Kirstenbosch is South Africa’s oldest, largest and most exquisite botanical garden.
The gardens stretch up the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, merging seamlessly with the fynbos of the steep slopes above. Cecil Rhodes bought Kirstenbosch farm in 1895 and promptly presented the site to the people of South Africa with the intention that it become a botanical garden. It was not until 1913 that it was proclaimed a National Botanical Garden – the Anglo-Boer War had caused the delay. The first director of the gardens was Professor Harold Pearson, who died just three years after the garden’s creation. A granite Celtic Cross marks his grave in the Cycad garden. There is a fitting epitaph: “If ye seek his monument, look around you.” The real development was under Professor RH Compton, who cared for the gardens for 34 years. The herbarium, named after him, houses over 250,000 specimens, including many rare plants.
A great deal of time and effort has been put into making the gardens accessible to the general public, ensuring they provide pleasure for both serious botanists and families enjoying a day out on the slopes of Table Mountain. In the Fragrance Garden herbs and flowers are set out so as to make appreciating their scents effortless. On a warm day, when the volatile oils are released by the plants, there are some rather overpowering aromas. The plaques are also in Braille. The Dell follows a beautifully shaded path snaking beneath ferns and along a stream. Indigenous South African herbs can be inspected in the Medicinal Plants Garden, each one identified and used by the Khoi and San peoples in the treatment of a variety of ailments. The plants’ uses are identified on plaques, and it seems that most ailments are covered – kidney trouble, rheumatics, coughs, cancer, piles and bronchitis. For a sense of the past, it is worth visiting what is known as Van Riebeeck’s Hedge. Back in 1660 a hedge of wild almond trees (Brabejum stellatifolium) was planted by Van Riebeeck as part of a physical boundary to try and prevent cattle rustling. Segments still remain today within the garden. The Skeleton Path can be followed all the way to the summit of Table Mountain. It starts off as a stepped path, but becomes fairly steep near the top. It involves a climb up a rocky waterfall; take special care in the wet season.
Perhaps the most enjoyable way of experiencing the gardens is at one of the Sunday sunset concerts held throughout summer . Also available for a small fee are eco-adventure tours, and tours by motorized golf cart. Just beyond the entrance is a shop and café on the courtyard terrace. The shop has the usual collection of curios, along with a good choice of books on South Africa and a selection of indigenous plants. The café serves overpriced sandwiches and cakes; better value and with far nicer views is the Silver Tree and Fynbos Deli inside the gardens, which serves good meals (until 2200). And, for a reasonable price, you can have a ready-made picnic with wine and join the Capetonians on the lush lawns.
Kirstenbosch is 5 km south of Rondesbosch. By far the easiest way of getting here is by hire car. Alternatively, take a Rikki taxi – they will pick up and drop off at any time other than rush hour. Most of the organized city tours also include the gardens on their itinerary and the City Sightseeing buses stop here.