“The Earth laughs in flowers” Ralph Waldo Emerson
When essayist, poet and leader of the transcendentalist movement Waldo Emerson wrote these words one has to wonder if he had somehow experienced Namaqualand in the spring. The extravaganza of orange, yellow, white and purple is quite something to behold as this arid desert-like landscape transforms into a thick carpet of colour after the winter rains.
The ideal time of year to view the Namaqualand flowers is in August and September, with August being the better time in the north near Nababeep and Springbok and September better in the south west towards Lambert’s Bay and the West Coast. Whilst this may change from year to year, mid-August to mid-September is a good time to plan your visit. Travelling from north to south is preferable as the flowers face the sun. Sunny days after 11am and before three in the afternoon are the best viewing times as the petals close up for the night around 4pm. The higher the sun, the brighter the flowers.
This natural botanical wonderland has much to offer the eco-savvy traveller both during the flower season and at other times during the year. It offers an abundance of nature reserves and eco-adventures on the Orange River. There are many perfect bodies of water for the fly fishing enthusiasts and scenic 4 x 4 trails. The southerly parts of this region boast some of the most beautiful landmark lighthouses in Southern Africa. There is a wide selection of sustainable and off-the-grid accommodation, quaint B&Bs and boutique hotels supported by an abundance of eateries offering wholesome dishes made with dollops of love and freshly harvested local produce and organic fare.
Namaqualand is a photographer’s dream for both professionals and amateurs alike. These colourful palettes of nature’s painters have been the inspiration for many, who, after a trip to Namaqualand, have become passionate and avid photographers. There are many photographic tour companies which operate in this area, in particular Kamieskroon and Vanrhynsdorp. When visualising the night sky and the blaze of Namaqualand flowers, the song ‘Vincent’ by Don Mclean begins to play in my mind.
‘Starry, starry night, Flaming flowers that brightly blaze, Swirling clouds in violet haze’
For those that feel the magic and mystery of looking up at a starlit night sky, the Northern Cape and Namaqualand are impressive and a must for photographers, astronomers and the lovers of star-studded galaxies. The Northern Cape offers some of the best stargazing in the world.
Our botanical Odyssey started in Nababeep, an old copper-mining town in Namaqualand, 19km north-west of Springbok, where we stayed at Jakkalswater, an off-the-grid guest farm, nestled between the slopes and granite boulders of the Kamiesberg Mountains, the perfect getaway for the conscious traveller. Nababeep is the ideal location from which to explore the eighth World Heritage Site in South Africa, The Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape. This is a commanding mountainous desert in the north-west which hosts the Richtersveld National Park, home to a wide range of game and prolific birdlife as well as 650 plant species, many of which have been used by the Nama people for their medicinal and nutritional needs since early times. The Richtersveld has the world’s largest variety of succulents, including the unusual ‘halfmens’, a tall succulent that takes on a human form when silhouetted against the sky. The park is accessible only by 4 x 4 and high clearance vehicles. For those who wish to venture further east there is The Augrabies Waterfall National Park named ‘Aukoerebis’, by the Khoi, the place of great noise, where water is unleashed with great force from rocky outcrops. From Nababeep we explored Springbok and Hondeklip Bay to the east and re-joined the N7 to the Namaqua National Park along the Namaqualand Flower Route en route to Kamieskroon.
Not only is Namaqualand known for its colourful carpet of wild spring flowers, it has some of the richest bulb flora of any arid region in the world and more than a 1 000 of its approximately 3 500 plant species are not found anywhere else on Earth.
We provisioned in Springbok, visited the mining museum and filled our bellies at one of the delightful cafés before heading to the Goegap National Park, our first experience of the magnificence and magnitude of the spring flowers and Gaia’s orange, white, yellow and purple canvas against a bright blue sky. It will remain etched in my mind forever. Hondeklip was well worth the deviation from our planned route, via the N7 to Skilpad and Kamieskroon, to the western coastline. Hondeklip Bay is secluded, unspoilt and tranquil. It may not be a mainstream destination in the travel journals; it is, however, a truly restorative place for body, mind and soul. The Hondeklip lighthouse is known as a ‘rickety lighthouse on stilts’ and not quite what one would expect of a lighthouse, yet therein lies its functional charm. The heartfelt hospitality of the locals is most welcoming and, if you are looking for a place to stay, the Honnehokke Resort is a perfect oasis, self-catering and pet friendly; it has often been rated as the friendliest getaway on the Northern Cape’s West Coast. A feast of delicious and simply served local produce, freshly baked artisan bread and seafood served from the ocean to your table is the trademark of Die Rooi Spinnekop restaurant, which takes its name from the local vernacular for crayfish. Next stop, with the camera fully charged and the Wildflowers of Namaqualand, botanical guide by Annelise le Roux at my side, onto the Skilpad Wild Flower Reserve in the Namaqua National Park with two nights’ accommodation in the quaint and colourful Kamieskroon.
We meandered to Kamieskroon surrounded by a magical carpet of spring flowers. On arrival we were enchanted by this tiny town set among the granite rock formations of the Kamiesberg range, with the local NG Church spire dominating the landscape above and the carpet of tiny flowers beneath its burly stone built structure, providing a great photographic opportunity. In the town there are a number of homely and hospitable guest houses and a village campsite and caravan park. The Namaqua National Park also offers idyllic campsites surrounded by a wonderland of flowers and there are a number of authentic off-the-grid farm stays available. Self-catering or pre-arranging meals at your booked accommodation is recommended, as the delightful Kuiervreugde coffee shop and the few eateries in town close quite early. Birds, butterflies and ‘blommetjies’: That is the Skilpad Wild Flower Reserve. The park unequivocally offers an incredible display of Namaqualand daisies as they erupt out of the earth in July through September, accompanied by the most prolific butterfly population and birdlife. The small bulbous and succulent plants found in the hillocks and bushes often go unnoticed in amongst the larva of daisies. The Skilpad reserve was proclaimed for the very purpose of conserving this rich diversity of succulent plants.
There is circular vehicle route around Skilpad for roughly five kilometres through the blooms and there is also a 6km MTB trail in the park, although the best way to view the flowers is on the foot paths with a magnifying glass, getting up-close and personal with these tiny petalled treasures. Pollen-stained noses and grubby knees are evidence of a truly humbling and joyful encounter. For the eco-adventurers, the 4 x 4 Caracal eco route is a 153km (five- to six-hour) trail which stretches from Skilpad in the northeast to Groen River in the south to areas that were previously inaccessible. This route offers incredible views of the amazing quiver tree, or kokerboom, which will not be overshadowed by the spring flowers as the giant succulents burst into a crescendo of yellow flowers in winter. With time constraints, we opted for the 50km 4 x 4 eco route which offered a wide variety of the rich flora of the area and large lazy grazing oryx; however, most interesting were the creatures small: Fat juicy giant caterpillars, in the scrub, the Namaqua flat lizard and the Namaqua chameleon – the fastest chameleon in the world. The area is also home to the smallest tortoise in the world with adults growing to the approximate length of your finger, the Namaqua Speckled Padloper. Venturing down the N7 through Garies, our next top was Vanrhynsdorp, the road dotted with an abundance of flowers of uncountable varieties, stopping to view and photograph the ones we had not yet encountered, using our Wildflowers of Namaqualand guide and marking each dutifully in the guide … I think we gave up at about 240 and just embraced the experience and took in the visual splendour.
Vanrhynsdorp, on the route, was a wonderful surprise and the fabulously eccentric Baghdad Café a great find, offering delicious vegan options for the plant-powered folk. After a sumptuous meal we were back on the road to Clanwilliam, where we encountered the small farming community of Klawer, nestled in a valley between Vredendal and Clanwilliam. The Klawer Wine Cellars beckoned as we drove by and, on entering, we were taken in by the large variety of locally produced wines and other offerings, in particular, The Klawer African Ruby Rooibos Vermouth and olive oils in charming decorative tins, a great choice for unique local gifts to take back home.
As we headed south the landscape began to change from the magnificent spring flower carpet to citrus orchards with bending boughs heavy with fruit and fynbos at the roadside. Nearing Clanwilliam, however, the splendour of the spring flower extravaganza once again dominated the landscape, with hillsides and roadsides abundantly splashed with colour. Named after the Earl of Clanwilliam by his son-in-law, Sir John Cradock, the town is one of the 10 oldest in South Africa and was initially known as Jan Disselsvalleij. Clanwilliam is also the Rooibos capital of the world, producing over a billion bags of Rooibos tea a year. It is home to the magnificent Ramskop Wildflower Garden with over 350 species of cultivated wild flowers, which certainly did not disappoint and it hosts the annual Wildflower Show in September of each year. There is also well-preserved and detailed San rock art in the area.
Clanwilliam is home to many wonderful tea houses, coffee shops and great restaurants; it boasts a quirky and eclectic main street of vibrant gift shops, eateries, museums, historic architecture and other serendipitous finds. You definitely need more than a day in Clanwilliam and surrounds. Finding a spot on the olde worlde stoep of The Rooibos Teahouse to experience a tea tasting accompanied by a sumptuous and moist piece of cake is a must when in the area. Accommodation choices in the area are abundant, from quaint and quirky to more modern comfort, with both fully catered and self-catering options, comfortable bed and breakfasts and an abundance of guest farms and working farm stays and campsites. For a truly eco-centric experience give consideration to staying at Oudrif, 50km outside Clanwilliam, just over the Pakhuis Pass. The fully-catered eco-savvy straw bale houses overlooking the Doring River are a perfect place restore your soul. There is no cellphone reception, it is totally off-the-grid and hence there is no facility to charge electronic devices. It is a total immersion into nature away from civilisation and the flowers are spectacular here in August and early September.
Continuing down the N7 we rerouted at Pieketberg to the West Coast Flower Route through Velddrif and St Helena Bay and, whilst the oranges and yellow Namaqualand daisies were ever present, this route was a psychedelic sea of purples, magentas, cherises and reds with an abundance of succulents and other species colloquially named: ‘madeliefies, wildekamille, geel langbeensuring, oranje gousblom, rooi viooltjies, gansogies, geel hongerblom, geel gousblom, roosmalva, geel kruipvygie, bietou, kantblom’. As we reached the magnificent unspoilt West Coast coastline, the vibrancy of the flowers was electric against the azure ocean backdrop.
Paternoster was calling and, having spent many memorable trips from Cape Town up the West Coast years earlier, we could not wait to return to this authentic West Coast lifestyle, remembering fondly the local fishermen with their brightly coloured fishing boats. One of the oldest villages on the West Coast and on the ‘Foodie Route’, Paternoster a multitude of absolutely outstanding eateries, many offering the fresh fish off the boats. There is nothing to beat a leisurely lunch at an oceanside restaurant, partaking of the local fare whilst overlooking this breathtaking bay on a sunny day, the pristine white buildings and beach cottages and the colourful fishing boats resting onshore. The Strandloper Ocean Boutique Hotel was no exception, with a crème brûlée, that I still dream about. We found the Skatkis restaurant at Paternoster lodge, however, to have the most spectacular view, whilst savouring a Greek yoghurt bowl topped with fresh fruit, nuts, home-baked muesli and honey, watching the bustling fisherman going out and coming in and hearing the excited cries of the expectant seagulls. There are also bright buzzing cafés offering vegan options. And of course, the famous, or perhaps infamous, Panty Bar at the Paternoster Hotel. The Hotel is best-known for its fish and chips with a large chilled spritzer or white wine, served on the large colonial veranda, with whitewashed walls and a red stoep, which provides a great opportunity to observe life in the quaint village as it passes by.
The Cape Columbine Nature Reserve is only 10 minutes away; a bright and beautiful display of wild flowers in the spring surround the last manned lighthouse on Castle Rock. Built in 1936, it rests on this windswept Atlantic coastline. The spiral staircase in the lighthouse has a look-out point high enough to provide unbelievable views out over the Britannia reef and the ocean.
Our botanical adventure was coming to an end with a short stay in Yzerfontein, a peaceful unspoilt fishing village where man and nature fuse into perfect harmony, this was a fitting last night with the opportunity to meditate with the rising West Coast sun pushing up out of ocean mist, the only distraction the cries of the seabirds breaking the mesmerising sound of the lapping of the ocean on the stony beach in front of our beautifully appointed shorefront B&B. As we drove through the winding country road to Darling, flanked by carpets of brilliant yellow canola fields and bright white calla lilies, on route to Cape Town, a sign came into view: with the image of a flower and the word End’. And that was that! All love Debra
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