I have found the Garden of Eden and it is nestled amongst the mist enshrouded mountains of Cape Town. South Africa’s capital is urbane and modern: a bustling international port, a city of social repute, and a welcoming metropolis. It has another side to it however. From the swathe of haze atop the mountain to the palm trees lining the administrative offices, Cape Town seems to have arisen out of a carefully tended yet primeval forest. I have come to search among its stunning natural beauty for the ultimate paradisiacal setting. Between the majestic Table Mountain looming over the small valley of houses and the popular V&A Waterfront packed with cargo ships, yachts, and cruisers there is an idyllic land blossoming like the days before the fall of man. Some claim that the lost Garden of Eden still hides somewhere in Africa. I am hoping to stumble onto the elusive Elysium in my Cape Town exploration.
Searching for Paradise
I begin my search for paradise at the gates of Cape Town’s Company Garden. Long ago this site was dedicated to providing the Dutch East India Company’s sailors with fresh fruits and vegetables. Today, it remains a vibrant bit of green public space inside the modern city. A froth of color peeps out from behind the tall black iron gates as clumps of alstromeria wave merrily at me. Wide footpaths wend through groves of ancient pear trees while beds of orange and yellow lilies and proteas dance in the breeze. The neatly bordered lanes are picturesquely defined by rose bushes, purple irises, and blue veronicas. The whole effect is very attractive but this place does not possess that riotous, untamed quality I expect to see inside Arcadia.
The public park is advantageously set off by the breathtaking backdrop of mauve tinted Table Mountain. Part of the Cape Peninsula mountain chain, Table Mountain has long been the subject of myths and legends. Native tribes believed a race of giants had been transformed by the gods into mountains to protect their land. The Dutch, equally awed by the massive flat-topped peak told stories of their rapscallion, pirate Van Hunks, who dared to take on the devil in a smoking contest at the base. As I gaze at the mountain’s inscrutable table-cloth cloud-covered face, which according to folklore is the smoke from the competition, I wonder if my dreamland might exist on the slopes of the legendary range.
The Cape Peninsula chain cups Cape Town along its winding way, protecting the provincial capital from harsh storms. I travel by car towards the foot of the range circling the eastern slopes. As I approach closer to the base of the cordilleras, the landscape changes from seaside resort to a darker Arcadia of silent woods and impenetrable foliage. Lofty trees stand guard over both sides of the road and my pulse quickens as I imagine the possibility of finding my secret arboretum. Along the road is a sign for an estate nestled in thick greenwood called Kirstenbosch.
Intrigued, I stop off and enter through a pair of innocuous gates.
Straight away I command a view of a vast sector replete with flowers, forests, and fynbos (small vegetation). Eager to explore this sylvan abundance, I make my way to the property’s conservatory hoping to learn about the flourishing vegetation awaiting me. Inside the greenhouse, the spectacle of a giant baobab tree arrests me, its colossal trunk the symbolic promise of the many singular flora I shall encounter inside Kirstenbosch. From the glass menagerie, I emerge into the open where my eyes devour yards of daisies, gazanias, and pelargonium carpeted in floral splendor on the gradual slopes ascending to meet Table Mountain. In front of me gently winding paths lined with fragrant tress guide my way deeper into the botanical richness. In the distance the purple tinged peaks of the Peninsula mountains, now robed in snowy clouds, overlook the vast greenery. My palms tingle with anticipation as I decide on which of the many routes to begin my adventure. Every quivering leaf and dew laden vine whispers that I will be enveloped in the allure of the wild at Kirstenbosch.
I begin my walk along a trail strewn with wild almond hedges trembling with rose-tinted blooms. Jan Riebeek, the founder of Cape Town, ordered a border of the same almond bushes and brambles to be built along the far side of Kirstenbosch to clarify the boundary between colonial property and native land. Today, they fill the landscape and my senses with a heady perfume and the cheerful choir of birdsong. Curving left on my ramble, I come across rampant ferns twining themselves around Cape Holly trees. They lead me towards an eccentrically miniature pond, hidden among the dark shadows. This is Colonel Bird’s bath, the sole survivor of the private plantation of a nineteenth century Englishman that once dominated the area. The tiny waterhole is the ideal resting spot for shy creatures. I think I see their silhouettes as they scuttle deeper into the darkness. The private cove is so enticing I want to remain hidden here, but I have more to explore.
From the Colonel’s hideaway I emerge onto a riot of color. Both sides of my trail are strewn with bright hues of red, yellow, and orange protea. This exotic, nectar rich flower is unique to South Africa and grows profusely here in all its multi-varied forms. Its peculiar, star tipped petals harken to the mystery of the Biblical fields. So do the rows of camphor trees I spy swooping over the avenue in front of me. Though planted by the hands of Cecil Rhodes in the nineteenth century, the camphor’s cleansing aroma and bushy height made me wonder if they hadn’t been there since the dawn of time. As I return along the sheltered road I marvel at the purview of botanical delights I have discovered here.
Garden of Eden
In many ways, tramping around Kirstenbosch is akin to trying to experience the assortment of masterpieces at an international museum such as the Louvre. From the muted retreat of Colonel Bird’s Bath where I hear the trilling of the sugarbird to the spacious panoramic vista of Kirstenbosch’s outer grounds, I have been swept into paradise. On my way through the shady acacias and fresh sage I spy a tiny tortoise slowly slinking its way to the sounds of a gurgling stream. Faint rustlings among the cycads alert me to the presence of other birds and soon I see the flash of orange as a sunbird whisks past me. At Kirstenbosch I have lost track of time’s passage and find myself enveloped in a cocoon of everlasting nature. Just as there was no anxiety in the original Garden of Eden, there is no murmur of the busy, urbane world in this utopia either.
When the Dutch East India Company built a supply station at the southern tip of South Africa for trading ships, they revolutionized the horticultural footprint of Cape Town. Modern Cape Town’s gardens and protected nature reserves embody its ecological dynamism. The city’s commitment to providing superior green public spaces designates Cape Town as a city of the future.
To discover more about one of the world’s finest botanical gardens, join us on a tour of Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch in our Bespoke Traveler Journal: On Garden Paths.