“How ’bout we meet at Constantia Nek on the weekend and walk to Kirstenbosch Gardens for lunch?” asked our friend L, one fine week in June. “We did that hike last weekend, and it was quite wonderful.”
“An excellent idea. See you there!”
When Sunday came around, we duly met V and L at the parking area next to the round-about at Constantia Nek. They were carefully tucking their still-very-very-little daughter N into a pouch, which was strapped onto V’s stomach. She looked simply adorable, dressed all in soft fluffy pink, and was extremely well-behaved throughout our hike. Not surprisingly, she received plenty of appreciative ooh’s and coos from fellow hikers.
We set off along the broad gravel track, heading northwards, chatting about the events of the week and catching up with each others’ lives. This easy, almost level path was clearly a popular route. We encountered numerous people walking their dogs, or jogging along the trail, or introducing their children to the enchantments of Mother Nature. (For a description of a previous circular hike along this stretch, read A short hike around Constantia Nek).
The State Forests of Cecilia (whose upper reaches we were traversing) and Tokai (further to the south) are commercial pine plantations that were established in the early 1900s to provide timber for industry in the Cape Province. When central government decided to phase out commerical plantations in this area sometime in the late 1990s, tenders were invited for the gradual removal of these plantations. In 2004, a private company known as MTO Forestry was awarded this tender by the then Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), to purchase the trees over a 20-year lease period.
The trees are harvested in compartments of same age trees. Thus far, only about 170 hectares of 600 hectares have been cleared, and various existing shaded areas, such as the extraordinary Tokai Arboretum, and historic plantings of cork oaks and red woods will be retained. (Summary contained in an interesting Letter to the Editor written by TMNP in April 2011.)
This programme is part of a long-term vision of SANParks to eliminate ‘invasive aliens’, rehabilitate the natural environment and protect the biodiversity of the Cape Floral Region. The ‘aliens’ include Pine Trees and Eucalyptus (or Bluegums) and woody seed-bearing plants such as Port Jackson, Rooikrans, Wattle and Hakea.
“These trees have several negative impacts on the fynbos ecosystem:
- They impact negatively on the hydrology of an area and use up precious water supplies (i.e. interfere with waterways).
- They destabilise river banks.
- They are vigorous growers and out compete indigenous species.
- They destroy the balance of habitats and therefore impact negatively on indigenous fauna.
- In some cases their seeds lie dormant for 70 -100 years resulting in continuous and dense re-growth
- They are very flammable and cause frequent and very hot fires.” (SANParks Website)
The sad result is that there are currently large swathes of the mountainside without trees, and it is not particularly photogenic. Fortunately, as it is not summer, the lack of shade is not a problem right now, and SANParks has reassured us that they are intending to create various shady routes in the interim, while the natural, indigenous vegetation on these slopes is given a chance to regenerate. It’s clearly a long-term project.
After some time, we came to a turn-off.
If we were to continue straight ahead for a couple of hours, the contour path would eventually take us all the way to Newlands Forest and Rhodes Memorial beyond.
The next intersection would be Nursery Ravine, which goes breath-takingly steeply up the back of Table Mountain. The intersection after that would be the well-known Skeleton Gorge, which too leads up to the Back Table. I have walked up – and down – Skeleton Gorge only once in my life, many, many years ago, and have never forgotten the relentless slog up an almost vertical slope, criss-crossing a spray-splashing stream over slippery moss-covered boulders, gasping and wheezing for air-air-air. It put me off hiking for a long time.
I think it may well be time to create some newer – and hopefully happier – memories of this route! (For a description of our hike from Newlands Forest to Kirstenbosch, have a look here.)
Today, though, we were heading down into Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, established on these eastern slopes of Table Mountain in 1913, almost a hundred years ago.
“Kirstenbosch lies in the heart of the Cape Floristic Region, also known as the Cape Floral Kingdom. In 2004 the Cape Floristic Region, including Kirstenbosch, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site – another first for Kirstenbosch, it is the first botanic garden in the world to be included within a natural World Heritage Site.” (SANBI website)
This is impressive! Wanna know more?
“The Cape Floristic Region is the smallest and richest of the six floral kingdoms that occur on earth. It is also the only kingdom confined to one continent and is home to an amazing 8 200 plant species – of which around 80% are fynbos. The significance of this hits home when you consider that the British Isles, 3 ½ times the size, boasts less than 1 500 plant species.
Many of the plants that occur here are endemic – that means that they occur nowhere else on earth. To add to this there are around 1,406 threatened plant species, 300 of which are endangered or critically endangered and 29 plant species are already extinct. It is this combination of high diversity and levels of threat from issues like urbanization, poor fire management and alien species that makes the CFR the world’s hottest floral hot-spot. Add to this the increase in global warming and pollution.” (SANParks website)
Just next to a large green map of the Gardens and the various paths, a couple of hikers out walking their dogs were chatting to a man leaning on a beautifully carved walking stick. He greeted us with a friendly smile, so we stopped to join in the conversation. It emerged that he was one of the courageous mountain men who have recently been appointed to monitor activities on the mountain, and to protect innocent hikers against the unsavoury criminal elements who are found in these lovely but sometimes isolated areas.
Newspapers have reported numerous muggings and attacks on hikers, joggers and cyclists over the last few years – but given the vast size of the park (about 25,000 hectares), the lack of controlled access points, and the rough terrain, it is proving very difficult to ensure the safety and security of visitors. It is an ongoing problem. For now, the only option seem to be to walk in large groups, to avoid isolated areas, and to go only when there are lots of other people on the mountain. Not ideal if you prefer some peace and quiet.
We suddenly remembered our lunch-date at the restaurant in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, so we waved goodbye to our brave mountain ranger, and began to make our way down until we reached the gravel road that goes up from the Rycroft Gate, which is a little further south from the Main Gate. We walked briskly down the shady boulevard of old trees that is known as Camphor Avenue:
“The trees of the Camphor Avenue are a remnant of the avenue of trees planted by Cecil John Rhodes in 1898 along what is now Rhodes Drive. He planted the trees to represent the outposts of the British Empire to honour Queen Victoria, hoping that she would visit the Cape. The more prosaic version tells that he planted them for shade and privacy along his favourite ride.” (SANBI website)
We turned left through the old wooden gate, and right along the path to the Silver Tree Restaurant and the Fynbos Deli.
Here we picked up some hot food from the buffet, including a bowl of theeeee most scrumptious butternut soup I had eaten in … um … ever? I’ve no idea what the ingredients were (well, apart from butternut, obviously), or what spices or herbs they used to create the sensations on my tastebuds, but WOW… it was superlative. Perhaps it was also the tranquil and serene environment in which we ate it, the good friends with whom we shared our lunch, and the fact that we had just walked for over one-and-a-half hours to get here and were thus ravenously hungry. Whatever the reason, I am definitely going back for another bowl of soup . We sat outside on the deck with the wooden tables and benches, and enjoyed our excellent meal and the unseasonably warm weather.
Feeling pleasantly full and a little lethargic after our meal, it took a surge of willpower to resume our hike.
We meandered through the gardens a little bit, and paid a visit to one of the various art exhibitions that are being hosted by Kirstenbosch: Untamed is a collaboration between Dylan Lewis, Enrico Daffonchio and Ian McCallum that “explores the lost balance between humankind and nature” (or read more here). Having opened in July 2010, it will run until the end of the summer of 2012 (December):
“Dylan Lewis is a South African sculptor with a reputation as one of the best in the world when it comes to capturing the animal form in bronze. Lewis has recently extended his sculpting talents to the human form. For the first time Lewis has collaborated with two other masters in their fields: Ian McCallum, an author, poet, psychiatrist, analytical psychologist and specialist wilderness guide; and Enrico Daffonchio, an architect who specialises in sustainable design and building. The culmination of this collaboration is UNTAMED, an evolving exhibition at Kirstenbosch.
Visitors are invited into the temporary pavilion designed by Daffonchio, in which a selection of Lewis’s maquettes (scale versions of larger sculptures) are on view. The pavilion showcases contemporary, sustainable South African architecture, using solar power and natural light. The building also features a specially designed “living wall” of indigenous plants, selected by Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden’s horticultural team. Find out more about the plants growing in the living wall. (See photos of the pavilion and living wall during construction.)” (SANBI website)
If you’re curious, you can see a list of the plants that have been incorporated into the “Living Wall” here. And a photo book of the exhibition is available at the venue.
We let our feet take us upwards, through the cool shade of the Dell with its focal point of Col Bird’s Bath and up the terraces of ancient cycads in the Cycad Amphitheatre, until we found ourselves out in the open again. As we strolled through these almost 100-year old botanical gardens, I felt myself overcome with gratitude to those long-ago Capetonians who had had the foresight and wisdom to create such an incomparable treasure house of biodiversity, right in the middle of the metropolis of Cape Town, and in this magnificent location on the slopes of iconic Table Mountain.
We are sooo blessed to be living here and able to enjoy this place. May it be protected and nurtured for many future generations.