Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is certainly no secret. Widely acclaimed as one of the greatest botanical gardens in the world, it’s high on the “hit list” of most tourists visiting South Africa. The grandeur of its setting against the slopes of Table Mountain is hard to beat, and one can easily spend a day just wandering about and discovering the garden with occasional stops to re-fuel at the tearoom or at Moyo restaurant. If you’re really lucky, and you visit in breeding season for the Cape Eagle Owl, you might even spot one of the breeding pairs and their young nestled in the trees or taking a tentative stroll near the main gate or above the cycad garden.
But if you are pushed for time or prefer a more directed visit, you might like to head straight for some of these top Kirstenbosch spots.
The Wild Almonds
This might seem like an unremarkable place to start the list considering all the other attractions the garden has to offer, but whenever I think about my favourite places to visit in Kirstenbosch, this clump of trees always comes to mind first. If you have children, dragging them around the expansive, hilly garden can be quite a challenge. These wonderful sprawling trees next to a stream and a large grassy stretch perfect for playing on (or sitting on while you watch your offspring gambol about) is a very welcome way to take a break from the walking. The trees themselves are beautiful and many of them have nice thick trunks almost parallel to the ground, perfect for children of all ages to climb.
If you’re not a big tree climber but you like the idea of wandering about at the top of the tree canopy, head for the Boomslang.
The Boomslang Canopy Trail – Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway
Boomslang means tree snake, and the curved steel and timber design of this low-impact, low maintenance walkway (more formally called the Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway) was inspired by a snake skeleton. Constructed in 2013-2014 and opened to the public in 2014, the Boomslang snakes its way unintrusively through the top of the trees as its name suggests, providing explorers with extraordinary panoramic views over the tree canopy and the garden. There is wheelchair access to the Boomslang, but if you’re planning on visiting in a wheelchair it’s a good idea to consult the website in advance to find out the best access routes.
When you want to take a break from walking, go and sit next to the Otter Pond (even if you can’t jump in, just the sight and sound of the water is refreshing) or head upstream to my other all-time-favourite spot in Kirstenbosch, Colonel Bird’s Bath.
Colonel Bird’s Bath.
Although you’ll find it listed on the map as Colonel Bird’s Bath, locals still often refer to the waterhole at the heart of the Dell as Lady Anne Barnard’s Bath, after the wife of the Colonial Secretary who lived in the Cape from 1797 to 1802. I always loved the idea of her galloping up there on horseback for a morning dip, but sadly this legend is untrue as the bath was only built after she left the Cape.
The real history of the bath was that it was built in about 1811 by Colonel Christopher Bird, then the Deputy Colonial Secretary, who built the pool (in the shape of a bird, as a play on his name) to collect spring water so that it could stand and clarify before being piped into the house.
But history aside, the pool is really beautiful and an absolute must to visit. You’re not allowed to swim in it (though many have) but it’s enough just to perch and take in the beautiful surroundings: the magnificent Tree Ferns are my favourite. While you’re there, don’t forget to drink a handful of the pure, pH neutral water that flows up from an underground spring all year round at an average of 72 litres per minute – it’s delicious!
Just above the Bath is the extraordinary cycad collection, which should definitely not be missed. These palm-like plants are known as “living fossils” because they have hardly changed since the Jurassic Era 150-200 million years ago. Cycads are rare and endangered and Kirstenbosch propagates them to avoid collectors taking them from the wild. You can buy cycad plants at the annual Garden Fair and Plant Sale held every March, and at the Kirstenbosch Garden Centre, but remember that you will need a permit if you want to take them out of the country. Lurking in the undergrowth around the cycads are several bronze dinosaur sculptures. A search for all six of dinosaurs might distract any children you’re visiting with while you catch your breath.
If you want to give your other senses some attention after all these sights, head towards the Fragrance Garden and the Braille Trail in the direction of the tea room and garden centre near Gate 2.
The Fragrance Garden and the Braille Trail.
You’ll encounter all sorts of smells in the Fragrance Garden, some delicious (I’m a sucker for Pelargonia) and some definitely not so much (like the one that smells like cat wee to me). It’s shaped in a small loop, handy for corralling children through, and provides a brief and pleasant olfactory focus. Close by is the Braille Trail. Whereas sightseeing is normally, as its name suggests, focused on vision, the Braille Trail is great for those who’d like to give their other senses some extra input. Originally designed for patrons who are visually impaired, the trail provides an opportunity for anyone to close their eyes and use the rough ropes on their left-hand side to guide them sightlessly through almost half a kilometer of garden trail. When your hand reaches one of the large wooden “beads” in the rope you are alerted to a sign post, in English and in braille on the reverse side, which tells you something about where you are standing. You might even choose not to open your eyes to read these – walking the whole Braille Trail with your eyes shut can be quite a transporting experience, and it only takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
Take a hike
Kirstenbosch is a great place to start or end a hike. A great one to try if you have about an hour and are feeling energetic is the Yellowwood Trail. It’s quite a demanding ascent to start off with, and definitely not one to choose if you feel like a gentle stroll. After you’ve hiked up the slope you reach Skeleton Gorge. At this point, we turned left and followed the contour path back down to the gardens, taking in some wonderful views along the way. Alternatively, if you feel like something more strenuous and have about five hours to spare, you could follow Skeleton Gorge to the top of Table Mountain instead. Be warned, despite its location in the middle of the city, Table Mountain is a realmountain, not a theme park and hiking Skeleton Gorge is not something to be undertaken lightly or with young kids – unless yours are unusually fit and willing. Ideally, go with someone who knows the route if you are not familiar with it, but whether or not you take a guide, take a map, a hat, some sunblock, something warm to wear just in case, and make sure you take enough water and are wearing sturdy walking shoes.
I haven’t even touched on the many other attractions that the garden has to offer: the live concerts, the sculpture garden and outdoor art exhibitions, the great gift shop, the Protea garden, the conservatory, the garden shop (for plant take-aways!) and the Useful Plant garden, to name just a few. A picnic at Kirstenbosch is also a great way to spend some time, and the fact that one is allowed to bring one’s own picnic fare (including for the open-air concerts, and including alcohol) rather than being forced into buying it on site as many other places require you to do, is a great bonus. If you do want to buy a picnic there instead, you can order from the tea room.
If you’re not picnicking and you need some refreshment, you can get a great tea, breakfast or light meal at tea room (near Gate 2) or go to the Moyo restaurant, which specialises in Pan African food, for something more substantial.
Whether you’re young or old, fit or unfit, a garden-lover or someone who prefers the arts, or if you’re visually-impaired or visiting in a wheelchair, you’re likely to find something to enjoy in these magnificent gardens.