I always enjoy botanic gardens: the peaceful surroundings, the brightly coloured plants and the profusion of birds. But there are a few things that make Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, different. Firstly there is the unique fynbos vegetation, not found anywhere else in the world. And then there are the gardens themselves, with The Boomslang (Treetop Walk), the African stone sculptures on display in the gardens, and the imaginative displays of local plants including a Braille Trail and the Fragrance Garden.
History of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
Kirstenbosch has a long history. People have lived here since the earliest times, and the remains of Stone Age axes have been found in the grounds. Later the forests provided timber for the Dutch East India Company and subsequently the area was turned into a farm. The last private owner of the land was Cecil Rhodes, who bequeathed it to the City of Cape Town.
The Gardens were established in 1913 with the specific aim of preserving the region’s unique flora. Today it is divided into distinct areas, such as the Useful Plants Garden, the Arboretum and the Sculpture Garden. There is even a Garden of Extinction, displaying a number of South African plants that are in danger of extinction.
Exploring the Botanical Gardens
You could spend all day exploring these gardens. They cover an area of more than 5 square kilometres and include formal gardens and a nature reserve. As you would expect in a once-forested area, there are trees everywhere, some so old that they have “centenarian” tags proudly pinned to them. And there are lots of birds. We watched a pair of helmeted guinea fowl and a Cape francolin kicking up the soil to find food for her chicks. Sunbirds and steppe buzzards can be seen if you’re lucky (we didn’t see them here but we spotted lots elsewhere in the Western Cape).
One of the highlights for me was the Tree Canopy Walkway, nicknamed The Boomslang (Afrikaans for “tree snake”), which winds its way through the treetops, giving you views across the garden and towards the Table Mountain. In fact, the mountain dominates the gardens, visible almost wherever you go. If you are feeling energetic, there is a well-used path up to the top from here.
Fynbos and the Cape Floral Kingdom
As the name suggests, the plant life of the Cape Floral Kingdom is unique to this part of South Africa. 80% of the vegetation here is fynbos (Afrikaans for “fine bush”), a mixture of reeds, ericas, proteas and bulbous plants that create a rich and colourful landscape. It is so distinctive that the Cape Floral Kingdom has been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covering Kirstenbosch, Table Mountain and other areas in the Western Cape.
We walked around the Fynbos Garden and then along the Fynbos Walk, enjoying the plants and the views. There was too much to see in one visit but we had started to get an understanding of the landscape and flora of this corner of Africa.