Welcome to Pietermaritzburg’s Botanical Gardens, one of the ten national botanical gardens in South Africa, situated on an ancient floodplain and hillside on the outskirts of the city. The mist belt that envelops the gardens on certain days creates an atmosphere reminiscent of a scene from a Dickens novel, making it a must-see attraction for nature lovers.
The gardens have a rich history, dating back to the early 1870s when they were established with the primary objective of conserving and propagating rare and endangered indigenous plant species. Today, they continue to focus on the conservation of East Coast grasslands and the cultivation of various flora.
One of the standout features of the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Gardens is the magnificent Plane Tree Avenue, which was planted just after the turn of the 20th century, in 1908. This avenue leads to a bell tower, which houses a ship bell from the HMS Princess that King George V crossed the channel on in 1918. The gardens also boast a muthi garden of indigenous medicinal plants, displayed around a traditional Zulu hut, and a series of lovely walking trails through grassland and indigenous forest.
Apart from its conservation efforts, the botanical gardens are also home to some fantastic examples of northern hemisphere plants, such as tulip and camphor trees, giant figs, magnolias, and swamp cypresses. The gardens’ diversity of plant life attracts a plethora of bird species, with over 150 recorded in the area.
The City of Flowers is a fitting nickname for Pietermaritzburg, as private gardens and public parks are filled with lush vegetation and seasonal blooms, especially the colorful bougainvilleas that thrive in this part of the world.
Popular activities and tourist attractions at Pietermaritzburg Botanical Gardens
Apart from exploring the gardens themselves, there are plenty of other activities and tourist attractions in and near Pietermaritzburg’s Botanical Gardens that visitors can enjoy.
One popular attraction is the KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden, located just a short drive away from the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Gardens. This garden is renowned for its impressive collection of cycads, as well as its many hiking trails and picnic spots.
Another must-visit attraction is the Natal Museum, which is home to a vast collection of artifacts and exhibits that showcase the region’s natural and cultural history. The museum also has a planetarium, which is perfect for stargazing on clear nights.
For adrenaline junkies, there are plenty of adventure activities to try in the nearby Karkloof Nature Reserve. Visitors can go zip-lining, mountain biking, and hiking, or take a canopy tour through the treetops for an unforgettable bird’s eye view of the forest.
Culture enthusiasts can visit the Gandhi Museum, which was once home to Mahatma Gandhi during his time in South Africa. The museum houses an impressive collection of Gandhi’s personal possessions and documents, as well as exhibits on his life and work.
Back in the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Gardens, visitors can take part in guided walks to learn more about the garden’s history and unique features, or explore the lovely walking trails through the grasslands and indigenous forest. For those who love birdwatching, the gardens offer the perfect opportunity to spot a variety of bird species.
Pietermaritzburg’s Botanical Gardens and the surrounding areas offer a wealth of activities, attractions, and points of interest for visitors of all ages and interests. From exploring the gardens themselves to trying out adrenaline-fueled adventure activities, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
Comrades Marathon House
If you’re a sports enthusiast, the Comrades Marathon House is a must-visit attraction located in the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Gardens. The Victorian-style house has been restored and serves as the headquarters for the Comrades Marathon, the world’s most attended ultra-marathon, and a museum dedicated to its history and winners.
The Comrades Marathon began in 1921 with only 34 runners, and now, it is South Africa’s most popular road race, attracting more than 23,000 runners on its 75th anniversary in 2000. The marathon is known for its approximately 90 km distance, alternating course directions annually between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, and its challenging uphill and downhill routes. The event brings together runners from all over the world, promoting unity and camaraderie among all South Africans.
The museum showcases a to-scale (1:25000) model of the race route and highlights the “big five” hills on the uphill route, including Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga, and Poly Shorts. The museum also features historical photographs documenting the beginning of the marathon event, which was initiated in 1921 by World War I veteran Vic Clapham as a tribute to the South African soldiers who died in the war.
The Comrades Marathon has seen some of the world’s most prominent runners participating in it, including champions like Bruce Fordyce, Frith van der Merwe, Wally Hayward, and Arthur Newton, all of whom have won multiple times. The museum has a collection of personal marathon mementos donated by former competitors and pays tribute to the event’s history and future, which is a national treasure.
Apart from the Comrades Marathon House, the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Gardens offer visitors many other attractions and activities. Visitors can take a leisurely walk along the long avenue of plane trees planted in 1908, which culminates in a bell tower housing a ship bell from the HMS Princess on which King George V crossed the channel in 1918.
The gardens also have a muthi garden of indigenous medicinal plants displayed around a traditional Zulu hut, and a series of lovely walking trails through grassland and indigenous forest. Bird enthusiasts will enjoy the magnificent birdlife, with over 150 recorded species. The gardens are home to both indigenous and exotic plant species, making it an ideal spot for nature lovers.
Pietermaritzburg has many other tourist attractions worth exploring. For instance, the Midlands Meander is a popular route that offers a unique arts and crafts experience, with many galleries, craft shops, and studios to visit. Another attraction is the Nelson Mandela Capture Site, where visitors can learn about the history of apartheid and the role Nelson Mandela played in its downfall.
Pietermaritzburg is an ideal destination for anyone looking for a mix of culture, history, and nature. With so much to see and do, visitors will be sure to enjoy an unforgettable experience in this charming city.
For those interested in South African culture and natural history, a visit to the Natal Museum is a must. This museum is one of South Africa’s “big 5” national museums and is home to impressive displays and collections, extensive research, and unique exhibits. The museum has 10 Cultural History Galleries and 8 Natural History Galleries, which showcase a range of interesting artifacts and specimens.
One of the most exciting exhibits is the life-size models of Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and the formidable T-Rex, which will transport visitors back to the Cretaceous period. The Mammal Hall is another popular attraction, where visitors can stand under the tusks of the skeleton of the last wild elephant in KwaZulu Natal and get a close-up look at the wide-open jaws of a hippopotamus.
In addition to these exhibits, there are taxidermy displays of tropical birds, chimpanzees, and marine life. The museum also houses a fascinating Mollusca Collection, with tiny and gigantic slugs representing most land snail species of South Africa. Visitors can also view original San Rock Art displays that interpret stories of the desert through human figures, animal forms, and magic. Authentic Zulu pottery, brightly colored bead art, and bronze treasures from Mapungupwe are also on display.
The museum has an impressive international reputation, and traveling exhibitions keep the displays fresh, educating visitors on politics, relationships, arts, and crafts. The museum also hosts monthly poetry readings by the Knowledge of Self Society (KOSS), a local township poetry group that showcases the rhymes and rhythms of South African youth.
The building itself is a 1905 national monument, with a beautiful façade located just south of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. Visitors will notice that the colonial columns and carvings are crawling with oversized cockroaches, spiders, and ants, which add to the science and wonder of the museum experience. Overall, the Natal Museum is a unique and fascinating attraction that should not be missed.
Blue Caterpillar Art Gallery
For art enthusiasts, the Blue Caterpillar Art Gallery is a must-visit destination in Pietermaritzburg. The Gallery is situated on 37 Willowton Road and showcases the work of top South African artists. The Gallery exhibits a diverse range of art pieces, including oils and mixed media pieces by the renowned South African artist Frans Claerhout. His work is a blend of African imagery, colour and texture, reflecting his deep love for the African landscape and its people. In addition to Claerhout’s work, the gallery represents other artists such as Ezequiel Mabote, a master woodcut printmaker, who presents uniquely African works, Derek Miller, Jo Kotze, and many others.
The Blue Caterpillar Art Gallery is a serene and inspiring space that offers visitors a unique opportunity to appreciate and purchase artworks by talented South African artists. The Gallery’s collection includes contemporary, modern, and traditional art pieces that showcase a range of techniques and styles. Visitors can explore the gallery’s various exhibitions, attend art talks, and even participate in workshops and classes hosted by some of the featured artists.
The Blue Caterpillar Art Gallery is also home to the “Caterpillar Collection,” a unique selection of decorative art pieces that include intricate beaded works, wire sculptures, and ceramic bowls. These pieces are sourced from local artisans, many of whom come from rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal. The Gallery supports local artists and artisans by providing a platform for them to showcase and sell their works to a wider audience.
The Blue Caterpillar Art Gallery is a gem in the heart of Pietermaritzburg, offering a rich cultural experience for visitors. The Gallery’s collection is a testament to the vibrancy and diversity of South African art, and a visit is a must for anyone interested in exploring the rich artistic heritage of the region.
Voortrekker – Msunduzi Museum
Located in Pietermaritzburg, the Voortrekker – Msunduzi Museum showcases the history of South Africa’s pioneers known as the Voortrekkers who migrated to the inland of South Africa from 1835 by oxwagon. The museum includes five adjacent buildings that preserve the multi-cultural history of South Africa.
The Main Building serves as a gallery for South Africa’s democratic history, while the original 1840 Church of the Vow, now known as the Voortrekker Complex, was built to fulfil the Voortrekkers’ vow to preserve their heritage. The Anglo-Boer War exhibitions are housed in original 1849 Voortrekker architecture at 333 Boom Street. The Zulu Hut educates visitors on tribal lifestyle and the Shiva Indian Temple represents South African Hindu community’s heritage.
Visitors can view a variety of relics of note, including the second oldest oxwagon in South Africa dating back to 1824, original Voortrekker clothing, authentic rifles, a prayer book belonging to former Voortrekker leader Piet Retief, genuine lifestyle memorabilia, and a replica of a Hindu Shiva. The museum also houses artefacts, sculptures, and a collage of the role of the African people in the Boer War, as well as African beads from the Royal Residence of King Dingane, and his carved chair and headrest.
The museum also has an auditorium for educational presentations, a shop, and a restaurant. Visitors can learn about the pioneers’ history and culture and the impact they had on South Africa’s democratic history. The museum is a great place to visit for history buffs and those interested in learning about the culture of South Africa.
Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a history buff, or simply looking for a serene escape from the city’s hustle and bustle, the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Gardens are a must-visit destination. Guided walking tours are available for those who wish to learn more about the garden’s history and unique features, making it an educational experience for all visitors.