Kirstenbosch – the fairy tale garden in Cape Town
It doesn’t matter what time of year you choose to visit the Mother City (Cape Town), Kirstenbosch should absolutely be on your itinerary. Kirstenbosch lives up to its reputation as the most beautiful garden in Africa and one of the greatest botanical gardens in the world, and there is something to it especially as there are more species of plants here than in the entire British Isles!
Situated perfectly on the eastern slopes of the Table Mountain reserve with its rolling hills and beautifully manicured gardens, it is an important cultural site on the city’s map. It is here that the city’s summer concerts and open-aired cinemas take place at sunset. Cape Town residents love to spend time here during weekend picnics enjoying the outdoors with their families, there is enough space, and everyone will find a piece of grass for themselves to relax, unwind and have fun.
There are two entrances that lead to the garden in which you can start the beautiful long walks. I usually choose the first one, known as the “Visitors Centre”. Directly behind the entrance, there is an amazing Camphor Avenue from which I usually start my walks, strolling under the canopy of huge camphor trees that are native to China as well as Australian fig trees and pines from Southern Europe.
Kirstenbosch is divided into several sections. After a few visits, I have already found my favorite route. First, the aforementioned avenue, and then I visit the amphitheater of evergreen cycads as if it’s taken from the set of the Jurassic Park movie. Do not be fooled by their appearances though similar to palm trees or ferns. They have little to do with them. Moreover, they produce cones, but are not conifers, meaning cycads do not produce true flowers or fruit, just one or more large seed cones. They appeared on our planet millions of years ago and thanks to them we can imagine what the world would have looked like in the era of dinosaurs. By the way, the reptile replicas are perfectly integrated into this part of the garden.
Cycads are one of the oldest collections of plants in the garden, planted in year 1913 to 1914. The first director of the garden and one of its founders, Dr. Henry Harold Welch Person, was responsible for its appearance and design. An amazing character that will forever remain associated with the Kirstenbosch Gardens. His grave lies near the cyclopean amphitheatre.
Then I venture out and visit the garden with different species of proteas, and make my way to the fynbos plants. Proteas are unusual and can only be found in South Africa, the King Protea is the national flower of the country. The stately head is made up of many small flowers, gathered together. The pink petals, on the other hand, are actually stiff and hardy leaves. The species Leucospermum, the so-called cushions, also belongs to the protea family. They have an interesting appearance and come in a variety of colors.
The protea section blends harmoniously with fynbos, a plant formation unique to this part of the world. You can learn more about fynbos in my article “Magical Table Mountain (link)”. We can discover the plants, see the birds that pollinate them, and find out why fire is key to the growth of the fynbos. These flowers boast in color from July to December.
Another interesting place where I always spend a little more time and explore is the garden of fragrances and healing plants. In the first garden, my sense of smell comes to life by touching them, however, the most intense aromas are experienced at sunrise and sunset. Insects are drawn and captivated by the smell at night. The white and yellow colors of the plants also help them to navigate the pollinators at night.
Healing plants is a topic for a separate article. Used and mastered for thousands of years, they provide an insight into how the African people have done and still cope without access to contemporary medicine. In this section, I was surprised by the information about toothbrushes, being European I would have never pictured this, for example, the use of mopane twigs or mustard shrubs, by chewing them helps to remove plaque, and vegetable oils prevent tooth decay. It seems that Africans knew how to take care of their oral hygiene long before the invention of modern toothbrushes (in Europe they appeared about 300 years ago). The “Miracle” herb buchu, for hundreds of years used by the local Khoisan tribe, amongst others used this herb for stomach aches or those related to the urinary system. It was also believed to be the potion of youth. This aromatic plant has a wide medicinal use today and can be found in herbal stores across the country as well as in teas. I highly recommend trying this magical herb.
Recently, I visited the garden alone to switch off and relax as well as see the flowers blooming which only happens once a year in Spring. Here is a personal story that reminded me while walking alone in the alleys. A month after moving to South Africa, my friend Andrea came to Cape Town on a business trip. It was obvious to me that on his day off, we had to go to Kirstenbosch, and I had to show him the famous suspension bridge. This was going to be my second visit to the garden and I felt confident enough in being his guide. We started his arrival with a night escapade around the local clubs. We came to a place that didn’t seem like a place for tourists to play, but Andrea and his colleagues didn’t mind. We melted into the local African community and the party dragged on for a while. And that was a mistake. The next day, with a terrible hangover, we went sightseeing and I was still convinced that I could be the best guide in the world without a map! The garden area is really vast with 528 hectares of land. While looking for a bridge, we got lost several times. I already knew from that day I should have absolutely not shown anyone around the attractions. In addition, I had a slip-up when looking at the blackboard with the animals you can expect to see in the garden, I imagined a turtle there. At my joyful exclamation, I said “Andrea, see here are turtles”, my friend looked at me with confusion “Monika, this is a frog”, moral of the story is I think it would be better to visit the garden with a guide, or at least equip yourself with a map at the entrance. Just some advice it is also worthwhile seeing the garden when sober. Unless you want to confuse the sculpture of an otter with one that’s alive (which also happened to me that day).
Why was the suspension bridge so important in our sightseeing program? Because the view from it to the garden and the surrounding peaks is unearthly. 130 meters long, steel and wooden, it is supposed to resemble a snake. Hence its name, The Boomslang (in the African language, it is a tree snake). One enters it and gets a feeling of being in an enchanted forest, whilst being in the canopy of the trees. The highest point of the bridge is 12 meters above the ground. The treetops are home to geckos, butterflies, spiders, and owls. So be sure to look out for them. The “Serpent” bridge and other attractions can be seen in my video below:
After a long day (walks can be exhausting), it is worth visiting the local garden restaurant “Moyo”. The prices are affordable. We will pay between $6 to $8 for a chicken salad with sesame or a homemade burger. Full menu: http://www.moyo.co.za/moyo-kirstenbosch/#menus.
While waiting for our food to arrive, we can go to an artistic performance or have our faces decorated with an African pattern. It is impossible to list all the plants found in the garden. There is a forest with lilies, various types of palm trees, some with aloe or majestic oaks. Each time you discover something new and surprising. Kirstenbosch is a mind of knowledge. We will learn, for example, why we cannot eat the fruit of wild almonds, and how to distinguish from a real banana tree to almost an identical one, its false friend. Between the alleys and in various hidden places, you can sit for a moment on the benches, on which the attention is drawn by custom-made signs, e.g. for family members, in memory of their relatives who have passed away. The photos I posted in my article that I took at different times of the year do not fully reflect the beauty of Kirstenbosch. For me, it is a garden out of a fairy tale book, which is as beautiful as the rays of the sun make her alive or when clouds gather above her and shroud her in a hint of mystery. The flowers bloom at different times of the year so it’s always beautiful here. Anyway, see for yourself!
Garden map available here and at the entrance: https://www.sanbi.org/gardens/kirstenboch/garden-information/garden-maps
The garden is open from 08:00 to 19:00 (September-March), 08:00 to 18:00 (April-August).
The Conservatory (building at the entrance of the Visitor Centre, with plants representing various African regions) open from 09:00 to 17:00
Tickets: adult R75, child up to 6 years free
Part of the garden is disabled-friendly. Map with available routes https://www.sanbi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/wheelchair-access-paths-Kirstenbosch-Garden-Map-2018.pdf
The garden organizes free guided tours on certain days of the week and at specific times, you only need to pay for admission.
More information here https://www.sanbi.org/gardens/kirstenboch/visitor-information/guided-tours/
You can easily reach the garden by the red bus tour (blue line) which is another tourist attraction.