Bloemfontein gets a rather raw deal. Mention that you’re spending Christmas there and you’re immediately the recipient of sympathetic looks. Some people will even groan out loud, assuming this will automatically make you feel better.
Fortunately I have no attachment to the city one way or the other. I won’t go as far as to say that I’m fond of it, but every city has its positive side. It is, however, where my in laws live, and last year we had to make a couple of concessions; sisters out all the way from London did not have Cape Town on their itineraries – more’s the pity.
With the whole family together in the Free State – a rare and momentous enough occasion at the best of times – a photo shoot was in order, and the Botanical Gardens topped the list as a venue. It’s free (well, for those of us with a National Botanical Gardens membership), pretty and wouldn’t be too busy.
Not busy is an understatement. The Free State’s National Botanical Garden was devoid of any sign of life when we arrived. Either the gardens had deteriorated to such an extent that people had stopped coming, or the annual holiday is keeping them at bay. I do a rough comparison with Kirstenbosch. At year end it would be inundated with families meeting under the trees.
For some reason the mention of ‘Kirstenbosch’, as we’re revealing our membership cards to a rather sceptical reception who has obviously not had many of these fall under her scrutiny before, has the guy at the gate jumping through hoops. It’s nothing short of celebrity status in Bloemfontein, obviously.
I’m just beginning to wonder if he hasn’t some how got the message confused and thinks we’re representatives of the SANBI, when he waves us through the gates, whilst brushing aside the suspicion that we’re trying to wriggle out of paying the rather reasonable entrance fee.
He can’t do enough for us, and when later we mention that we need a table on which to set up our picnic (we’ve had to take cover as an unexpected deluge has us under the roof of the lapa) he enthusiastically makes a phone call, peppered with the word ‘Kirstenbosch’.
As a result he gains entry into the lapa where we had spotted a couple of collapsible tables, and hauls one out for our use that is just perfect for the occasion. Nothing to mar the occasion bar the pesky flies, but I am sure that if he could have, he would have done something about them too.
There are those in our party who haven’t been to the garden in years. They exclaim over the care, the new paved walkways and the upkeep of the place. They’re obviously impressed.
The gardens lie on the northern fringes of the city. We’ve had to drive quite far to reach them. Altogether there are over 70 hectares worth of garden, two dams, one of which is fairly close to the gate and makes a perfect backdrop for our photo session, a sprinkling of koppies, and a vegetation dominated by indigenous karee bome and wild olive trees.
We walk part of the Tree Route, in a bid to work off yet another large meal, that meanders around the dam to the bird hide where we watch a group of intensely sociable weavers. This dam was built by British soldiers during the Anglo-Boer War to water their horses. Today its function is no less vital in supporting a local habitat for plants and birds.
The Tree Route is so new that it doesn’t yet feature in the SANBI flyer we pick up at the entrance that mentions two other walking trails – the Motshetshe Trail and the Garden View Trail – both well known by locals.
The Tree Route was launched on Arbor Day in 2011, a self-guided route that reveals 43 indigenous trees in the gardens, all clearly marked with an accompanying booklet and information that I assume you can get from the gates, although I don’t find it on this occasion.
The Botanical Garden is popular for weddings and wedding receptions. I’m not surprised as the setting with the lake in the background is hard to beat. Couples line up chairs for their wedding guests in front of the lake where they marry, after which the reception is in the thatched lapa area just behind this. If you can avoid the notorious afternoon rain showers, it’s perfect.
Just left of the lake is the Garden of Hope, a symbol of hope for all those suffering from HIV and AIDS.
The circular garden has been beautifully laid out as a sensory experience – it combines sandstone rocks in a circle (symbolising unity and infinity and life’s journey), lawn underfoot (a symbol of compassion, love, empathy and support), the honeybell bush, which is sweet and represents beauty and prosperity of life, and various stepping stones through and on the journey. A brightly painted mural forms the backdrop for the garden, with a couple of Easter Island-type figures in its centre.
Perhaps the gardens are not as under-utilised as I originally think. The Botanical Society hold a number of talks throughout the year, moonlight walks and summer sunset concerts to encourage visitors. One can arrange tours, walks, events and visit the well-stocked nursery where you can buy some of the indigenous trees and plants that you see in the garden. There is also an annual plant sale.
A solitary duck, waddling up from the lake, manages to feature in at least 50% of the photos we take. It’s quite a task to get all of us into a group picture, the camera on a timer on top of a chair on a table. But we manage. I’ve yet to see them – brother and sister-in-law being rather in-demand wedding photographers means that the family pics do not take precedence.
But next time I’m in Bloem, I’ll re-visit the Botanical Garden, particularly if I get the same super-star treatment.
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Where to Find Them
Address: Free State National Botanical Garden, Rayton Road, off Dan Pienaar Drive, R702, Free State
Telephone: +27 (0)51 436-3530
Opening Times: open daily between 08h00 and 17h00
Bloemfonteins Botanical Garden is home to 400 species of plants, mainly from the Free State, Northern Cape and Lesotho. It also has an abundance of wildlife including 140 bird species, 54 reptile species and about 32 mammal species.