A nature pro’s tips on exploring Cape Town’s natural attractions

Table Mountain is just one of Cape Town’s natural wonders. Home to penguins, big game and astonishing flora, the Cape peninsula offers hiking, birding, whale watching and shark-cage diving, all set against a backdrop of mountains and blue oceans. Dominic Chadbon — also known as The Fynbos Guy — offers some advice on how to tick the best natural attractions off your list.

Most big cities around the world are recognisable by their skyscraper skyline; very few are synonymous with a natural landmark. Table Mountain not only defines Cape Town, but heralds the start of a 70-kilometre peninsula crammed with such natural biodiversity that it almost defies belief.

This is a destination where you can enjoy dazzling displays of flowers and see baboons and antelope foraging next to unspoilt beaches; you can also go diving with seals or slip into the water and watch sharks from the safety of a steel cage. There are endemic birds, honking penguin colonies and hiking trails ranging from half-day strolls to multi-day adventures.

The trick is to know where to go, when to go and how to do it all. The good news is that Cape Town’s most popular natural attractions are all-year-round affairs and easy to get to by yourself. Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Table Mountain, Boulders Beach penguin colony and Cape Point at the tip of the Cape Peninsula are all good examples. Simply hire a car or jump on a tour – you can even catch the big red sightseeing bus to some of them.

Make sure you do a bit of research if you’re hoping to see a lot of flowers, whales or great white sharks leaping out of the water: several of Cape Town’s natural attractions are seasonal. And try to be flexible with your itinerary too – you may need to chop and change days to suit the weather, especially if you are doing ocean-based activities.

As for iconic Table Mountain — the first sighting of which used to earn a 17th century Dutch sailor 10 guilders and six bottles of wine — if you want to really maximise your experience, consider using a guide. For example, there are only a handful of self-guided trails up Table Mountain; a guide will know other routes far from the crowds as well as what to do if the weather’s not so good.

Cape Town’s (kinda) secret gardens

The gardens in and around Cape Town are a thing of magic – whether that’s manicured Victorian rose beds or the exotic fynbos of the Cape floral kingdom. Beat the crowds and check out some of these “secret” gardens.

The gardens in and around Cape Town are a thing of magic – whether that’s manicured Victorian rose beds or the exotic fynbos of the Cape floral kingdom. Beat the crowds and check out some of these “secret” gardens.

1. Montebello Design Centre

A stone’s throw from the world-renowned Kirstenbosch Gardens in Newlands, Montebello is a great place for a garden breakfast, lunch or tea. Meander through its garden and greenhouse, dotted with fanciful sculptures, artworks and majestic Camphor trees. Part gallery, artists’ studio, nursery and restaurant, this hidden treasure is ideal for personal reflection or relaxed meet ups.

2. Arderne Gardens

It’s a wonder more people don’t know about Arderne Gardens, a quiet haven off Claremont’s boisterous Main Road. Founded in the mid-1800s for timber merchant Ralph Henry Arderne’s eclectic mix of international flora, the garden is now home to one of the most diverse and valuable collections of exotic trees in all of South Africa. This is according to the non-profit group Friends of Arderne Gardens, which says the collection includes one of the largest trees in South Africa, the vast Moreton Bay Fig, and quite possibly the largest Aleppo Pine in the world.

3. Vergelegen Estate

Ok, we know this one isn’t really such a big secret, but it’s a garden of mythical romance nonetheless! Vergelegen Estate in Somerset West has 17 perfectly manicured gardens that seem straight out of a BBC period drama. It’s a perfect place for history buffs or the leisurely wanderer: pre-book a picnic, sample estate wines or leisurely stroll through its myriad of unique gardens.

4. Wild West Coast

If you’re hankering to get out of the city entirely, book your spring trip up Cape Town’s west coast to the West Coast National Park for a five-day flower tour in mid-August. The secret to these wild gardens? You never know exactly what to expect or when exactly this floral fantasy will happen, but when it does, it’s a dazzling display of Mother Nature at her finest.

Cape Town’s most famous garden could have the cure for you

Europe’s 10 000 species of plants have been well exploited for medicinal purposes, but many of the 21 000 species found in South Africa are yet to be explored for their uses. The Fragrance Garden in Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens has many of these medicinal plants. Pay it a visit and the remedy for all your ills right may be right under your nose.

African traditional healers pose something of a mystery to Europeans, who have (mostly) lost the art of collecting plants, roots and bark to make lotions and potions that take away toothache and stomach ache, night fevers, bad dreams and lingering odours.

Such useful tips on plant use can be found in the Kirstenbosch National Botanic Fragrance Garden, which encourages you to compare textures and sniff a variety of not always-sweet smells.

Zulu women were known to use the fresh-smelling spur sage, ground up and mixed with fat, as a deodorant, while Cape Town fishermen crush the fine white flowers of the confetti bush to remove their fishy odours. You can hang skunk bush from the rafters to keep away flies, or use the minty herb mpephu to remove fleas and lice.

It’s not just African traditional healers who know what medicines can be harvested from nature. A senior horticulturist at Kirstenbosch gardens swears by the sap from the mother-in -law’s tongue cactus to relieve his children’s earaches. Used for centuries in Africa as a pain reliever, it is also said to cure worms, varicose veins, toothache and piles. The sap of the pig’s-ear plant will kill your warts with its anti-viral toxins, but it can also kill you if you take a nibble — unless you are a tortoise. They love it!

Scientists look to the plant kingdom for cures to the most deadly illnesses known to humanity, and Kirstenbosch often provides plants for this purpose. However, a request from Japan for eight metric tonnes of dried root of don’t-touch-me bush (Melianthus comosus), for an unknown use was an order they were unable to meet.

Europe’s 10 000 species of plants have been well exploited for medicinal purposes, but many of the 21 000 species found in South Africa are yet to be explored for their uses. So when visiting Kirstenbosch gardens, don’t forget to keep your senses alert, because the cure for your earache, headache, varicose veins, worms or warts could be right under your nose.

Explore the best of Cape Town’s nature on these 5 hiking trails

The Cape Peninsula, with Cape Town’s Table Mountain at one end and Cape Point at the other, is a wild, special place that begs to be explored on foot, says Fiona McIntosh, author of Hike Cape Town (published by Jacana), a full-colour guide with detailed descriptions of Cape Town’s best day hikes.

A network of hiking trails from Cape Town all the way to the tip of the Cape peninsula criss-crosses the peninsula’s mountainous spine, taking you through exquisite fynbos, indigenous forest and to dramatic rocky viewpoints. Easy coastal tracks lead to gold sand beaches, rock pools and whale-watching viewpoints. Much of the peninsula is protected as part of the Table Mountain National Park, an area of complex beauty and biodiversity that stretches about 60 kilometres from Signal Hill to Cape Point. It includes a significant portion of the mountain chain of the peninsula and 1 000 square kilometres of coastline and sea.

Nature lovers in Cape Town are spoilt for choice when it comes to exploring on foot. But these five iconic trails should be on your to-do list:

1. Maclear’s Beacon

The Table Mountain Cableway will whisk you high onto Table Mountain, but if you want to go to its true summit you will have to hike for about an hour each way across the flat plateau to a large pile of rocks known as Maclear’s Beacon. This beacon marks the highest point on Table Mountain, (1 086 metres above sea level) and was constructed in 1844 by the then Astronomer Royal at the Cape, Sir Thomas Maclear, as part of his efforts to measure the arc of the meridian of the earth.

The route, mostly along a natural rock track that leads through windswept vegetation, is marked with yellow footprints but it’s still easy to lose your way—this hike should only be undertaken in good visibility or with a guide. Remember also that on the top of the mountain the weather can change quickly so always take warm, waterproof clothing even if it’s a glorious sunny day. The Table Mountain Cableway is closed in high winds so don’t rely on it being open by the time you reach the top: make sure that you have the time, and energy, to walk down.

Free, guided walks from the Upper Cable Car Station around the plateau and across to Maclear’s Beacon are run by volunteers. Contact the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway for details.

2. Cape Point to Cape of Good Hope

This moderately difficult trail links two of South Africa’s most iconic landmarks  — Cape Point, with its two striking lighthouses, and the Cape of Good Hope, the south-western tip of Africa. It offers stunning views, wildlife sightings and interesting history. The route up to the now-redundant, upper lighthouse at Cape Point is easy, while that to the new lighthouse is steeper and exposed at times, so requires more effort and a head for heights. You can tour both lighthouses in a couple of hours, then hike along the spectacular cliff path from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope in another 30 minutes. Either return the way you came or arrange to be picked up at the car park at the Cape of Good Hope.

3. The Contour Path

This shady path through the forest on the eastern flanks of Table Mountain starts at Constantia Nek and goes across to the King’s Blockhouse above Rhodes Memorial (the car park closest to the King’s Blockhouse). Allow around six hours to hike the whole way or, if time is short, hike only the popular second half, from the National Botanical Gardens at Kirstenbosch to the King’s Blockhouse.

Since it is largely flat and shaded this is an easy trail for walkers of all ages and abilities and there are plenty of escape routes down into the Kirstenbosch gardens if the going gets tough. This is a good year-round trail, with the forest offering shelter from the hot sun in the summer. It’s particularly lovely in winter when the forest is lush and moist, waterfalls tumble down the ravines and colourful fungi adorn the dead branches.

4. Lion’s Head

The trail up Lion’s Head is one of Cape Town’s most popular hikes, partly because it is often in the wind shadow so makes a good outing when the southeaster, Cape Town’s dominant wind, is howling. Although clearly marked, it involves scrambling up some steep rocky sections, often with the aid of ladders and metal staples in the rock, so it is for confident and adventurous hikers only. The seasonal wildflowers are a particular treat and the views of Table Mountain, the World Cup stadium and Robben Island from the top of the peak are breathtaking. Allow two hours to return.

5. Sea Point Promenade

The Sea Point promenade stretches south along Cape Town’s Atlantic coastline from the Green Point lighthouse, a Cape Town landmark, to Queen’s Beach at the southerly end of Sea Point. It’s a wonderfully bracing child- and dog-friendly walk that can be hiked one way if you have two cars (or have a pre-loaded myconnect card for use on Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus), or as an out-and-back walk from either end.

In addition to refreshment stalls, jungle gyms and playgrounds there are several beaches along the way, as well as two tidal pools. The pool at Milton Beach is close to the sand and is protected from the crashing waves beyond so is ideal for families, while Graaff’s pool is a stunning, but more exposed gully nestled between jagged rocks.

As with all good promenades there are benches along the way where you can relax and watch the world go by. The Sea Point promenade has a great vibe, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon when walkers, joggers and rollerbladers head out for a little fresh air. Allow an hour each way.

Five of the best picnic spots in Cape Town

If you go down to the beach today, you might get a big surprise. Because today’s the day Capetonians have their picnic… Any day, really. If the sun is shining, Cape Town locals will find an excuse to whip out that picnic blanket. Here are five favourite spots…

1. Oudekraal beach

Part of the Table Mountain National Park, Oudekraal beach is one of Cape Town’s best kept secrets. Situated in a sheltered cove between Camps Bay and Llandudno, this pretty little beach is nicely protected from the wind. In addition to a lovely swimming area and its own colony of seals, Oudekraal also features a grassy picnic and braai area between the beach and the parking lot. The Milkwood trees dotted across the lawn ensure some degree of privacy.

Because it forms part of a conservation area, you’ll have to pay an entrance fee (R35 per adult and R20 per child) unless you possess a WILD Card or TMNP MY Green Card. It really is a nominal fee for so much beauty and tranquillity! One point worth noting is that there is a strict no-alcohol policy.

2. Le Pique Nique at Boschendal

One of the oldest farms in South Africa, Boschendal in the Drakenstein Valley offers up not one, but two picnic destinations. Choose between the classic Boschendal picnic on the lawns of the Rhone Homestead or the more casual ambiance of the Werf Garden picnic spot.

Rhone picnics can be enjoyed at carefully laid picnic tables or on blankets under the shady oak trees. Picnic baskets (R440, serves two) include a selection of pâtés, breads, salads, cold meats, artisan cheeses and preserves and delicious farm-made ice-cream.

The picnic baskets on offer at the Werf Garden are slightly less extravagant (for a more modest price of R350/basket) and the picnic area is only partially serviced. This is a great option if you have kids as there is a jungle gym, plenty of space for them to frolic and hammocks and beanbags for lounging. You can also order a kiddies’ picnic basket for R85. This venue also has live music on the first Sunday of every month.

3. Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

Picnics at Kirstenbosch are many things: treasured memories from childhood, lazy afternoons with friends, a prelude to your favourite summer concert, or a quick fix of nature 10 minutes from the city centre.

One of the best botanical gardens in the world, Kirstenbosch offers up 36 hectares of pristine garden, which means that you’ll always find that perfect spot for your picnic. Bring you own – no tables, chairs, or umbrellas allowed – or pick up a picnic hamper at the Kirstenbosch Tea Room or moyo restaurant.

Kirstenbosch is open between 08h00 and 19h00 in summer, and entry fees range from R15 (kids) to R55 (adults) per person.

4. Cape Point Vineyards

It’s hard to beat the view from Cape Point Vineyards in Noordhoek: vineyards, mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. The lawn next to the dam is a great place to drink while away a lazy afternoon. Picnic baskets (R395, serves two), which need to be booked at least 24 hours in advance, include ciabatta, a selection of charcuterie, local cheeses, salads and chocolate, salted caramel and brownie trifle! Your booking also includes a picnic blanket and pillows, so all you need to do is pitch up.

The wine farm is well known for its Sauvignon Blanc wines. Beverages aren’t included in the basket, so you’ll want to bring along a little extra cash to buy a bottle… or two.

5. Vergelegen

Forget about plastic cutlery and soggy sandwiches. If you want to do a picnic in style, head to Vergelegen in Somerset West. From November to April, you can indulge in a sophisticated picnic – at a table, of course – in the Camphor Forest. If it’s romance you’re after, ask them to put you at a table deep in the forest away from the other guests.

Picnic baskets, which exclude beverages and gratuity, will set you back R215 per person (or R95 for kids). You can expect breads and pâtés, smoked salmon wraps, Moroccan beef kebabs, spinach and feta quiches, coronation chicken, a selection of cheeses, and whatever dessert the chef is cooking up that day.

Kirstenbosch is home to rare living fossils. True story!

Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens’ ancient cycad arena contains cycads so rare that collectors go to extreme lengths to possess them.

It is the magnificent setting on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain that sets Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens apart from any other show garden in the world. It is a floral stage presented at its best, courtesy of the towering backdrop of Table Mountain. This botanical theatre shows off Southern Africa’s greatest floral talents in their utmost glory.

A trip to Kirstenbosch rates in the top five things to do for visitors to Cape Town and walking the paths, lawns and hillsides inside the gardens is a soothing experience that should not be hurried. Actually, it is almost impossible to rush around Kirstenbosch because nature’s forces — like steep gradients, captivating flower displays and park benches with sweeping vistas — just won’t let you.

Make a point of walking to the little natural amphitheatre on a stepped hillside in the oldest part of the gardens. This amphitheatre contains cycads some hundreds of years old. Cycads are the oldest living seed plants to have survived three mass extinction events in Earth’s history and were around during the Jurassic Period (150-200 million years ago) — they have spikes to stop dinosaurs from treading on them!

Illegal trade in cycads has become as serious a problem as drug smuggling, and so precious is the Encephalartos woodii cycad in Kirstenbosch that it is caged for its own protection. It is just one male of the almost extinct species and no female is known to exist. Luckily, it can be propagated from offshoots so the species does have a future, but the cage is there to stop enthusiasts stealing side shoots from this singular plant.

It wasn’t the woodii that was targeted by a highly organised gang of thieves in a military-style raid inside Kirstenbosch in the dead of night. They had their sights set on 22 critically-endangered Albany cycads and two rare Grahamstown cycads.  They stole the lot, not in one night, but in two daring robberies in August 2015. It’s still not understood how the thieves made off with 24 cycads from the mountainside inside security fences without leaving any trace, other than carefully dug holes in the ground. Nor is it known who turned to crime to possess these living fossils.

Pack a picnic and head to Kirstenbosch for a sublime Sunday

Pack a picnic, gather your favourite people and get set for a blissful Sunday at any one of the fabulous Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts.

The majestic Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the slopes of Table Mountain, is a crucial stop on any tourist’s itinerary. It is also an essential Sunday summer destination for many Cape Town locals.

Thousands descend upon the luscious green lawns with overflowing picnic baskets and blankets. With their families and friends in tow all who have attended a Summer Sunset Concert agree, there’s nothing better than kicking back against one of the most picturesque views in South Africa, with top-notch musical entertainment to complete the experience.

A showcase for the best local – and quite a few international – musicians, these concerts have played host to almost every legendary South African artist from Johnny Clegg and Mango Groove to Freshlyground and more. Kirstenbosch’s line-up also caters to a variety of musical tastes, from jazz to rock to classical – and include the beloved Carols by Candlelight in December.

The Summer Sunset Concerts season runs from November to April and gates to the concert area open at 4pm. Tickets almost always sell out, so it’s wise to buy online to avoid disappointment.

Always at the forefront of quality entertainment and sound, Sundays at Kirstenbosch are flawlessly orchestrated and are highly recommended for any music or nature fan.

Sunday? Then head straight to a Kirstenbosch Summer Concert!

The reasons for both tourists and locals to regularly drop in at Kirstenbosch, the botanical gardens of Cape Town, are plentiful: the magnificent scenery (Kirstenbosch lies at the foot of Table Mountain), the wide variety of flora, the excellent hiking trails…but for many, the Kirstenbosch Summer Concerts series caps the lot.

When attending one of the Kirstenbosch Summer Concerts in Cape Town, you might just find your different senses battling your attention. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the slopes of Table Mountain, yet the smells of the wonderful plant mixture in Kirstenbosch needs you to close your eyes and focus on that…and to top it all, an excellent live band is demanding your attention with their music. This infighting between the senses could be the most satisfactory battle ever experienced!

Taking place every Sunday in the botanical gardens for a whopping four months over Cape Town’s peak summer period (November to March), the Kirstenbosch Summer Concerts series has quickly become a favourite among locals and tourists — a perfect way to wind down after a weekend that may have contained more energy -sapping activities.

Concerts start around 17h30 and continue until 19h00. A world class stage has been erected for the series and some of the most well established and widely loved musicians and singers South Africa has to offer are booked for the mellow Sunday shows (not all are mellow —a popular punk-rock band was once reprimanded mid-performance because a few of their headbanging fans were trampling on the foliage).

Pack a picnic basket and find a spot quickly — the area where the concerts are held fills up with enthusiastic garden visitors. Then sit back and enjoy the battle of the senses.