugar proved to be most successful, which spurred the development of KwaZulu-Natal’s still-thriving sugar industry.

Bird watchers at Durban Botanic Gardens

The lake at the gardens is a popular spot and not only for birds.

Stories from those times are peppered with eccentric characters and even marauding lions. Read an entertaining and authoritative history of the Durban Botanic Gardens here.

The Gardens — close to 40 acres of them — are home these days to a delightful and varied sub-tropical collection of indigenous and exotic plants, sub-gardens, some sculptures and monuments, pathways, water features, an amphitheater, picnic spots and more. Immaculately tended and well signed, there’s enough to see and do to turn a garden visit into a day trip, even if one only has a cursory interest in the plants.

Statue at Durban Botanic Gardens sunken garden.

At statue at this historic Durban spot's sunken garden.

Cycads, palms and orchids are these days the major collections at the gardens. The flagship Wood’s Cycad (Encephalartos woodii) was discovered on the edge of the Ngoye Forest (on the Zululand birding route) in 1985, which cycad species is now extinct in the wild.

There’s a sensory garden for the blind, an amphitheater for performances, a historic sunken garden and an orchid collection, which had its beginnings in 1931. The Ernest Thorp Orchid House was opened in 1962.

There are trees from African, Asian and America. Many are signposted. For example, “Ficus Benghalensis – Banyan Tree, from India, planted about 1900.”

Some are both signposted and described in detail. For example, “Sapindus Mukorossi – Soap Nut Tree, grows naturally in India and the lower forests of Nepal.” In this case, details of the tree’s natural detergent and medicinal properties (it is an inhibitor of tumor growth) follow.

Kids and birds at garden

Watching the birds.

The Durban Botanic Gardens are a haven for wild birds and a favorite haunt of local twitchers who, give them half a chance, will wax lyrical on the latest unusual species they have spotted — and get annoyed that you’ve inadvertently disturbed them and frightened them away. The twitchers, with their binocs and cameras when I was there last week, were preparing a bird lesson for a group of high school students coming for a nature lesson to the education center that afternoon.

The twitchers didn’t bother to photograph the hadida shimmering in the sunshine and eyeing them from the back of a bench near the lake. They are much too commonplace in the city. But I think they should have.

Photos  © Wanda Hennig, 2010

More Info: Get directions and see more on the Durban Botanic Gardens here.

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