Philip Le Roux: 'I became disillusioned with commercial forestry'

Cape Town is not exactly short of decent views. But the vista from Philip Le Roux's office window is breathtaking. Laid out before him are the sumptuous gardens of Kirstenbosch and the mountains behind as a backdrop, as if in a painting.

Master of all he surveys? Well, in a sense. Le Roux is Curator of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, one of the jewels in this country's crown of natural beauty. Strolling on a summer's morning around this idyllic place is to walk with the Gods. A glimpse of life in the Elysian fields, if ever there was one.

So how do you become Curator of Kirstenbosch ? Le Roux came from a background in forestry and also studied horticulture. He grew up in Cape Town, his son is still at SACS and from his own schooldays he wanted to get into something to do with the natural environment.

"I was 16 or 17 when I identified a career in this field" he tells me. "I went to Sarsfeld Forestry College but became disillusioned with commercial forestry."

He spent seven or eight years studying horticulture, parks and forestry and, in time, the chance of becoming an Estate Manager at Kirstenbosch arose. He seized it with alacrity and, nine years ago, was appointed Curator. A fantasy job for someone who loves this field ? He smiles.

"Well not quite, although I am very happy in what I do. But there is a lot of reality. We have a staff of 130 people in the garden so we have many staff and public issues with which to deal."

One of Le Roux's principle achievements has been to stabilise the staff situation at Kirstenbosch. After the elections in 1994, when there were, as he says, great expectations among the staff, they had a lot of workers unrest for ten years. "Because of the political situation the staff had been in, they had expectations which could not be met. They were not practical.

"Perhaps some of them expected to be head of the garden the next week after the elections."

But like everywhere in this country, significant progress has been made. The horticultural department at Kirstenbosch used to be all white but now, says Le Roux with pride, 50/60 per cent of the management and more senior positions are in the hands of people of colour. But an evolution, not revolution.

Philip Le Roux makes sure the piles of paper on his desk each day do not constitute barriers that prevent him getting out into the garden. "I try to keep a balance, I go out into the garden, I keep involved in developments like upgrading facilities and landscaping. I like to keep a hand on that, definitely. I haven't lost contact with the things that inspire me even though we are a public entity so there are new forms of control that keep coming in that need to be complied with and that all takes time. It is bureaucracy but it hasn't become insurmountable. You have to accept you will be office bound in part."

And besides, there is always the view...

For someone forever interested in the natural environment, Le Roux is pleased that Kirstenbosch only grows South African native plants. He also lauds the fact that the garden grows a lot of rare and threatened plants. "It is not just gardening that is of great interest to me" he explains. "What inspires me is the great love of the garden held by the people of Cape Town. They are very attached to it.

"To work for an organisation which people respect means more than the salary you take home. That enhances the job satisfaction hugely."

Kirstenbosch's fame and repute around the world brings added pressure on its Curator. Contact is maintained with gardens in many countries and a close eye kept on new developments, new trends in gardens everywhere. And with around 750,000 visitors each year (it was only 400,000 in 1994), Kirstenbosch, as a garden recently placed in the top seven in the botanical world, needs to keep abreast of these developments.

But what is the intrinsic appeal of this place in the eyes and mind of its Curator ? Le Roux cites the sense of space allied to the mountain backdrop. It is, he justifiably claims, a magnificent setting. "I think it is those things and also the way the garden has been developed. The fact that we concentrate on South African plants makes people feel very aware of what you might call the South African-ness of the garden."

But places like Kirstenbosch face a litany of costs and other considerations in contemporary times. The quaint notion of simply opening your doors and allowing people to wander around and then go home is at odds with the commercial reality of modern day life. Thus, innovations have been welcomed, such as the series of summer concerts the garden now stages, the art exhibitions and other shows.

Transforming Kirstenbosch from an excellent South African secret pre-1994 to a garden of world repute has been a formidable challenge. At 52, Le Roux has brought an ideal mix of experience and enthusiasm to the task. This has been no small task: R60 million has been spent over the last 15 years on visitor facilities, restaurants, shops, conference facilities and such like to develop tourism in one branch or another. The income is essential to keep Kirstenbosch a vibrant, thriving organisation.

But as with all South Africa, hitherto unimagined difficulties intrude. Le Roux concedes with a sad, almost bewildered shake of his head that he never envisaged the day when crime and security in the garden would become of paramount importance. Alas, attacks and muggings on the mountain have forced a re-think. Even those who delight in nature's beauty must confront too mankind's dark side.

"We had one or two attacks and beefed up security immediately. I think we forced the criminals to be beyond the confines of the garden but there have been muggings in Skeleton gorge. That has historically been known as a safe place for families and we guard that image very carefully. Recently, we were very much involved with the National Parks authorities in catching four muggers.

"We realise there are social reasons for this sort of thing but we have to do what is necessary within the confines of the garden so that it is nipped in the bud."

A perfect horticulturalist's analogy, you might think. And it is a perfect scenario that, in the last two years under Le Roux and his team, Kirstenbosch has become self sustaining. It runs at a profit now, it does not require Government grants. It is an understandable source of pride to Le Roux for as he says "It is quite unusual among botanical gardens to be self sustaining.

"That tells us we have been quite innovative and get good support from the public. For example, the concert programme has been very successful."

Gate takings constitute around 50% of their budget, concerts another 25%. The other outdoor events, shops and restaurants make up the remaining quarter.

But at the end of the day, Le Roux is happiest dealing with and discussing plants, the essence of the botanist's trade. "We need to grow and nurture as many of the rare and endangered species as we can. Many are very difficult to grow and keep alive so that is always a constant challenge. We don't grow exotic plants or hybrids and I think that is understood and appreciated by the public, the fact that we only grow indigenous plants."

So what does the Curator of Kirstenbosch do on his days off? Yes, you guessed it. He often just walks in the garden, breathing its clear, fresh air and enjoying it as one of nature's bounteous gifts. Fortunately, his wife understands: she is a landscaper and horticulturalist herself.

"You are always looking at things with a critical eye and I am a fierce critic".

But he also does other things, such as road cycling. He had six months touring the Alps at one time, seeing Germany, Austria and Italy. It was, he said, simply magnificent. He cycles virtually every day and once a week goes mountain biking.

Given that he is at work most mornings by 0700 at the latest, Le Roux gets up at 0530 to cycle. One day a week, they start work at 0530 so he gets up at 0445 then. Some might shudder but Le Roux smiles. "It is excellent stress relief to keep fit. I cycle most mornings for 45 minutes to an hour."

I sneaked one final, lingering look at the idyllic vision beyond Philip Le Roux's office window. You could become drowsy, drunk on such beauty. But, I wondered, among the hundreds and thousands of plants in Kirstenbosch, which would be the Curator's favourite. The cliché question of all clichés.

"I think it would have to be Strelitzia Mandela's Gold. John Winter, my predecessor, did a lot of work on it, isolating the plant, bringing it up and making sure it stayed true to form. It took him ten years but it has a wonderful natural colour variation although it is yellow.

"But for me, another great plant is Agapanthus which is such a useful plant because it can be used as ground cover and likes full sunlight. It is very low maintenance and in many ways, a landscaper's dream plant."

And isn't Philip Le Roux's work, in many ways, a horticulturalist's dream job?