South Africa - Kaleidoscope Country
Written by Lucy Corne
Each spring the arid Namaqualand region in the Northern Cape bedazzles visitors with its wildflower display. Cape Town resident Lucy Corne takes us on a floral safari through South Africa’s largest province.
There is a set group of adjectives reserved for describing Namaqualand. Arid is one. Rugged, striking, lunar-like, and otherworldly all get thrown around. But, for most of the year, people don’t usually use words like gorgeous or pretty when talking about this offbeat region.
The northwestern corner of South Africa’s most sparsely populated province is beautiful, but it’s not an obvious ‘waterfall crashing through verdant valleys onto a white-sand beach’ kind of beauty. Drives here tend to be long, straight, and flat, punctuated by the occasional russet-coloured mound, the odd prehistoric-looking quiver tree or the impressive sight of a dustbin-sized nest clinging precariously to a telegraph pole. Namaqualand is a region with a distinct palette – save for the vast and improbably blue sky, you’ll see little that isn’t red, ochre, or some shade of brown. Until the spring, that is.
It’s not difficult to avoid clichés when talking about Namaqualand in spring. It’s impossible. Once a year, from late July to late September, this dusty region bursts into bloom, the seeds that have lain dormant awaiting winter rain suddenly working their magic to create a kaleidoscopic carpet of flowers. For anyone who has visited the area at any other time of year, it is tough to believe that life could thrive here; but in fact, life is abundant. There are more than 3,500 types of plant growing in Namaqualand, plus another 400 bird, mammal, and reptile species.
The petal safari begins in Nieuwoudtville, about 350km north of Cape Town. This sleepy town, population 2,000, sees few visitors outside of flower season, but when the bulbs start blooming, the family-run guesthouses and rural farmstays begin to fill up. The Hantam National Botanical Garden sits just outside the town and, even at the height of flowermania, is a peaceful place to wander, cycle, or just sit and enjoy a picnic among the fields of romulea, the well-named Cape Star, and the showy gousblom (golden flower). Garden staff offer guided jeep tours from August to October – look out for jackals and steenbok (a small antelope), as well as, of course, the white, pink, yellow, and orange daisies you’ve come here to see. Nieuwoudtville bills itself as the ‘bulb capital of the world’, with the bulb nursery being another superb spot to see in the spring. If the flowers aren’t blooming, head instead for the waterfall seven kilometres north of town – just a trickle in summer, but after the winter rains the water gushes 90m into the gorge below.
The nearby town of Calvinia has more to offer than many Northern Cape dorps (small towns), even outside of flower season. Come equipped with a 4x4 to get the best of the town’s surrounding flowers, or stick around in the centre for a bit of small-town quirkiness. The peaceful streets are lined with quaint whitewashed buildings, a museum highlighting the region’s sheep-farming economy, and a couple of great photo opportunities. In a sleepy side street, seek out Junkyard Blues, where artist Dirk van Rensburg has adorned his home with street signs and car parts, old typewriters, padlocks, chains, antique telephones, and virtually anything else you can imagine. Just one street over, snap a pic of yourself with the world’s tallest postbox, a converted water tower standing 6m high. It’s the perfect place to send home a postcard from your floral adventures – every piece of mail posted here receives a special flower-shaped postmark.
With your appetite for blossoms whetted, backtrack to the N7, and the centre of the province’s floral route. The Namaqua National Park, 22km southwest of tiny Kamieskroon, is a 140,000-hectare space designed to protect the region’s succulent plants. It’s also the perfect place to see the spectacle of the Namaqua flowers, with blankets of multicoloured petals adorning the otherwise barren-looking landscape. To truly explore, you need a 4x4, though a sedan vehicle and a sturdy pair of hiking boots will still give you the essence of the rugged park. Accommodation within the park – including the seasonal ‘beach camp’ – gets booked up early, but overflow beds exist in Kamieskroon and the larger town of Garies, where you’ll find a couple of places to eat the renowned Karoo lamb.
Practically a metropolis by comparison is Springbok. This bustling town of 13,000 is the last major stopover before Namibia. Springbok doesn’t boast many accolades, but this is undoubtedly the capital of Kaleidoscope Country. It’s just an hour’s drive to the Namaqua National Park and closer still is the equally impressive Goegap Nature Reserve, with two circular hiking trails offering you an up-close experience with the spring blooms. In fact, whichever road you opt for out of Springbok, you’re likely to be flanked by daisies and aloes, lilies, and endemic flowers so rare they only carry their Latin names. If the flowers aren’t performing or you’re looking for diversion of a different kind, Springbok has some darling B&Bs, a great steakhouse, and a few companies offering 4x4 hire.
Like any natural phenomenon, you can’t count on the flowers fitting in with your travel plans. On rainy days or ones that are particularly overcast, you’re unlikely to see petals opening, so it’s wise to have a back-up plan. Whether the flowers are blooming or not, the drive from Springbok to Port Nolloth is a worthy one, winding through rock-strewn mountains before dipping towards the blue-grey waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Like other towns in the province, the pleasures here are simple ones – fresh catch of the day in a family-run restaurant, a bracing walk along the misty seafront, or a nose around the town museum with its nautical exhibits. Like the rest of the province, Port Nolloth isn’t classically beautiful, but also like the rest of the province, there is real beauty to be found if you take the time to get off the beaten track and seek it out.
Family fun in flower land
Namaqua Horse Trails
From hour-long beginner rides on the family’s flower-filled farm to three-day treks taking in the wild region surrounding Springbok, exploring on horseback is a great way to get kids out of the car. Accommodation in town can be arranged, or if you feel like a full-on cowboy adventure, you can ride to each camp and sleep under the Northern Cape’s spectacularly starry skies.
Goegap Nature Reserve
If flowers are failing to impress the kids, seek out something a little larger in this small reserve. Even without a 4x4, you can drive circular routes and look out for zebra and several antelope species, including the handsome gemsbok and the country’s national animal, the springbok.
West Coast Fossil Park
Take a break from petals and stop off at this superb fossil park, not far from the West Coast National Park. Join a fascinating guided tour to one of the world’s richest fossil sites, where archaeologists are still excavating, then try your hand at digging for your own miniature fossils.
Tauren Steak Ranch
The Northern Cape is carnivore central, with local lamb a speciality and hearty steaks coming a close second. Tauren oozes small-town charm, with its friendly waitresses, South African country music on the stereo, and dimly lit basement vibe. If you’re not feeling meaty, try a pizza topped with biltong – the local version of beef jerky and a quintessentially South African snack.
2 Hospital St, Springbok, 027 712 2717
Naries Namakwa Retreat
A rare luxury sleeping option in a province favouring characterful cottages and quaint country guesthouses, Naries is a real treat. Choose a mountain suite, built in the style of a traditional Nama hut but with all the extras you’d expect in an upmarket hotel. Soak up two of the things the Northern Cape is best known for – silence and space – then end the day with a fine dinner served by smiling staff.
27km west of Springbok, naries.co.za, 086 199 1118
Three wildflower hotspots closer to Cape Town
West Coast National Park
Just an hour north of Cape Town, certain sections of this coastal park are only open during flower season. Join outdoorsy locals for a two-day hike through the most impressive flora, right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. For something less strenuous, choose a day-walk or simply drive the park’s paved roads in search of daisies.
Quaint Darling, 80km north of Cape Town, is normally known for its art and culinary scene, but come spring people visit for a different reason. Each September the town hosts a hotly awaited wildflower show, allowing budding botanists to get up close to the many blooms that appear after the winter rains.
At the foot of the Cederberg Mountains, Clanwilliam boasts an impressive number of endemic species, such as the yellow harlequin flower. See them in reserves and on farms around town, or head into the craggy mountains on foot to go flower hunting.
Cape Town, South Africa
Distance: 7,427 km
Flight Time: 11 hours, 25 minutes
Frequency: 4 flights a week via Johannesburg