Friday, February 8, 2013

Judd Kirkel's indulgent Botanica B & B, Johannesburg

A few cars got trapped in the eddy of the sky blue 1963 Morris Minor that gradually came to a halt on the side of the busy road in Joburg. I loped across the road and climbed in beside Judd Kirkel, botanist, photographer, handyman, and owner of arguably Africa’s first botanical B & B. As we pulled away before a fresh wave of traffic could engulf us, he informed me that the suspension of the car was in dire straits and liable to give out at any moment. As if responding to his words, Morris unleashed a nasty grinding sound as Judd eased her round the first corner.

Judd and Morris on an urban adventure.

Far from the maddening road, we entered the yielding maw of an unassuming green garage. I stepped out of the leather clad interior into another world. Judd Kirkel’s World of Botanical Fantasy. Spine clad aloes lined the wall that housed his latest creation, a partially completed aloe mosaic. The push-me pull-me lanterns 
above his patio were insignificant trifles compared with what lay within the doorway beyond.

After guiding me to my bedroom for that night, it was impossible not to be moved by the serenity of the faux-leather bed set against a man-sized false-colour photograph of sage flowers. Opposite, a perfectly positioned negative print of a doll’s rose invited inspection of that diminutive flower. What modern bachelor has a collection of porcelain dolls set in an ornate cupboard? The answer of course is unsurprising when the machinations of this man are compared with his lounge. An eclectic mix of magic lanterns, working wind-up gramophones, and original Himba bead collections saturated with scented ochre hug the walls. On the floor are positioned an aged sofa, an anachronistic barber chair and an ergonomically curved rocking chair.

All this is but foreplay for my true purpose – a tour to the hills of Melville Koppies Nature Reserve. The reserve is x hectares of land originally bequeathed by Harold Porter. Judd informs me that it was destined for the same development that surrounds the area, but the bequeathment and subsequent rehabilitation of the land from alien infestation led to its noteworthy place in the armory of urban reserves scattered around the country. Home to x species, many of which are rare and endangered, it is far more fascinating to behold than its history would suggest. In the deeper soils, numerous species of pea loitered amidst grasses unfathomable and uninteresting to my mind: here a Zornia with characteristic flattened bracts, there a Vigna with its keel calling to mind a pink elephant with a deflected trunk with outspread ears.

A stunning concentration of Tritonia nelsonii in full flower drew us to a rocky outcrop that revealed a further number of curiosities. Set in the jaws of the Tritonia were three recurved yellow teeth, presumably constructed to trap pollinating insects in the flower for longer, allowing them more time to fraternize with the naughty bits of the flower.  At the base of the rock, Psammotropha, the sand-eater grew in conspicuous abundance.  Clinging to the rock Selaginella sprawled. This species is one of the humbled progeny of trees now only found in coal seams and rock from the Triassic period. Artists reconstructions portray a gloomy misty place of Dr. Seussian trees, and silica-rich horsetail ferns, with giant dragonflies that quested through this carbon-rich primordial atmosphere. Adapted to an atmosphere not as conducive to trees, and an environment ravaged yearly by fire, they survive with diminutive cones.
Scrounging for Selaginella

An adjacent rock revealed another sprawling plant bearing orange fruit – Ancyclobotrys, the wild apricot. A tentative bite into the fruit revealed a pleasant but tannic taste with a refreshing sour tang. After fording a swampland with shoulder-high grass, we ascended the slope. While I photographed an inconspicuous Gladiolus permeabilis, a sister subspecies to the far more spectacular form in the Cape, Judd unearthed botanical treasure after treasure. The bunny ears Haemanthus was but a entrĂ©e to the Clematopsis that I had only seen before in herbaria. This had to win the botanical award for the day, with its blushing petals barely concealing a mass of yellow stamens. Especially as inclement black clouds now unleashed even bigger raindrops that sent us scurrying for the shelter of Morris.
Melville Koppies overlooking a Johannesburg storm.

Clematopsis scabiosifolia in glorious flower

Bunny Ears - Haemanthus humilis subsp. hirsutus

It was a bedraggled and cold but happy two floral fellows that entered Judd’s botanical haven. I was soon lounging in a Victorian bath, infused with the heady scent of Moroccan oils. After a deep sleep, I awoke to the arrival of my friend Dinko. Judd had meantime prepared hors d’ oeuvres  of haloumi set in balsamic reduction and mango-cumin salsa. This disposed of, we hungrily tucked into a meal focused around trout fillets with a shrimp sauce. Our hunger satiated, he disappeared to prepare the gastronomic rabbit from the hat: ice-cream sprinkled with freshly powdered vanilla in a bath of Judd’s Cape Velvet magic sauce.  What better way to end a botanical meal than with a powdered orchid! After conversing about plants, adventures with traffic cops, and life, the evening ended off with a heated engagement with the works of pseudo-pornographic photographer Jan Saudek.

It is difficult to convey with limited space the magic of Judd’s home that oozes everywhere with the passion of this masterful raconteur and his love for plants and his appreciation of creations from a former world. Nearly every crook and nanny has his personal signature of home-made creations interwoven with aged feature pieces. Every visit is evocative and memorable, with an open invitation to touch and explore his world with fingers, tongue and nostril alike. If the chance arises to stay with Judd - take it. Few people know the local flora better than Judd, and even fewer have a bed and breakfast designed specifically for, and by, a passionate plant lover.
Twitter: @TNBloganist

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