Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden: Arts, Nature and Much More

While I am nearing the entrance the morning sun is already very hot. I could have asked the taxi driver to leave me in front of the gate, but I did not want to miss anything of this renowned place at the northwestern border of Cape Town.

No wonder the Sunset Concerts are such a big success. Surrounded by the mountains, merged into the nature, the location is a dream became true for both the musicians and the audience. Today is scheduled the exhibition of Zebra & Giraffe, a South African indie-rock band who is hastily making his way towards popularity.

On my way in, I meet a couple who are here to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Today is actually the 13th, but it is also Sunday and the place is worth to be visited for the whole day. “We did not know about the concerts – tells my Janine – maybe we stop for the rest of the evening, but first we want to enjoy a picnic on the grass.” Picnics are a classical here in Kirstenbosch, walking down the paths after the entrance I can see on every corner groups of friends, families and young couples eating a sandwich or a piece of cake, drinking wine or beer.

I came early to enjoy the beauty of the nature myself, so I start exploring the botanic garden. I enter the Smuts Track – Jan Smuts’ favourite path, as I read on the voucher – which loses himself into the slope of Castle Rock, to become finally the Skeleton Gorge, a very steep ravine that reaches the top of the mountain.

With a little diversion from Smuts Path I reach the Old Dam, a little pool of water crossed by a small wooden bridge. It was built in 1968 in Nursery Stream for irrigating the Garden. The large trees hide it under their shadow, so the few sun-rays that reach the pool play with its water in a dance of colours. I may reach the Fynbos Garden from here and enjoy the colours and the funny shapes of this strange plants, but the Skeleton Gorge has a greater appeal on me. I take the Boekenhout Trail, the red sand that covers it leading my way. A couple of crossroads and I am on the Yellowwood Trail. I am close, but the road upwards is hardening my legs and my bag seems now to weigh one ton. I climb on rocks and wooden ladders. Now and then crossing groups of young people or old couples on holiday, like Oscar and Martha, who are from Germany and are spending two weeks in Cape Town. I ask Martha how long it takes until the top. “One hour, roundabout. But you’re young, you’ll need less. And it’s totally worth to get there.” I was young, when I started.

I put my remaining energies in the effort and I finally reach Castle Rock. The view from there embraces the Garden and the whole town beyond it, until the sea. It really was worth to get here.

When I am back down I have roundabout one hour to relax and breath the fragrance coming from the garden before the show starts. I sit down at the Tearoom for a short snack. The service is very kind, and the atmosphere enchanting. The highest care is put to safeguard this idillic spot. In fact, I am not even allowed to use my laptop.

When the sun caresses the mountain’s slope, is time to go. The stage is not far, and a lot of people are hurrying the get the best places on the grass. The area is crowded, most of the public is very young, a lot of teenagers, but I do not miss to notice a good number of families with little children and some old couple. A live performance in such a corner of paradise is a temptation for all kind of people. I share a few chats with the ones I encounter on my way and I find out there are many Capetownian, but also a lot of tourists who were visiting the Garden just a few minutes before. I can hear people speaking in German, Dutch and English in many different accents. Orwen, on the other hand, is from Wynberg, a strong-looking tall guy in his early thirties. He is a Zebra & Giraffe’s fun and found out about the concert from his friends. Last time he visited the Garden he was only a little boy, but he still remembers which was his favourite spot, “The Old Dam, I loved that little wooden bridge.” Me too.

While the band explores his repertory, the sunset ends in front of the stage, slightly on the side. With this framework of mountains and peaks, it is a very short show, but no one seems to mind.

Zebra & Giraffe play an amusing rock, changing with ease from slow ballad-like songs to an almost crossover rhythm which keeps the people jumping and dancing. When the sun-rays are only visible on the peaks of the surrounding mountains, they greet their public, express their satisfaction and gratefulness and swiftly disappear behind the stage.

I follow the crowd to the exit and here I am again, in Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden.

The Botanical Gardens

The ground which hosts the Botanical Gardens has sheltered and provided sustenance to many different people through the centuries. First exploited and neglected, in the early 20th century this extraordinary area has been chosen as base for Africa’s biggest botanic garden.

The name Kirstenbosch first appeared in 1795, when it was listed on an inventory of property drawn up and handed over to the British Occupying forces, but his origin is uncertain. It suggests a link to the Kirsten family, whose members lived in the Cape at the time, but none of them ever owned the propriety, nor had any traceable connection with it.

In 1885 Cecil John Rhodes purchased Kirstenbosch. He planted the avenue of Camphor trees and Moreton Bay Figs in 1898. But the land was neglected and became rundown, and was overrun with feral pigs wallowing in muddy pools and feeding on the acorns. When Rhodes died in 1902, he left the land to the Government.

To fill the newly established chair of botany at the South African College, in 1903 arrived Harold Pearson, who saw the need for a botanic garden and started to look for the right place. He choose a spot on the Table Mountain’s eastern slope at the beginning, but when Neville Pillans, a young botanist and gardener, brought him to see Kirstenbosch, Pearson grasped immediately its value and possibilities.

The Botanical Society was formed in 1913. The aim stated in his first general meeting was to “encourage the public to get involved in the development of Kirstenbosch, to augment the Government grants, to organise botanical shows, and to enlighten and instruct members on botanical subjects”.

The hardships in those early years were many and the lack of funds slowed the renovation of the land. But thanks to the foresight of its founders, the commitment and dedication of the staff, and the support of the Botanical Society and its members, the garden rose to his present splendour.

Today the Garden covers 36 hectares in a 528 hectares estate that contains protected mountainside supporting the life of a large variety of fynbos and animals and a natural forest as well. Kirstenbosch is the largest of a country-wide network of nine National Botanical Gardens administered by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). The Garden is adjacent to the Table Mountain National Park, and both form part of the Cape Floristic Region Protected Area, which was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

The shoulders that have to carry this impressive weight belong to Philip Le Roux, curator of the Garden since ten years, but here in Kirstenbosch with different positions since twenty-two. “Ours is quite a unique botanical garden, since we do not collect species from different part of the world as most gardens do. Cape Town has already a massive amount of local plants that keep us busy with studies, descriptions and documentation. But of course we do all the other usual things. Every year about 20,000 school kids visit the Garden and we also help to establish gardens in the schools.”

To keep all the activities running Kirstenbosch employs 130 people, a number which has been reduced from the former 170. “We started to delegate many tasks to private companies – explains me Mr Le Roux – like cleansing, counters, security. It worked well.” If I ask him which is his favourite spot, he thinks deeply for a moment and then answers “the Indigenous Forest. Quite a unique vegetation.” I will have to see it next time.

On the background of the Garden, the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula form a unique sight available for the visitors adventuring through the five different trails. Different for length and conformation, they space from the short and self-guided Braille Trail, which takes about 20 minutes to complete and is long less then one kilometre, to the extensive Silvertree Trail. This one will keep you busy for nothing less than three hours, through almost eight kinometres on a circular path that crosses the entire estate, starting and ending at Rycroft Gate, and passing the shimmering silver trees (Leucadendron argenteum) that grow wild on the slopes behind and above the Garden.

More than 125 species of birds have been recorded in the Garden. Look out for the Sugarbird (Promerops cafer), with its distinctive long tail, Sunbirds (Nectarinia species) with their colourful plumage and the African Dusky Flycatcher (Muscicapa adusta) which is frequently seen swooping down from the trees to catch flying insects. Many animals live and breed in and around Kirstenbosch, but they are not often seen because they are mostly active at dusk, or during the night, and hide during the day, like the Grysbok (Raphicerus melanotis), Caracal/Rooikat (Felis caracal), Small Spotted Genet (Genetta genetta) and Cape Fox (Vulpes chama). Kirstenbosch is home to several amphibians, including the Chirping Frog (Arthroleptella lightfootii), which can be heard, if not seen, on the Braille Trail, the Cape River Frog (Rana fuscigula), which is often spotted in the streams, and the Critically Endangered Table Mountain Ghost Frog (Heleophryne rosei), which also occurs on the estate. This pearl of the nature is open to anyone willing to enjoy his treasures, but do not leave cans or papers on the spot where you had your picnic: you have to take your trash home with you, because there are no bins anywhere.

A bin-free stage for live performances

“The first reason for a bin-free botanical garden is to keep the animals from feeding themselves with the visitors’ remnants – tells me Kirstenbosch’s Event Manager Sarah Struys – but there is a collateral effect we like to stress. People coming here are directly involved in keeping the place clean. They have to collect their garbage and take it home, and they actually do it. We are sensitizing our public about the importance and the pleasure of a clean nature.”

Sarah works in Kirstenbosch since ten years and of course she is not only busy eliminating all the formerly present bins from the Garden, she keeps running all the activities that enrich the place, from the annual Garden Fair whose income supports Kirstenbosch developing projects, to the expositions of sculptures visible through the paths that cross the Garden. Of course also the Sunset Summer Concerts are in her hands, even if they started eight years before her arrival.

It was the Summer 1992-1993 when the live performance of low profiled artists started with the aim of raising more funds for the Garden. People had only to pay the usual entry fee, and after the show they would have been asked to contribute with a small donation. Now there is an extra ticket for the concert and the performers are internationally renowned.

“Suddenly we discovered that a lot of people were eager to perform here – Ms Struys goes on – and a far larger audience wanted to attend. We had to move the stage twice to enable more people to gather for the show. Now we sell up to 6,000 tickets every Sunday, and every year there are nineteen performances on schedule. We do not plan to grow further at the present moment, Kirstenbosch is still a botanic garden before everything else.”

It is also thanks to this concerts that the Garden has been completely self-sustained in the last five years. But there was a reason more that led the management to open the gates to a new use for Kirstenbosch.

“The people visiting the Garden always belonged to a specific social group: quite old, white, middle-high class. The management wanted to attract a wider range of public” and a series of live performance worked as the perfect catalyst. “Of course young people are attracted more from the specific artist then from the place, but they come back afterwards to visit the Garden. We can tell it because we saw the income at the gates increase in the last years.”

I can not resist to ask her too which one is her favourite spot. She answers me “the Dell, I like that corner under the trees”. I missed that one too. I really have to come back.

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