Need to exercise on an even surface, with gentle inclines and a few more challenging routes, sunny lawns, an abundance of birds flitting among a vast array of fynbos, towering trees shading a sparkling stream and strategically placed benches to rest and enjoy views that go on to the end of the world? Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is the place for you, and completely safe and secure – a paradise in the midst of busy suburbs at your feet and sheltering crags covered in the last of the afro-montaine forests to survive on the Cape Peninsula. For the energetic and fit amongst you, the gardens merge into the wild forest, with well-signposted routes leading up to the waterfalls that gush perennially from the catchment on Table Mountain – Cecilia, Skeleton, Nursery – beloved by hikers both local and international who return time and again to revel in the wonders of the Cape Floral Kingdom.
If you are a pensioner (or just over 60), Tuesdays are free, but if you wish to wander at will, becoming a member of the Botanical Society will allow you unlimited access at a greatly reduced rate. The gardens are currently in a state of noticeable rejuvenation, with dead and overgrown plants being thinned out to allow healthy growth to flourish. Areas that were looking sadly neglected are freshly mulched, saplings suitably spaced and a general air of well managed maintenance pervades. Winter gales have taken their toll on some of the older trees, with large branches split from the trunks ruining their natural symmetry, and others having literally fallen out of the ground, roots and all.
Visiting throughout the seasons enables you to take advantage of the flowering periods of all the species, which oblige by supplying interest throughout the year, either through colour, shape or foliage. The many birds and small mammals that make their homes in Kirstenbosch enable nature study in the raw – if you lie on the lawns long enough, something will scuttle by or waddle over to see if there is a stray crumb to be collected. Egyptian geese lead their goslings among the beds and settle down to keep an eye on the sky for soaring raptors while their adventurous flock learn survival skills. Field mice climb slender stems to nibble on buds and seeds, while lizards lounge in sunny spots to gather enough energy to chase insects. The Cape Sugarbird is probably the iconic bird of the gardens, always to be found perched on the highest point of a pincushion, tail feathers ruffling in the breeze, looking down their elegantly curved beaks at all who pass by. The melianthus bed usually has a number of patient photographers with impressive cameras on tripods lined up in front of it, waiting for the perfect pose in perfect light.
The upper reaches of the gardens are the ideal place to get away from it all – a little too far for some and not at all attractive to those with a string of small ones to entertain. The lawns in front of the restaurant are just the place for those outdoor parties with lots of room to run while moms and dads get a little time off. You’ll find me on a bench on the very top path.