City Sightseeing goes Fynbos Seeking
When we finished our tour through Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens (Bus Stop 20 on the Blue Mini Peninsula Tour) I turned to Olwen our guide and told her that capturing the beauty and scale of our surroundings would be impossible but promised to do my best anyway. You have a few options when looking at how to tour the Gardens. You have the option to do it solo, with friends or family, or with a guide like us with the added bonus of using a tour shuttle if walking is not your most enjoyable pastime.
Olwen Gibson, a volunteer and former teacher was our guide from The Botanical Society. Her knowledge proved so valuable in our two hour trek through the intricate network of pathways and shortcuts, so much so that I would highly recommend organising a guide if you decide to go.
On our arrival at the front desk you buy your ticket and can look around a bit before entering the garden itself. In the foyer there is a specimen desk that describes our unique fynbos as simply as possible so foreigners and locals alike can better understand what they’re seeing. It is here that Olwen tells us that there are three major plant families of fynbos: Restio, Protea, and Erica. We learnt too that pockets of the Cape Floristic Region including Table Mountain and Kirstenbosch are part of a World Heritage Site.
What makes Kirstenbosch Gardens unique is that with the odd exception here or there, every plant is indigenous to South Africa. Some of these exceptions include the trees planted by Cecil John Rhodes along Camphor Avenue and the Cork Oak from Gibraltar.
One very interesting feature was the Useful Plant Garden with categories like charm plants, edible plants, plants for stomach problems, and plants for erosion control. Some of these weird and wonderful plants were astounding, like the use of the bark off the Pepper bark tree as snuff or the use of the Imphepho as incense to ward off malevolent spirits. Some other examples include the Wormwood that can be boiled into a drink to treat coughs and the use of the sour fig as a balm to treat the sting of pesky bluebottles or eaten as a jam.
After learning some useful tips about our local flora we came across the Wild Almond, a tree that is several hundred years old, a type of Protea, and which bears fruit resembling almonds (yet not quite as palatable). On a historical sidetrack the Wild Almond was planted throughout Kirstenbosch by order of Jan van Riebeeck to establish the perimeter of the Dutch colony. The tree’s continued existence today is thanks in large part to the origin of the Gardens itself by Henry Harold Pearson, a Cambridge Professor who came to the Cape at the turn of the twentieth century and became the first Director of Kirstenbosch Gardens. He sought a location where he could give a better lecture on South Africa’s diverse and unique vegetation to his students but subsequently has provided so much more.
Further along we approached a small jungle beginning with a flood of bird and frog cries and a rather weird looking African Banana tree. It is a tree that gives bloom to a massive red flower hanging from its side with a myriad of smaller flowers growing within it, something truly weird yet oddly stunning too. Within the small jungle we were surrounded by shade loving plants called Clivia gardenii, watered by a natural spring higher up where Christopher Bird built a bath, a bath that now waters the lower gardens with clear spring water.
The highlight of my day was the cycad garden just above the spring. Although these plants are very rare today they were common in the Jurassic period and have evolved very little since then; included were latifrons, a virtually extinct plant today. The cycads along the slope of the garden are now pollinated by hand because the beetles that pollinated them aren’t here to do it. These plants are now sold worldwide as collector’s items and appear on the black market which is why many of them have been DNA encoded. The Encephalartos woodii specimen they have is one of the rarest plants in the world and is a clone from a single parent plant propagated using its suckers.
Even further up than the cycad garden is the Erica beds where they are divided into the nine regions of Southern Africa and are separated as such, but beware the buzz of bees that are always a little too close for comfort. Nearby a flourishing Buchu garden releases a plethora of fragrant smells; Buchu is the khoi word for ‘herb’ which the khoi would mix with fat and use as sunscreen. Another highlight worth mentioning was the King Protea, an absolutely stunning plant and despite most of its flowers being closed, made for quite a sight lined up along one another in a diamond like display.
Kirstenbosch Gardens covers 365 hectares, 30-40 hectares of which is planted flora from all over South Africa. It is one of the seven top gardens in the world and really deserves whatever other boast is has to offer because it pays so much attention to detail and provides an unforgettable experience. Along it pathways you will also find a couple of restaurants which includes a Moya where you can sit back and enjoy the African vibe. Seldom in today’s hustle and bustle do we find time to relax but Kirstenbosch really does provide an effective antidote to everyday stresses, an escape from the concrete jungles outside our very doors.
Specials now on offer include:
Free entry for children between the ages of 6-17 and shuttle car tours
In a nutshell: Kirstenbosch’s volunteer Garden Guides, who are brimming with amazing knowledge and insights into the garden, lead free guided walks around the garden on a daily basis. Walks are approximately 2 hours in duration, and are all slightly different as they are tailored to meet the needs and interests of each group and highlight seasonal interest in the garden. Walks depart at 10am, Monday to Saturday (excluding the first Monday of the month), from the Information Desk in the Visitors’ Centre.
I am currently a third year student at UCT and matriculated at Camps bay High School in 2009. My majors at UCT are English and History and for fun I go for regular hikes across the Cape Peninsula and can’t think of many trails or mountains I haven’t navigated within the area. I’ve traveled throughout the Western Cape by car for simple sight seeing and bird watching, including all the way up the West Coast and on a occasion to Graaff Reinet and Port Elizabeth.