The Western Cape Winelands are rightly famous around the world for their lush vineyards and excellent and most scenic wine routes, which are popular among visitors from near and far. In addition to the vineyards, however, there is another marvellous place that is worth visiting in this area: Butterfly World Tropical Garden, just off the N1 national freeway between Cape Town and Paarl, Exit 47 onto the R44.
On the morning of Tuesday, 27 December 2011, which had just been declared a public holiday for some reason, we had gone strawberry picking at Polkadraai Farm outside Stellenbosch. Afterwards, our car-boot smelling sweetly of freshly picked strawberries (ooooh!), we made our way northwards to our second destination of that day.
A Tip: This is going to be a fairly longish post – with lots of photos in the slideshow – so if you have time, make yourself a cup of tea and a slice of toast or two, and sit down for a hopefully educational read. 🙂
I’d been wanting to visit Butterfly World for a long, long time; in fact, ever since that one unforgettable Valentine’s Day of 2008, when my beloved had taken me to a talk at a local school, titled – no, not “How do you enchant your beloved with sweet-smelling roses, hand-carved chocolate hearts and a glass of vino“, or something suitably romantic, but instead: “Spiders – Not as scary as you think!”. (OK, I confess that attending this talk had actually been my idea. ;-)) The presenter was Esther van der Westhuizen, who works at Butterfly World. Incidentally, this place also offers educational tours for school groups and host children’s parties where the little ones can learn all about the various species that live in this marvellous place!
For the entire presentation, during which Esther showed us live specimens of dozens of spiders and scorpions – and actually allowed some of the larger and hairier spiders to walk over our hands (I am still shuddering at the memory), she had us literally spell-bound. That talk changed my view of these creatures. I don’t mean that I am now entirely fearless and comfortable around them, but looking back over the last three years, there has definitely been a shift towards a greater acceptance. We occasionally encounter spiders in our garden and our home, but I no longer reach for a shoe to swat them or a broom to chase them out in a panic. I can allow them to be and to share our space. Well, up to a point! 🙂
By the time we arrived at Butterfly World in the late morning, the place was packed.
Clearly, the fact that it was a public holiday meant that the whole population of the Western Cape was visiting that day. By sheer good luck, we found a parking spot (a legitimate one, nogal!) in the overflowing parking area. We paid our entrance fee (I think it was R48 per adult, and R41 for pensioners/students), and squirmed our way through the throngs crowding the shop and through the heavy wooden doors into the tropical garden.
It was like walking into a sauna, fully-dressed.
Phew! Was it ever hot and humid! A large sign helpfully explained why we were suddenly sweaty and breathless: Apparently these butterflies come from tropical countries, and thus the temperature needs to be above 26°C and the humidity above 70%. The pathways too are kept wet, to increase the humidity. This tropical garden, where the butterflies live, is about 1000m² in size, and it’s rather like being inside a greenhouse.
Water features and fountains were splashing water into pools, light sprays were misting the leaves, and unseen birds in dense foliage were chirrupping and squawking. Children were running around excitedly, pointing at butterflies and lizards and geckos and snakes and birds, while their harrassed parents were calling out “No! Don’t touch! Leave them! No! Come back here! Come back here NOW!”
Amidst all this hullaballoo, colourful butterflies with gossamer wings were flitting about restlessly, settling for only the briefest of moments, before they took flight once more. Cameras at the ready, we roamed through the different sections, but because of the crowds of people and all their restless activity, it proved rather tricky to get any clear photos of the many butterflies and moths that call this their home.
“Tropical butterflies are raised on breeding farms in countries such as Costa Rica, Philippines, Malaysia and China. Pupae are flown to display parks where the butterflies emerge into their tropical gardens. Butterfly World imports 500-800 butterfly pupae per week all year round.” (http://www.butterflyworld.co.za/)
I hadn’t realised that butterflies have such a short lifespan – about 12 weeks from egg to larva to caterpillar to butterfly was indicated on an information board? Wow. That is short.
I was also curious to learn about the differences between butterflies and moths, as this has always puzzled me. Both butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera (which means ‘scales on wings’), but do you know what distinguishes them from each other?
- are usually colourful
- fly during daytime (diurnal)
- the ends of their antennae are knobbed
- when at rest, their wings are held vertically above their bodies
- butterfly caterpillars form pupae in which they change into butterflies (this change is called metamorphosis)
- more than 870 known species are found in South Africa
- are usually drab
- most fly at night (nocturnal)
- their antennae are whiplike or feathered
- when at rest, their wings are held horizontally over their backs
- moth caterpillars spin silken cocoons in which they change into moths (metamorphosis)
Butterfly World is not only home to moths and butterflies, though.
We also caught a glimpse of a pair of common marmosets, lounging on a branch, almost hidden by the lush foliage. I was lucky to get a fairly nice shot of the one monkey – don’t you just love the white ear-tufts? Common Marmosets are so-called New World monkeys, which means that they are primates that are originally found in Central and South America, but I guess these ones must have been imported into South Africa at some stage, or perhaps bred in captivity.
They have a rather unique diet, primarily consisting of insects and plant exudates (in other words, gum, sap, latex and resin). Clinging to the side of a tree with their nails, they use their lower incisors to gnaw off the bark, which causes the tree to release these exudates. I wonder what they eat in captivity though, as surely such foraging would damage the trees in this enclosure?
We also glimpsed a Blue Duiker hiding underneath some bushes. The smallest of the antelope family, they are only about 35 cm tall. Their brown coat has a slightly blue tinge, and the glandular slit beneath their eyes is used for scent marking. They live mainly in rainforests, and are nocturnal animals. They tend to be either solitary or to live in mating pairs, and protect the borders of their territory by marking it with their dung and excretions from the glands, which are located just above their hooves, and beneath their eyes.
From here, we entered the Reptile Area, which houses various reptiles, such as iguanas, chameleons, plated lizards, skinks and bearded dragons, as well as some brightly coloured squawking parrots.
I think this one may be a so-called Green Iguana. Iguanas are herbivorous lizards from the tropical areas of Central America and the Caribbean; there are two species – the Green Iguana (widespread and a popular pet), and the Lesser Antillean Iguana (endangered due to the destruction of its native habitat in the Lesser Antilles).
Green Iguanas can be around 1.5 m in length (!), but fortunately they tend to have calm dispositions (which is why they are such popular pets), so they may not be as intimidating as they look with the spines that stick up along their backs and tails! They can, however, use their tail as an effective whip-like weapon, and even drop their tail if necessary, and regrow it (like the little lizards and geckos one finds around the home). And they have extremely sharp teeth! Frankly, I don’t think I’d mess with them.
I was puzzled by the fact that, contrary to their name, Green Iguanas are not exclusively green in colour: they can also be blue, lavender, black, pink, orange, or red. The dewlaps hanging down beneath their throats regulate their body temperature; they also use these in courtship and territorial displays, often together with head bobbing movements. Many also have little horns on the tops of their noses, between their nostrils, and a large round scale on their cheek that is known as a subtympanic shield (the ear drum is located just above this shield and behind the eye).
The Bearded Dragons (this genus of lizard is known as Pogona) were particularly entertaining to watch. Unlike the tree-dwelling iguanas of the tropical forest section, the bearded dragons prefer a desert-like habitat; they live in the arid, rocky, semi-desert regions and dry open woodlands of Australia, although they too like climbing onto branches and into bushes.
The species known as Pogona vitticeps (the Inland or Central Bearded Dragon) is a popular pet, because it has a friendly and calm nature, and remains fairly small (40 to 60 cm from head to tail). They are called Bearded Dragons because of their spiny throat pouch underneath their neck and chin area, which they can puff up and turn black, in a display of territoriality or dominance – as well as during mating season. They can have slight colour differences, though they seem to be usually earth tones (brown, grey, reddish brown, yellow, white, orange) and sometimes green in colour.
In the same enclosure, there was also a Skink. These odd creatures with their long bodies, elongated tails and short stumpy legs look like a mix between lizards and snakes. If they have a long tapering tail, they can shed this when a predator grabs the tail, and it will then regrow. The various species range in size from about 7 to 35 cm. They are carnivorous, particularly liking insects (flies, crickets, grasshoppers, etc.), though in captivity they will also feed on vegetables, leaves and fruit. I don’t know which particular species this one was.
The Bearded Dragons were clearly trying to prevent it getting close to the plate of food, even ganging up on the skink. I found myself rooting for the poor skink!
Some nearby cages housed panther chameleons, tiny tree frogs and Madagascan day geckos.
The Panther Chameleon comes from the tropical forests of Madagascar, with their colouring indicating their particular locale. They are didactyl: the five toes on each foot are fused into a group of two, and a group of three, which allows them to grip branches very firmly. Their eyes can rotate and focus independently of each other, giving them a 360° arc of vision around their body – which is pretty incredible!
Once they have located their prey, though, they focus both eyes in the same direction, which gives them very sharp stereoscopic vision and depth perception. Their tongues, which they can extend out of their mouths to capture prey, are extremely long (sometimes longer than their body length!) – and they move at lightning speed!
The Madagascan Day Gecko is a diurnal species that is a native of the tropical rainforests of Madagascar; it feeds on insects and nectar. They can reach around 22cm in length, and range from light-green to bluish-green, with a rust-coloured stripe from the nostril to behind the eye. They are very territorial, and are thus usually housed alone; if they live as a mating pair, they may even harrass the female too much!
The last lizard I wanted to show you is this magnificent Eyed Lizard (also known as a Jewelled Lizard). It is native to Europe (the mediterranean areas of Spain, Portugal, Southern France and North-Western Italy). They range in size from 30 to 90cm, and are generally green in colour. They are known as Eyed Lizards because their flanks are covered in large ocelli (markings that resemble eyes), which looks quite extraordinary. They eat large insects, as well as fruit and plant matter, and even reptiles, frogs and small mammals. They prefer living in dry, bushy shrubland, but are also found in sandy or rocky areas.
Our next stop was the enclosure with the guinea pigs, mice and birds. Not having had a guinea pig or a hamster or even a white rat as a pet in my younger years, I don’t really know much about these rodents. Fortunately, Wikipedia once more came to the rescue with some helpful information.
Guinea Pigs (Cavia porcellus) are also called cavy (singular) or cavies (plural); interestingly, despite their name, they do not belong in the pig family, nor do they come from Guinea! In fact, they originally came from the Andes mountains in South America. They have since been hybridized and domesticated, and do not exist naturally in the wild.
Indigenous South American groups regard them as a source of food, and also use them in folk medicine and religious ceremonies. In Western societies, in contrast, they are very popular as household pets, with many different breeds having been cultivated. Some of them have short hair, while others have long furry coats.
Unfortunately, as far back as the 17th century, they have also been used extensively in biological experiments and scientific research in human medical conditions – which is why the term ‘guinea pig’ began to be used to refer to a test subject. They emit quite a range of sounds (have a listen to the sound files here).
They were sharing their space with a couple of mice – like this cute little fella. I’ve no idea what kind of mouse this is, or whether he was supposed to be in here, but the guinea pigs didn’t seem to mind!
On the branches of trees and the wooden rafters above us, various birds were sitting and resting, or cleaning their feathers, or saying hello to their fellow housemates. Some playful ones swooped low over our heads, causing us to duck, and others were pecking at piles of seeds. There were doves, pigeons, parrots, cockatiels, budgies… I wish I knew all their species names!
We had reached the end of the tropical garden area, so we made our way back through the throngs of people to a large room with displays of spiders and scorpions in small glass boxes (with secure lids!). I wanted to take photos, but there were so many people in this enclosed space, that it was quite impossible. So unfortunately, I can’t show you any pictures this time. Next time perhaps! 🙂
We made a brief foray into the outdoor garden, with several lapas with wooden benches and tables offering welcome shade from the sun, and a place to sit and rest. Here there were also enclosures with meerkats and tortoises, and ducks and chickens were roaming all over the place. Refreshments could be bought at a kiosk inside a large lapa, where children could create artistic masterpieces with colourful sand! It looked like a fun thing to do with your kids!
We returned to the tropical garden, and wound our way through the exit into the gift shop. The adjacent Jungle Leaf Café was offering light refreshments, but we had enough of the crowds, and wanted to head home for Tea and Christmas Cookies (Streifenkekse) with Tuffy-Cat. Or perhaps even a refreshingly cool strawberry smoothie with all those freshly picked strawbs?!
We definitely want to come back here when it is quieter and there are less people around: What an amazing – and educational – place to visit!