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Some call it the “vegetable pantry”, while others call it the “bread basket” of Cape Town. The Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) is where you will find the Cape Flats Aquifer – the massive underground reservoir that enables farmers to plant and supply about half of Cape Town’s produce. This semi-urban area – between Ottery, Hanover Park, Mitchells Plain and Manenberg in the Cape Flats – is rich in history and cultural diversity, and is also home to numerous local birds and a unique plant species.
Before the cold winter kicked in, I was lucky to join a group of tourists on a special guided tour to some memorable places in the farming area of Philippi. We were exposed to a side of the PHA that most would not know and we even experienced the real culture of the indigenous Khoi people.
At each destination, we were welcomed by knowledgeable local guides who are all part of a tourism co-operative developed through a WWF Nedbank Green Trust-funded project which is run by the University of Stellenbosch.
The entire tour was a highlight, with these being the most memorable wonders, experiences and lessons for me:
The first stop for our group was at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Philippi where we learnt about the origins of farming at the Philippi Horticultural Area. I was fascinated to learn what is now affectionately known as the “vegetable pantry” of Cape Town was once sand dunes where the indigenous Khoi hunter-gatherers wandered and their herders grazed their livestock.
The guides shared that farming in Philippi was established in the late 1800s by German settlers who came to farm and supply the growing city of Cape Town with fresh vegetables. Although a big part of the farming area is now used for industrial and township development, the remaining farming land of about 1 595 hectares still grows vegetables of several types. This makes up about 50% of all the fresh produce sold in markets and by retailers around the “mother city”.
A museum located at the church tells part of the history brilliantly, with artifacts dating back to the late 1800s when the settlers first came to Philippi.
Edith Stevens Nature Reserve, also known as Edith Stevens Wetland Park, is another wonder of Philippi. It not only provides a habitat for a number of birds and plant species, but it is also home to a rare and relic aquatic plant called Cape Quillwort (Isoetes capensis). In fact, the wetland park was established with the intention to protect this very species. It only occurs in the Western Cape and nowhere else in the world. The guides told us that only a few have been lucky to see it. That’s how uncommon it is!
Different types of cormorants, white-backed ducks and ibises are some of the birds that one can expect to see hovering, foraging or resting in and around the wetland.
With such unique diversity, it makes sense to involve the community in taking care of the wetland and its treasures. Wetlands are threatened ecosystems that require special protection. The staff at Edith Stevens Wetland Park often invite local people on educational activities so they can learn about environmental issues that impact their neighbourhood, encouraging and working with them on clean-ups and recycling activities. In addition, they teach other practical skills, including plant propagation and urban farming, so that they can do it in their homes.
The star of our tour was the Khoi cultural village on the edge of the Phillipi Horticultural Area, where members of this indigenous community share their culture with their visitors. Dressed in their traditional attire, they sing, dance and praise in their unique language. Luckily, they can also speak English, so they were able to interpret it for us.
Their huts and kraals, made of sticks, are where they gather the Khoi women and youth to teach them about life skills, Khoi culture and tradition, including language and food. They speak proudly of their origins and the fact that they were the first to occupy the area.
Although today there are other ethnicities that call the PHA home, the Khoi community still preserve their cultural roots. They want to ensure that their children and great-grandchildren know and practice their culture and traditions in years to come. It was for this purpose that the late Danab !Nans, whose English name was Kenneth Herman, established the village in 2020.
The tour of the Philippi Horticultural Area was easily one of the most wonderful experiences I have had in a long time, and I'd love to experience it again. The community guides who showed us around – Glenda Herman, Tazlin Maasdorp, Joe Barends and City of Cape Town environmental education officer Stacey-Anne Michaels – with the help of an independent consultant, Dale Isaacs and Stellenbosch University’s Leanne Seeliger, said it was their very first tour they’d done. They were in the process of registering a tourism co-operative to continue providing an exceptional experience for their future PHA guests.
The plan is to grow tourism in Philippi and attract more visitors and locals to the area, but more than that, to create opportunities for local livelihoods and to combat poverty.
The tourism development initiative came about as part of a project that is funded by WWF Nedbank Green Trust and implemented by Stellenbosch University in the PHA. The project aims to establish several cooperatives within the community, in order to enable tourism, agriculture and nature-based solution job opportunities for community members.
Despite other social issues such as poverty, unemployment and crime in the Philippi Horticultural Area, the future of tourism looks promising. I look forward to my next visit, hopefully with my friends when the tour programme is up and running at the beginning of 2023. For now, special requests for a tour can be made by contacting Tazlin Maasdorp on email@example.com or 076 583 2256.
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