There isn’t a visitor to Cape Town who doesn’t visit Kirstenbosch. The 52 800 square kilometre botanical garden is up there with the best in the world, particularly since the introduction of the ‘Boomslang‘ (officially named the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa in 2015).
Kirstenbosch grows no fewer than 9 000 of Southern Africa’s 22 000 plant species in different types of garden – a fragrance garden, a Braille trail through the forest, a garden for useful plants, a protea garden, Erica garden, a sculpture garden. There are even dinosaurs and gorillas (though not in the same part of the garden) and a still-standing section of the original wild almond hedge planted by Jan van Riebeeck.
The garden’s position at the eastern foot of Table Mountain, its lawns and easy access to hiking, make it accessible not only to visitors but locals too, many of whom have annual membership. There are also regular exhibits of stone sculptures and a series of outdoor summer concerts on Sunday evenings.
Despite all of these attractions, there are a few things about Kirstenbosch that you may not know…
1. THERE ARE FIREFLY WALKS
For only a short time of the year as summer approaches, and the the nights are warm and still, Kirstenbosch hosts a headlamp and torch-lit wander through the gardens after dark. These night-time excursions are kept rather low-key, and few know about them.
But, more than optimal weather, the setting for fireflies is important. Luciola capensis (flashing firefly) lies dormant in leaf litter for almost a year, after which they venture forth to mate, which is when they put on their light shows.
It’s tricky, as you cannot work the soil or the beds where they lie at all (what would our world be like if we didn’t all rake up, or blow, our leaf litter?). The females fly close to the ground whilst the males fly through the air until they find another tiny creature whose light pulse is in tune with theirs (cute, hey?).
When: Any time from October; contact Kirstenbosch for details.
2. GUIDED TOURS ARE FREE OF CHARGE
I didn’t know that there are free guided tours at Kirstenbosch, every day from the information desk at the Visitors’ Centre. They last anything from 90 minutes to 2 hours and take as many as 15 people at a time.
The shuttle car tours, though, have a cost attached to them (we have hitched a free ride down from the top of garden before, but don’t tell anyone!) You can also hire the My Guide, an electronic self-guide audio system, available in English or German.
When: 10h00 and 14h00 from Monday to Saturday at Gate 1.
3. KIRSTENBOSCH HAS WATERFALLS
Not many people venture up above the gardens in search of water. But the Yellowwood trail, which starts and ends at the Fragrance garden, walks beside Skeleton stream as far as Skeleton waterfall, crossing Nursery stream twice.
Window Gorge, above Kirstenbosch, although fairly dry during summer, gushes during winter. Otherwise, walk the contour path after rains as there are many streams and little waterfalls.
4. YOU CAN SCALE TABLE MOUNTAIN FROM KIRSTENBOSCH
It is possible to scale Table Mountain from Kirstenbosch, up either Skeleton Gorge, or Nursery Ravine. But, just because the hikes are up the ‘backside’ of the mountain, doesn’t make them any less strenuous. The climb up Skeleton Gorge is arduous and will take you around 6 hours to get up and down again, whilst Nursery Ravine, although stepped, is as taxing.
Take care on the mountain at all times as there are sheer cliffs and steep gorges.
The weather is unpredictable too.
5. YOU CAN WATCH MOVIES AT KIRSTENBOSCH
Open air movies at Kirstenbosch come via Galileo every Wednesday, between November and April, on the Marquee Lawn (close to the top entrance – Gate 2).
They start after sunset (usually between 19h30 and 18h15) with the ‘doors’ open from 18h00 (it’s a first come first served basis when it comes to prime spots).
You can hire backrests and blankets (don’t bring your own chairs as they won’t be allowed) and even get your food there – usually a couple of food and drink vendors, popcorn and other yummies. Buy tickets online.
6. THERE ARE RESIDENT OWLS AT KIRSTENBOSCH
There is a breeding pair of spotted eagle-owls who have made Kirstenbosch their home for years. They have a favourite spot in a tree at the foot of some stairs, above the cycad amphitheatre.
Despite their nocturnal habits, however, you can see them during the day, particularly when mom has them tucked under her wing at the base of the tree.
They’re not tame, but they are used to human beings and aren’t fazed when you get fairly close (give them space, please don’t poke your camera lens in their faces).
But that isn’t the only place to spot owls. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll see them close to the car park, and up the camphor tree avenue.
7. THERE’S A MAGIC FARAWAY TREE
Or certainly its equivalent, if you’re a kid.
Which is where you’ll find all the children in the know, on the other side of lower Skeleton stream, hidden in amongst the foliage, where there is a sprawling wild almond tree, its tangled and bent boughs just perfect for climbing and games.
8. THE AVENUE OF CAMPHOR TREES WAS ONCE PART OF RHODES DRIVE
Way back when Cecil John Rhodes acquired the land on which Kirstenbosch now rests, in 1895, he planted an avenue of trees on what is now Rhodes Drive.
This section of Rhodes Avenue that passes through Kirstenbosch used to be an almost impassable track.
And when it came to upgrades, in 1913, the director of Kirstenbosch managed to convince the authorities to deviate Rhodes Drive east, rather than west and through the garden.
9. THE ‘KIRSTEN’ BIT IS SOMEONE’S NAME
And not Keith Kirsten’s either. Historians believe it was JF Kirsten, the man who managed the land in the 18th century.
10. YOU CAN CAMP AT KIRSTENBOSCH
I bet you’ve raised your eyebrows just a little at this one? Camp at Kirstenbosch? Surely not. You’re right, you can’t.
But. You can hike from Kirstenbosch through Cecelia Forest and overnight at the Orangekloof Tented Camp. A real treat.