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Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden: Cape Town’s beautiful backyard

Nestled on the eastern slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden has a lot to boast about. For starters, with Table Mountain as its backdrop and incorporating spectacular views of the mountains it is arguably one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world. It is also the only botanical gardens in the world to be part of a proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is dedicated to showcasing the indigenous floral diversity of South Africa, one of the richest in the world.

 Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
The beautiful backdrop for the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

Set within the Cape Floristic Region (also known as the Cape Floral Region) Kirstenbosch Gardens is a sample of this region’s unbelievable species diversity. The Cape Floral Region has approximately 9500 species, 70% of which do not occur anywhere else in the world. This is the highest concentration of plant species of any of the world’s six floral regions!

As well as the Cape’s Fynbos, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden displays plants from all biomes of South Africa. This even includes plants from the country’s extremely arid regions that are grown inside the climate-controlled Botanical Society’s Conservatory. Kirstenbosch also has an almost-complete and very valuable cycad collection replete with mood-setting dinosaur sculptures that is amazing to walk through.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden desert
Plants from South Africa’s northern desert regions.

Apart from the botanical attraction of the gardens, Kirstenbosch is a fantastic place for visitors to escape Cape Town city’s hustle and rush. Manicured lawns, a thoughtful garden layout that offers plenty of quiet contemplative hideaways as well as child-friendly expanses, and restaurants, seasonal music concerts and art exhibits are just a few of the other attractions on offer in the gardens.

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The history of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

In 1895, Cecil John Rhodes bought the 528 ha Kirstenbosch Farm from the Cloete family who had used it to grow fruit trees, vines and oaks. On Rhodes’ death in 1902, the estate was bequeathed to the government who further planted it with pine and eucalyptus trees. The land was largely neglected. In 1913, under the direction of Harold Pearson, the Chair of Botany at the South African College and Neville Pillans, a keen gardener and botanist, part of the Kistenbosch Estate was set aside for the development of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. A hard 10 to 15 years of manual labour saw most of the garden’s key features becoming established. Today, visitors to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden can pay their respects at Pearson’s grave, situated in the garden itself.

 Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden view
The fruits of many years of labour.

Today, of the 528 ha Kirstenbosch Estate, 36 ha form the cultivated Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. The remainder borders the Table Mountain National Park and is characterised by two types of natural vegetation – fynbos and forest. Fynbos is typified by the plant families Proteas, Ericas (heath-like plants) and Restios (reeds). The Afromontane forest type includes trees that typically grow to 30m and species such as Cape holly, Yellowwood and Stinkwood. This forest type is found in the ravines and south-facing slopes that receive high rainfall and have rich soil.

As well as a high diversity of plants, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is home to a wide variety of bird, insect and animal life. To date, more than 125 bird species have been recorded in the gardens. The larger animals are less-frequently seen but include Grysbok, Caracal, Small spotted genet, Porcupine and the Angulate tortoise.

Boomslang walkway
The Boomslang: The most recent addition to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

Our visit to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is open to visitors year-round. Bevan and I couldn’t miss a visit to this iconic gardens as part of our stay in Cape Town, and set out for Kirstenbosch as soon as the notorious Cape Town rush hour traffic had eased!

Picnic on the lawn at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Enjoying a picnic on the lawns of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

Quite by accident, we arrived at the gardens a few minutes before a free walking tour was due to depart. These tours are a service that Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden offers to its visitors. The volunteer guides take groups through the main areas of the gardens and being keen botanists, share a wealth of information about the plants as well as highlights from the garden’s history and operation.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden tour
Joining the group tour of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

Although the paved pathways offer wheelchair access to most areas of the gardens, the terrain in some parts is fairly steep. One important tip we can share from personal experience is that it is best to avoid doing Table Mountain’s Platteklip Gorge hike in at least the two to three days before you plan on visiting Kirstenbosch… This natural stone staircase leads straight to the top of Table Mountain and back down again, and completing it will render the average person somewhat handicapped for the next day or two – not the ideal physical condition for exploring the 36 ha extent of the gardens as we were quick to discover!

Nevertheless we managed to keep up with the group and thoroughly enjoyed our time in the gardens. Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden has been thoughtfully laid out to best take advantage of the panoramic views of Table Mountain on offer, and we’d recommend a slow meandering pace if you really want to explore and appreciate the diversity and natural beauty of the gardens themselves. One of the highlights of our visit was our time on the Centenary Tree Canopy Walkway, informally and descriptively known as ‘the Boomslang’, a forest canopy walkway that gives spectacular treetop views of the mountain and gardens below. This impressive walkway is 130 m long and 12 m high at its highest point.

The boomslang Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
‘The Boomslang.’

Our recommendations

If you have a free day in Cape Town, definitely spend it at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. For me, there is nothing as refreshing as being surrounded by greenery, especially in such close proximity to a city. There are a few restaurant options in the gardens but I would recommend packing a picnic and making a whole day of the outing. There are lovely shaded lawns to relax and enjoy… if you don’t mind fighting off the occasional hungry Spurfowl or Egyptian goose! (See if you can spot the one that almost made off with our lunch during our Ultimate South African Road Trip.)

Kirstenbosch also hosts a number of events throughout the year, including art and botanical exhibitions, workshops and the ever-popular Summer Sunset Concerts (November-April) featuring local and international music acts. Be sure to check the events diary regularly so as not to miss out.

Important information

For current information on Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden including opening hours and entry fee, refer to SANBI’s website.

From Cape Town city, follow either the M3 (recommended) or M4 out of town. The entrance to Kirstenbosch National Botanic Gardens is located on Rhodes Avenue (M63), connected to both the M3 and M4 in Newlands/Rondebosch. As mentioned, rush hour traffic through Cape Town’s southern suburbs is notorious and it is best to time your visit to the gardens to avoid these peak periods.

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