Belle Barker, who turned 80 on August 22, has been awarded the Overstrand Conservation Forum's Lifetime Achievement Award for the
magnificent contribution she has made to conservation in the area.
A plaque was presented to her at her birthday botanical meeting at Fernkloof recently and a tribute by Rupert
Langerman, longtime walking companion, was read to
an enthusiastic audience.
At the request of many friends and members, the text of the tribute follows below:
Ten years of walking the Hermanus mountains with Belle leaves a mix of impressions and emotions. Happy ones, and they tumble enthusiastically from memory. The pleasures of being in the open again, breathing in the expansive sense of freedom, and the delights of learning the secrets of the paths.
A remarkable person, Belle. In the stark heat of summer, in the brumous times of spring and autumn, and in winter's flurries of rain that chill the bones and fill the stony paths with rivulets - Belle walks, undeterred. She reads the mountain well.
Her energy seems to be drawn from flowers about, her knowledge to be as certain as the sandstone ridges. She is never too proud to admit she doesn't know, or to learn from somebody who does - an amazing humility in somebody now celebrating her eightieth birthday.
Each walk is a book, another page turned. Perceptions are heightened. The folded hills are there as before, the fretted rocks lining the higher paths, and the vistas stretched out below; but Belle has focused attention on another magic, the fynbos underfoot. The heaths, the proteas, the restios - and her observations bring the path to life.
She recites the names with the respect shown to equals. Hyobanche sanguinea , it might be, or Hermas quinquedentata . So many names, so many. But the walks are never a mantra of lugubrious Latin.
One of her group calls from the back: "What is this Belle?" and she retraces her steps, to give the genus and the family, and possibly some anecdote about the flower and when and where it is at its best.
This wide knowledge leaves the impression that Belle must have spent much of her life wandering the Vogelgat, Fernkloof and Onrus mountains. But her association with the fynbos here is more recent. After a happy childhood in Kenya, of which she has fond memories, she moved to Queensland , Australia, with her husband, later returning to farm in Du Toitskloof. But her history has been written by others. Sufficient to say, she and her husband retired to Hermanus 22 years ago - and the mountain walks began.
Belle was fortunate in her mentor, the late Dr Ion Williams. He had amassed an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the fynbos of the area - his doctorate was on the subject - and realizing her enthusiasm he proved a remarkable teacher. She and her husband walked far and wide with him and his group of devotees. They not only learnt about the fynbos as they went but worked on the mountain with him, helping to create paths and build huts and make the way more accessible - a legacy enjoyed by visitors today.
Inevitably, Belle became obsessed with one of Dr Williams's visions: a mountain as far as possible clear of alien vegetation where the fynbos could flourish in its natural state. And she set to work with a steadfastness born of her Scots background, first under his direction and later with companions of her own.
No slope was too steep, no kloof too forbidding if hakea, pine or acacia were there. She inspired by example, and up and down the mountains her group went, men and women, armed with saws, clippers,
secateurs, and back they would come, hours later,
breathless, sweating and flushed with success.
Belle would keep a tally of what each hacker had taken out and then announce the grand total. And it was grand. Hakeas, pines and acacias by the thousands over the years, and the knowledge that if they had been left to multiply the mountains would not be as they are.
And what of her helpers? Well, there is a measure of bribery for sure. For Belle always arrives with a large supply of home-baked biscuits for tea. Crunchies are a favourite, oatmeal and custards not far behind. And then there is her speciality. Over time they have come to be known as "Belle's irresistibles', a solid, sweet, soft after-lunch biscuit, full of raisins, delicious, but designed to restore energy for an afternoon shift And they do.
Belle's lunch itself is something to be wondered at. It is always the same.An offering of lettuce leaves laid out in a margarine carton with a suggestion of grated carrot and a thin scrape of mayonnaise. Rooibos tea follows. Frugal to say the least; not a sustaining meal for a hacker. Just how it provides the phenomenal energy she displays is anyone's guess.
But Belle's life has not just been looking at fynbos and eradicating aliens; there is a lot more that fills her days. For years she spent hours at the Fernkloof Herbarium, checking fusty specimens whose faded colours proclaim their age. And for years she gathered and identified flowers for the Fernkloof Visitors' Centre display.
Then there were times when she led academic tours, the Rand Afrikaans University being one. Fernkloof is like a map in her head and she knows exactly where to find the flowers "the professor and his students" wish to examine. Roridula, reveal yourselves. And they do.
Then there was the annual wildflower show. With the show's focus mainly on flowers in the early years, this meant receiving bakkie loads from farmers round about, and also collecting great bunches on the mountains. Once sorted, these were arranged by "the ladies" in the hall with what was left being offered for sale. And all the flowers had to be sprayed regularly to keep them fresh. Belle did not arrange flowers but she was no stranger to the more arduous tasks and her expertise in the naming of the specimens on display was legendary.
As Belle gave of herself at the show so she did at the Botanical Society lectures, talks and slide shows every month, and the teas that followed. Here, she was at her most self-effacing , with apron and cloth, washing and drying cups and saucers. Like the hakea, it was a job that had to be done, and she was content to do it, allowing others to botanise next door.
One might wonder why. But she has an inner strength given to few. Perhaps it comes from her constant awareness of the mountains, of the black eagle scouring the skies before plummeting to its nest, of the fish eagle's call haunting the waters below, of the population of smaller birds her husband photographed before his death - they are all part of her day.
Sometimes an exclamation might escape her when she looks at a sweep of orange pillansia on a slope, or at a group of grysbok peeping over a ridge - as it did when she saw them with fellow mountain spirit, Nancy
Breitenbach. The exclamation seldom rises above:
"Isn't that wonderful? We are blessed!" And the sight lives on with her.
It is a world apart. It is a world that Belle has strived to maintain for years. How fortunate for sensitive people coming after her.