‘The Cardboard Box Expedition’ of 1963

My Dad meeting the Khoi San people of the Richtersveld.

Your interesting article on the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden (Bolander August 22) brought to mind a snippet of history that may be of further interest to Bolander readers.

It concerns a botanical expedition more than half a century ago into the starkly beautiful Richtersveld, home of one of the biggest biodiversity of succulents in the world.

My late father Michael Mohr-hardt emigrated to South Africa from Germany in 1936, and started work as a copper-helmet diver in Table Bay.

When war broke out he was advised, as a German, to move away from the coast, and in early 1940 he relocated to Stellenbosch and started the building business he ran until his untimely death in 1966.

In the course of his work Michael met the acclaimed German botanist Dr Hans Herre, appointed in 1925 as the first curator of the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden (Hortus Botanicus).

Dr Herre was a highly respected scientist who made international headlines in 1949 when the welwitschia mirabilis plants he had grown from seed 23 years earlier coned and successfully set seed, the first plants in cultivation to do so.

Another German, Helmut Meyer, joined Dr Herre in 1930 as the first horticulturist, and under their leadership the Hortus quickly gained international recognition with many species and genera named after them, including meyerophytum meyeri, herreanthus meyeri and cyrtanthus herrei.

Mr Meyer was a soft-spoken, unassuming scientist deeply committed to botany and the botanical garden. He was also well-known in Stellenbosch for cultivating in his greenhouse at home the most magnificent cyclamen in brilliant shades of purple, pink, salmon and white, as well as a variety of orchids, the latter so hardy that they withstood a road trip to Pretoria in 1969 to be fashioned into a bouquet for my first wedding.

In 1963 the internationally acclaimed Dr Werner Rauh, professor of botany at Heidelberg University, visited South Africa.

His preferred subjects of research were the desert cacti and other succulents of the Americas and North Africa, and he now wished to study and collect succulents in the inhospitable desert areas up our West Coast.

My father, a passionate nature-lover, needed little encouragement to agree to Dr Herre’s request to mount this logistically ambitious enterprise.

Having already built two small motorhomes with which we travelled all over South Africa, Michael enthusiastically set to work and extensively modified his Chevrolet bakkie to hold a mass of supplies; tents, water, canned food, long-life German rye bread and sausage(!), medical, tools, spares, cameras and research equipment.

The venture required meticulous planning, as the two-week journey would penetrate areas far from human habitation, fuel and fresh water, but this was the kind of challenge my father enjoyed. And in the spring of 1963 by now firm friends they cheerfully set off, Professor Werner Rauh, Dr Hans Herre and Papa.

Taking the route up the West Coast through Clanwilliam along the Olifant’s River through Kamieskroon and Springbok to the Orange River at Vioolsdrif, they proceeded to Modderdrift and over the Hellskloof Pass to Khubus, a hamlet with six houses in total, which they wittily christened the hauptstadt (capital) of the Richtersveld.

Rattling along rocky and/or sandy roads, even dry river beds, they explored the (then) very remote hamlets of Annisfontein, Numies, Sendlingsdrift, Grootderm, Knersvlakte and Brakfontein and encountered few ‘Europeans,’ but they did meet local Khoi-San people travelling with their donkey carts.

Penetrating north as far as the diamond area off Alexander Bay, they even got permission to visit a usually restricted-access diamond mine. Dr Rauh and Dr Herre located and photographed several lithops, so-called “window plant” species, namely L. herrei , L. divergens, L. otzeniana, as well as the so-called “living stones” cheiridopsis, argyroderma and trichocaulon kubusense.

Also various aloes, notably giant pillansii and aloidendron dichotomum or kokerboom (quiver tree) endangered today through habitat loss and inadvertent destruction by ungulates and pachypodium namaquanum, also known as halfmens or elephants trunk.

On the return journey through Namaqualand they witnessed a profusion of wild flowers, which miraculously emerge from the barren sand in spring, and right now are again drawing flocks of visitors from all over our country.

Botanical marvels were not all the adventurers found as they camped out under the stars at night, such as the deadly cobra familiar to my father from years of hiking, but terrifying no doubt to the professor from Heidelberg.

But despite the heat and dust and lack of creature comforts, an extremely good time was had by all. Dr Herre, a real character, provided much mirth en route, being both portly and unsteady on his feet and despite using a stick, he sustained more than the odd fall on uneven terrain, often bringing down camp tables and chairs upon himself.

And apart from helping to collect an impressive array of specimens, Michael found a kindred spirit in Werner Rauh.

Mr Rauh was generous in his praise for the success of the undertaking, and dedicated his subsequent book: Die grossartige Welt der Sukkulenten (The Magnificent World of Succulents) to “his great friend Peter Mohrhardt” whose ingenuity had made the expedition possible.

The adventure came to be affectionately known as “die Pappschachtel Expedition” due to the dozens of cardboard boxes used to transport the supplies and equipment.

Having recently visited the Kgalagadi and complaining bitterly every time we had to carry two boxes of supplies into the (luxury) self-catering cottages, I cannot imagine what it must have been like to schlepp all that stuff in all those cardboard boxes and re-assemble the vehicle after every overnight stay.

Mr Rauh’s many accomplishments brought him international recognition and numerous awards.

He had over 300 publications to his name, based on data gathered on expeditions all over the world and returned to Heidelberg University with an abundance of plant material, many of them new species, subsequently named after him.

For several weeks after the trip, he stayed in our home in Stellenbosch sorting, identifying, labelling and packaging specimens for despatch to Heidelberg University.

Dr Herre received a comprehensive set of plants for the garden, and the remaining duplicates were presented to my father. In order to ensure their continued survival during the wet Cape winters (in those days yes!), he created a little rockery to emulate the barren Richtersveld.

My mother also received a collection of potted succulents, providing an interesting contrast to her more Eurocentric hyacinths and cyclamen. Naturally Mr Rauh explored the fynbos and was amazed to discover a tiny, insignificant plant near the Palmiet River in the Kogelberg, which he identified as one of the rarest wild dwarf-orchids in the world.

After my father’s death soon afterwards, his beloved rockery was afforded no special treatment by our gardener Nico, receiving liberal watering by means of my father’s ingenious sprinkling system, yet the desert plants not only survived, but thrived.

Dr Herre retired in 1962 and Dr Wim Tijmens took over (till 1999) as the new curator. When my mother died in 1989, we donated the plants from Michael’s rockery and the expedition photographs to the botanical garden to augment their collection.

They were particularly pleased as some of the original specimens had died and they were now able to replace them.

In response, Dr Tijmens wrote: “The collection of photographs are of great historical interest. It brings back pleasant memories, of a period when men explored, discovered and contributed to the knowledge of our flora. They discovered many plants new to science. I always was impressed with their enthusiasm and the results obtained under often trying circumstances. The aloes haworthia and gasteria species have been added to the Hortus collection.”

It is a tribute my father would have acknowledged with his characteristically unassuming smile.

Helen Wynne-Dyk lives now lives in Somerset West with her husband Ken, and shared this after their recent trip to the Kgalagadi.