Activities / Attractions / Eastern Cape

Graaff-Reinet’s Obesa Nursery – Walk the Cacti Labyrinth

Updated Tuesday, 25 December 2018

You either get it, or you don’t. With the Obesa Cactus Nursery. Although describing it as a ‘nursery’ hardly does the experience justice. For a visit here, if you allow it, is far more of an experience than it is a simple trip to the nursery to pick up a cactus or two for your window sill.

First of all the Obesa nursery takes up the better part of a block. For those of you who want to find it, hunt down the street dominated by a myriad psychedelically painted houses. They’re a series of guest houses that go by the same name as the nursery (run by Johan’s ex-wife, who remains a fan despite that). The nursery is directly across the road, and all over the pavement, and, if you look around you, on just about every available piece of ground.

This is the work of a man with a passion! Having lived with a gardening nut who has transformed the better part of our city garden into a wild vegetable mandala, I think I can handle it.

Obesa Cacti Nursery

Photographs — Left: What colour / Right: Spiky bundles

I enter the gardens on one of those ridiculously hot days (and it isn’t even February) reserved typically for little towns in the Karoo. Not a breath of wind stirs, sweat slithers down my face as I hide under a large hat, my arms protected from the sun by a linen blouse that feels rather as though I’ve encased myself in a furnace.

All thought of my discomfort vanishes, however, as we enter the nursery. So as not to totally overwhelm a mini ‘nursery’ is what greets one first, set under shadecloth. Johan, his grey hair drawn back in a ponytail under a sorry excuse for a hat, his wild woolly grey beard slightly yellowed from years of smoking, shakes my hand and welcomes me, his distinctly blue eyes an indication of his obvious intelligence and knowledge of plants.

At first he’s slightly reticent, in a warm kind of way, sending me on a walk through the cacti, brushing off any questions. He point blank refuses a photograph. The only one of him, he says, is the one in his ID book. I think I’m going to like this man.

I’ve already done an internet trawl on the nursery and know there isn’t much there. On his own website Johan speaks about himself simply as CJ Bouwer and says very little about himself and his passion, bar the fact that he knows cacti (the pictures alone are worth looking at). Nothing quite prepares you for the real thing.

For the cacti gardens at Obesa are art. It’s like outsider art. Along the lines of the Owl House, but in plants. Not only that, it also extends for miles (okay, slight exaggeration on my part, but we’re not talking a mere nursery here). There are at least ten hectares’ worth of cacti, and nothing to distract one except the intense blue of the Karoo sky.

Obesa Nursery

Photographs — Left: Little boxes on the hillside / Right: Cactus flowers in bloom

As I begin to gently walk through the cacti, careful not to catch my flimsy skirt on any of the needle like projections that masquerade as thorns, I am joined by an avid cacti collector who deems himself something of a connoisseur. In typical Gauteng fashion he manages to give me a running commentary about his pursuit of cacti and former visit to the garden, photograph the plants he hasn’t yet managed to capture, and chat on his cell phone.

I’m just wondering whether or not he’s actually enjoying any of this, when his wife calls and obviously declines to join him. He’s off and I get to enjoy the space in quiet. It deserves to be taken slowly and appreciated. As I said originally: you either get it, or you don’t. And I imagine quite a few people don’t.

Johan has spent the better part of forty years planting cacti. The place is a labyrinth – small pathways interspersed with huge, towering cacti, then around the next corner an entire garden’s worth of little, fat, spiky cacti, euphorbs and caudiciforms. And so it continues. The place is ablaze with aloes, rare and endangered and Madagascan succulents and more.

Johan initially began by collecting haworthias and seeds, followed soon by a series of lithops, and then every and any seed he could lay his hands on. That he has green fingers is obvious, as the place is literally crawling with plants.

Everything is in flower too, something we’re incredibly lucky to witness. The flowers come 10 days after rain, and last but 5 days. I later learn that some cacti only open their flowers in the exception, whilst others can only fully open for two hours at night. But the flowers here have either just flowered or have been open for a day or two, so I get the full benefit.

I walk for ages, drinking in the different arrangements of these sometimes huge, sometimes little plants that can take the punishing heat of the Karoo, and hook up with my son and husband, who have been the entire way around the cacti at least twice. My six-year old is already chatting nine to the dozen about the cacti he wants for his garden bed at home. Am I destined to have two plant fanatics to deal with?

Obesa Nursery

Photographs — Left: Scale the heights / Right: Succulents a growing

Hard to believe but Johan is a lawyer by trade. You would never say that the hippy I see infront of me, moonlights in the courts (or is it the other way around?). Whilst cacti are his life’s passion, he’s needed to earn to put his three children through school and university. And the beauty of the garden helps take his mind off some of the less savoury aspects of his work in the criminal world.

Over-and-above my respect for the incredible cacti jungle he’s single-handedly produced, I’m amazed that he manages to juggle the two professions that seem so diametrically opposed. Most artists need to indulge or totally immerse themselves in their work to achieve anything. And yet here we stand in amongst a lifetime’s part-time work.

Johan smiles and nods. The garden has only been open to the public for six years. “People visiting from other countries complained” he quips, “it was time to share it”.

I for one, am glad he does. By now my son is awkwardly staggering towards us, his arms laden with little succulents he’s selected. I’m busy swatting off the mosquitos that have decided they may as well dine in style. Johan declines to accept money for the plants. “I don’t charge children for anything,” he says.

We part at the gateway to the garden and nursery, having made a friend.

The name ‘Obesa’ is derived from the euphorbia obesa plant that is indigenous to the Kendrew area, which lies in the Graaff-Reinet district. It is protected by the World Succulent Society, and it’s common name used to be ‘kafferhutjie’ because of its similarity to to an African hut.

Useful Links:

Graaff-Reinet Attractions
Graaff Reinet Map
Graaff Reinet Hotels
Eastern Cape Accommodation

Directions to Obesa Nursery:

In Graaff Reinet, drive south down Church Street, turn left into Bresler Street, where the massive white signboard says: ‘Obesa Wholesale Nursery’.