The huge Cape Eagle Owl was sunbathing at 10am eyeing us from his roost on a large branch overhanging the main path leading into the gardens. About the size of a cat, it was surprising to see this speckled nocturnal bird on such a public perch but what an amazing and unexpected welcome to this flower- and bush-stuffed natural realm, tucked into the back side of Table Mountain in Cape Town, pushing its bright blooms and paths up the steep green slopes.
Getting the most out of Kirstenbosch
The gardens are large - 1,300 acres - and spending a full day here is easy. My tip is to take one of the four free, very informative, daily guided tours. Unless you're a botanical boffin, it may be hard to make sense of such a wealth of plants and flowers and, anyway, without a guide you get none of the history, or great anecdotes.
There's also no natural "through route" round the gardens meaning a guided tour makes all the more sense. I took the first tour of the day on one of the hottest days of the South African summer. Take plenty of water - there are no hidden kiosks in the gardens serving anything thirst-quenching (the restaurant is close to the entrance), and there's less shade than you might think.
It's quite a trek by road (13 kilometres) to the gardens from the city centre but City Sightseeing Hop On Hop Off Buses pull in very regularly. For music lovers, the annual summer concerts, are hugely popular with a stage overlooking a gentle sloped lawn, trimmed with agapanthus, for music fans to lounge on while they soak up the tunes.
Kirstenbosch is billed as one of the planet's six floral kingdoms; it's also the world's first botanical gardens to be awarded UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site status. Our guide, Lee, walked us first past fig trees and Japanese Cinnamomum camphora where we spied Cape Bulbul birds and olive thrush flit through the bushes, before we stopped at a clump of aloe ferox whose juice and gel are extracted and exported to Japan, we learnt.
Under leafy shade Lee told us about hedge "diplomacy" or, hedge conflict resolution depending on which side of the fence you might literally be sitting. When the Dutch East India Company's Jan van Riebeeck founded a Cape settlement in 1652, he blocked the grazing routes of the cattle belonging to the native Khoi which provoked outrage. van Riebeeck's solution was to defend his settlement by building a natural barrier sewn with wild almond and brambles built to prevent cattle entering and leaving. The remnants of that hedge barrier - wild almond trees - can still be seen at Kirstenbosch.
A highlight of a Kirstenbosch visit is taking the suspended walkway through the trees. Designed in 2013 for the gardens' centenary, it's shaped like the skeleton of a boomslang (tree snake) which fattens in the middle and is where the 130-metre walkway - with sides imitating snake ribs - bulges with viewpoints.
Approaching from the gardens there's no sense of the elevation but once I headed out on to the walkway I was quick to notice I was around 12 metres in the air. The design of the walkway is very sleek, curving like a slinking snake through the sky. The biggest takeaway, though, are the awesome views of Table Mountain which rears up in the distance.
Protea paradise - the national flower of South Africa
As we made our way towards the Protea Garden we snuck past wild gardenia whose fruit - a small kiwi-shaped fruit eaten by elephants, rhinos and Cape buck - and a plant known as kooigoed or silver-bush everlastingflower (Helichrysum petiolare).
Kooigoed isn't the least bit interesting to look at but enjoys an important role in traditional African medicine, Lee explained. It's burnt by medicine men to ward off evil spirits and placate the ancestors but, curiously, it's also burnt at the opening of parliament in South Africa to ward off evil spirits, Lee told us.
The protea, named after the Greek God Proteus, is a species of flowering plant in South Africa and is part of what the country calls "the fynbos" (fine-leaved bush vegetation) which features some 350 species of protea. In fact, the national flower, the king protea boasts the largest flower head among the protea and is often seen beautifully arranged in homes and restaurants. It has the appearance of a giant star with a bulbous white and yellow mound at its centre surrounded by pink spiky petals.
One of the most eye-catching is the Pincushion Protea, also known as the yellow bird - a bright canary yellow bulb with pin-head spindles - which was putting on a beautiful display under the intensely blue sky.
We finally found respite from the heat at the Colonel's Bird Bath, a beautiful, cool, fern-shaded area overlooking a natural pool and small waterfall. The pool was built by British Deputy Colonial Secretary Christopher Bird in 1811 to collect the mountain spring water to pipe to his house.
As I wandered back to the entrance passing mountain dahlia, prowling guinea fowl, and a cluster of Birds of Paradise flower beaks known as "Mandela's Gold", I wondered if the gardens' feathered gatekeeper was still at his post. He was, and seemed oblivious, this time, to the camera lenses trying to catch him taking a nap.