My father was an avid birder all his life and I have many childhood memories of the five of us bundling into the Morris Minor on a Saturday and driving out into the countryside to look for birds, enjoy the mountains and picnic among the fynbos where possible. In particular, I remember a trip to Worcester to wander the paths of the Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens in the 60s – the aloes and quiver trees, bright sprawls of vygies and rockeries criss-crossed with enticing stone pathways have remained in my memory with a subliminal yearning to return.
All that is needed is to make the decision, get in the car and drive there. And so we arrived at the gate of these gardens at 9.30 on a crisp sunny morning after a very easy drive along the N1 from Cape Town, through the marvellous Huguenot Tunnel and across the Breede River valley into the outskirts of Worcester. The signpost directed us up through a pleasant residential area which definitely wasn’t there back in the 60s, but which in no way detracts from the ‘out in the country’ feel of the gardens which still sprawl uninhibited up the slopes of the mountains. The entrance is manned by friendly and efficient staff who are proud of the gardens they tend and were quick to tell us that this is the centenary year of the second-oldest botanical garden in South Africa after Kirstenbosch. No mean feat for a collection of succulents on a rocky hillside.
It was a delight to find the gardens impeccably tended, with attractive stone buildings and a restaurant surrounded by lush green lawns where children can play while parents stroll the easy, shale-paved paths among aloes, quiver trees, vygies and smaller succulents. Being winter, the aloes are at their brilliant best, with nectar feeding sunbirds in abundance. For bird-lovers, you can look out for the active Karoo Scrub-robins, Bar-throated Apalis, Fairy Flycatcher (we will have to try again), Acacia Pied Barbet, Bokmakierie and dozens of others. Trails leading into the surrounding mountains give the opportunity to spot many more species (currently 95) and a variety of mammals and reptiles, so there is plenty to interest the nature lover and casual hiker.
The gardens reach their peak of visual finery from August to November when masses of gazanias, vygies and bulbs throw out a blanket of brilliant colours. The opening of the flowers is dependent on an air temperature of 20 degrees, and so you don’t need to be there at the crack of dawn, making this an ideal day trip within easy reach of Cape Town and on the doorstep of some of the most awesome scenery in the Western Cape. A visit to the website is recommended to ensure that you are aware of everything on offer in the gardens, even though everything is well signposted, and informed on the work being done to enhance this botanical gem.