22 March 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Neil McGregor - a Tribute

It’s possible that Neil McGregor was the most famous farmer in South Africa. He was on first-name terms with Sir David Attenborough. He counted the former head of Kew Gardens, Sir Ghillean Prance, as a personal friend.  Every botanist worth his saltbush knew him, or knew of him.

Neil’s sheep farm just outside the little town of Nieuwoudtville is at the confluence of many ecosystems. Here fynbos washes up against succulent Karoo. Bulbs and geophytes are larded underground in the greatest concentration anywhere on Earth.

And Neil used to be a normal sheep farmer. But when he was still young, he acquired a camera, a Nikkormat, and for him, nothing was the same ever again. Through the macro lens, he found himself looking at the wealth of flowering plants anew, and he saw how vanishingly rare some were.

Flower tourists started to come to his farm, and he took them around his lands in a massive old bus nicknamed Flora. Soon you couldn’t get a seat for love nor money - but Neil never charged a lot. Just enough to cover his costs.

Eventually his farm Glen Lyon became known far and wide, and Attenborough filmed scenes for The Private Life of Plants here. Neil worked hard to preserve other pieces of land - the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve and to a very great extent, Namaqua National Park,which could not have been created without his dedication.

In 2007 we saw him again, on his 70th birthday. But he was tearful - he had to give up the farm because none of his children were farmers.

He moved to Cape Town, and died shortly after that. But his legacy and his love of the veld lives on. Glen Lyon is now South Africa’s newest National Botanical Garden. Seldom has so much been owed to a single sheep farmer.

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