Fynbos, the Cape Floral Kingdom, and Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

A highlight of a trip to Cape Town is a visit to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. The name does not do it justice. These are no ordinary gardens. The setting is on the most lush, eastern slopes of Table Mountain, and the gardens lie within a nature reserve, bordering Table Mountain National Park. We visited on our first full day in South Africa, and loved it so much that we returned for our final few hours in the country before catching the flight home. I think if I lived in Cape Town, you’d be able to find me there every weekend. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Kirstenbosch Botanical GardensThe elevational span of the gardens, stretching up the mountain, has made it possible to showcase a huge range of native species in their natural habitats. The Kirstenbosch gardens were the first in the world to be devoted to a country’s indigenous flora, and a large proportion of South Africa’s endemic species are ‘fynbos’. Fynbos refers to the vegetation type that makes up the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is the smallest (in terms of geographic area) but richest floral kingdom of the six in the world. The plants of the temperate regions of the world, of North America, Europe, the Arctic and sub-Arctic, Western and Central Asia, make up the Boreal Floristic Region; the Neotropical Region includes the rainforests of central and south America; and the Paleotropical the African and Asian tropics; but the Cape Floristic Region, a tiny fraction of their size, has the greatest number of plant species of them all, with over 7700 species (70% of which are endemic, i.e. not found anywhere else in the world). Much more about the fynbos can be found here. Fynbos plants typically have small, tough leaves, have a dazzling array of flowers, and as you travel along the Garden Route their unique, sweet, herby scent fills the air. As well as fynbos, plants from all regions of South Africa can be found at Kirstenbosch, including the valley of cycads – contemporaries of the dinosaurs – and the glasshouses of cactii and succulents. We watched sunbirds, white-eyes, and Cape sugarbirds, and explored the different regions represented within the garden. Even with many repeat visits, you’d still be finding new favourite spots, new views.  P1080032P1080121P1080083P1080072P1080034Also regularly making a home in the Botanical Gardens is an Eagle Owl family. Nesting on the ground, one parent keeping watch from the tree above, the chick was not fazed by many admirers cooing over his every move.

P1080093We caught up with him again two weeks later…P1080865

Table Mountain, a jackass penguin, and a dung beetle: some highlights from South Africa’s Garden Route

We emerged from a grey British autumn, blinking into the bright Cape Town sunshine, and were told by our bed and breakfast host that we should go up Table Mountain straight away. The tablecloth – a curious and unpredictable cloud formation that sits on the top of the mountain, and cascades down the sides in a slow, misty waterfall – was absent, leaving the top completely clear. Roof terrace at La Rose Bed and Breakfast, Bo Kaap, Cape Town

The view from the roof terrace of La Rose Bed & Breakfast, Bo-Kaap, Cape Town.

Table Mountain is just over 1000m high, and from the top we could see south to Cape Point, and east and north towards sweeping mountain ranges and the south Atlantic coastline.

The light played tricks, so that bright clouds low on the horizon seemed to raise the distant sea level as high as us. Although it looks as flat as a table from a distance, up close the surface is sculptural, rocks weathered by the wind and clouds. The clouds rolled in as we wandered, adding a chilly atmosphere, before we rediscovered the sun’s warmth at the base of the mountain.A couple of days later, after exploring the beautiful botanical gardens and Cape Town surroundings, we drove south, to the drama of Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, windswept cliffs high above crashing turquoise waves. The cliffs were lined with nests, and their cormorant residents launched themselves into the wind. Further along the coast, a sheltered cove of enormous boulders is home to a colony of penguins. African Penguins (also known as ‘jackass’, due to their braying call) are classified as endangered, and Boulders Beach is one of only a few colonies in the world. These little penguins are wonderful to watch. We scrambled over boulders one morning at low tide to reach a hidden beach, and quietly took in the scene, penguins coming and going in the waves, circling each other in mating displays, and seeing off unwelcome visitors. African penguins at Boulders Beach, South AfricaNext stop was De Hoop Nature Reserve, reached by mile upon mile of dirt track. We stayed at the peaceful restcamp, set back from the sea, with ostriches, spurfowl, weaver birds and bontebok as our most noticeable neighbours. Our view to the sea was obscured by what first seemed to be an optical illusion, a silver-white swirling shape on the horizon, that turned out to be a vast sand dune. From there we watched whales and their calves breaching and playing in the waves below. Another early morning expedition, picking our way through great piles of baboon dung (and no doubt many other kinds too) along the edge of a lagoon, saw us sitting for an hour on a rock, watching the comings and goings of a family of Cape Clawless Otters. The morning activity on the lagoon (lines of flamigos flying pink and low over the water, a busy Black-winged Stilt patrolling the shoreline below us) was punctuated by the crunching of otter teeth on their crustacean prey, and their whistles and whines as they called to each other. It was a magical encounter that ended with all four otters making their way up onto the rocks, up the bank and into the scrub, each rolling in the grass to dry their fur, and scent marking, before retiring from their morning fishing.

We continued along the coast, with visits to calm and secluded Nature’s Valley, and rugged Storms River Mouth in the Tsitsikamma forest, before reaching the end of our journey in Addo Elephant Park. Here, game drive highlights were both large and small, with some of the smallest commanding the most attention. Dung beetle right of way, Addo Elephant Park, South AfricaWe signed up for a ‘sundowner’ game drive as soon as we arrived, and were lucky to see a tiny, month-old, still hairy elephant trying to get to grips with trunk mechanics. We were served drinks as we took in the view, watching the buffalo, kudu, warthogs, and zebra in the twilight. Baby elephant, Addo Elephant Park, South AfricaAddo Elehant Park, South AfricaAs the light faded, and we made our way back to the restcamp, we stopped to watch a  drama unfold. Not a big cat, or a predator after its prey, but a dung beetle, slowly rolling her dung ball, with her front legs on the ground and her back legs up in the air, leading the way. A small bump in the ground made her lose her grip, and the ball rolled away, covering so much ground in so little time that everyone on the safari bus exclaimed in sympathy. Dung beetle Addo Elephant Park, South Africa