CAPE TOWN, Jan 15 — We’ve explored some of the world’s most beautiful botanical gardens, from the Wellington Botanic Garden in New Zealand, beloved for its Lady Norwood Rose Garden, to the Royal Botanic Gardens in England, home to the world’s largest collection of plants.
But no other botanical garden astounds visitors with its wild, sprawling landscapes as much as the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa. While the other gardens we visited had a formal — and geometric in some instances — layout, Kirstenbosch is famed for its untamed and unrestrained natural splendour.
If there is a design here, it feels almost as though it’s been left up to Mother Nature. Little wonder Kirstenbosch is the first botanic garden in the world to be included within a Unesco Natural World Heritage Site (the Cape Floristic Region). To get there, head south from Cape Town; the garden is only 13 kilometres from the city centre. Parking is plentiful and free at Gates 1, 2 and 3.
While there are free guided tours (about one every hour), it’s more fun to cover the grounds of the garden on your own and experience it at your own pace. There are plenty of signposts and map boards so you won’t get lost (other than getting lost in your own reverie, that is).
Entering the garden, the breadth of it will take your breath away (no pun intended). From the unusual flora — found nowhere else in the world — greeting you to the forest-like treetops in the mid-distance and finally the spectacular backdrop of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch does indeed feel wilder.
Founded in 1913 by Harold Pearson, the first Chair of Botany at the South African College, Kirstenbosch used to be a wild stretch of forest that was a source of timber for early Dutch settlements. The name Kirstenbosch, first appearing in 1795, means “Kirsten’s Forest” in Dutch, so it is believed that the land was owned by one of the families named Kirsten back then.
Rather than showing off exotic, imported plants and flowers, Kirstenbosch was unique in its large-scale devotion to preserving a country’s indigenous flora. Here, special attention is given to species endemic to the fynbos (which means “fine-leaved plants” in Dutch), a small belt of natural shrubland in South Africa.
This means there are lots to discover so perhaps the best place to start is... with filling up your belly. Yes, why not load up on calories as you’ll be burning plenty of them later as you walk around. (At least this is what we tell ourselves. We may just have been hungry.)
Though there are restaurants and cafés on site, perhaps the way to lunch is to pack a picnic basket and find a nice shady spot beneath a tree or out in the open on the lawn, if you fancy some sunbathing too. The lawns around the ponds are well-maintained but don’t be deceived; there’s nothing “domesticated” about this scene.
Indeed as we nibble on sandwiches and sip on bottled water, we observe others busy with their meals too. Or looking for their meals, to be exact. For I don’t mean other families and visitors (though there are plenty, especially when the weather is fine), but feathered friends such as helmeted guinea fowl and Egyptian geese, along with their respective offspring, pecking at tiny prey in the lush grass.
Once you’ve satiated your hunger, you’ve a choice of wandering around or following specific trails such as that of the aforementioned fynbos, where you will find strange-looking flowers found nowhere else in the world. We marvel at the pineapple-like flower heads of the king protea, a species of sugarbushes that dates back over 140 million years, to the needle-leaf pincushion, so named due to its fine, tendril-like buds that form a cushion shape.
There are entire fields of flowers — the one of osteospermum, also known as the Cape daisy or Orange Symphony, is especially dramatic. We are reminded of a sea of sun-burnished gold. Linger... or head to the fragrance garden, where all manner of wild aromatic flowers and herbs will beguile you.
In fact, you are actually encouraged to touch the leaves of most of these plants so you may sniff at the scented oils that rub off on your fingers. We are not the only ones this fragrance garden attracts, it seems, as there are many tiny creatures scuttling around. If your eyes are sharp, you may spot the glistening Cape skink or the rougher-looking marbled gecko.
For unparalleled panoramic views of the garden and beyond, take a stroll along the Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway. Built to celebrate the centenary of Kirstenbosch in 2013, the walkway is a curved steel and timber bridge that is inspired by the shape of the snake’s skeleton. Winding this way and that over the treetops, it’s not hard to see why it got its moniker of the Boomslang, which means “tree snake” in Afrikaans and Dutch.
We enter the 130-metre-long walkway through a shaded entrance at the forest floor and slowly climb higher and higher, tree branches surrounding us, until we “surface” above the canopy. This is perhaps the best part of the walkway: at 12 metres above ground, we have a 360-degree view that only cements in our minds how wonderfully wild Kirstenbosch is.
Birdwatching is another favourite activity here; it can be a game between you and your companions to see who can sight the most number of birds. Besides the very common hummingbirds (they can be seen everywhere, darting from flower to flower in search of nectar), there are also the African dusky flycatcher swooping all over the place as they nab flying insects and the orange-breasted sunbirds, easily identifiable thanks to the male’s striking breast plumage.
There are forest canaries and lemon doves; there are long-tailed sugarbirds and even sparrowhawks. But perhaps the most reclusive bird of all is the spotted eagle-owl, which nests near tree stumps in the dell. If you spot one, do be careful not to disturb it as it may be nesting and incubating a clutch of eggs.
After a long and full day at Kirstenbosch, we prepare to take our leave of the garden. Walking to the exit, we notice there are still families lazing around on picnic mats, their children laughing and playing.
They are in no hurry to leave, and who can blame them? Kirstenbosch is more than just a place to enjoy Nature; it is a refuge from a world that is increasingly modernised and digital and subsequently stressful.
We change our minds and linger a little longer too, to say a proper goodbye to the birds and blooms of Kirstenbosch... and to promise to return one day.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Rhodes Drive, Newlands, Cape Town, South Africa
Open during summer (Sep-Mar) Mon-Sun 8am-7pm and during winter (Apr-Aug) Mon-Sun 8am-6pm
Fees: 60 rand (RM19) for adults; 15 rand (RM5) for children 6-17 years; free for children under 6 years