The greatest show on Earth
Namaqualand's flowers are a natural wonder you will remember for the rest of your life, writes Graham Fiford
The arrival of the annual flower season in northwestern Cape is a bit like the folks waiting for the annual Sardine Run along the South Coast. One is never quite sure if it's going to emerge - or how bountiful it will be if it does - or whether the first hint of cloudy weather will send it scuttling away.
Last year was not a good one as far as celebrated flower seasons are concerned. Poor late rains and drying berg winds all conspired to create one of the worst seasons in memory; only isolated patches of flowers were evident where previously the fields had been ablaze with blooms.
Nevertheless, enthusiasts are perennially hopeful. They have to be if they want to catch what is widely billed as one of the greatest shows on earth - certainly in the floral kingdom, that is.
But whatever your persuasion, the annual spring flush in Namaqualand must surely rank in the top 10 of your personal "1000 things to see before you die" list.
Those in the know - such as Bernard van Lente, the park manager of the Namaqua National Park near Kamieskroon, famed for the legendary flower displays in its renowned Skilpad Wildflower Gardens - reckon that the portents are good for a great season.
"We've had a good start to the winter rainy season," he says, "with good falls of rain in late May and June. The veld is already covered in new green growth, but we need good follow-up rains in July for it to really come into its own."
Some years ago I moved the annual spring flower fest up my own personal list and a few friends and I made the long trek across the country to the West Coast to take in the spectacle.
We piled into my 4x4 and took off down the N14 through towns with distinguished sounding names like Vryburg, Kuruman and Pofadder, managing slight detours to the Mokala National Park near Kimberley (unbelievable night skies) and Augrabies Falls (rock dassies, blue-headed lizards and lots of muddy water), along the way.
Though the anticipation was high, it was an arduous journey. At times we could be forgiven for feeling we had inadvertently joined Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman's TV epic Long Way Round motorcycle adventure as part of the vehicle support team.
Nearly 1500km later, and utterly exhausted, we finally arrived at the town of Springbok, which was to be our base for the next 10 days.
We were well prepared for what lay ahead - at least we thought we were, having arrived armed with the latest reports on where the best flowers were to be seen on the Flower Report. It has been diligently compiled for years by a woman who goes by the name of none other than Daisy.
The plan was to camp in my spacious five-man tent at the Springbok Caravan Park. But that's when things began to unravel somewhat. Though we thought we had brought everything bar the kitchen sink, we were totally unprepared for the fact that temperatures at night dropped below freezing in this arid desert climate.
After being kept awake all night by the sound of chattering teeth, we decided to venture into town the next day to buy a few extra blankets. The problem was there was only one store that kept blankets, and they only had a limited selection. So we ended up buying cheap ones, made in China and emblazoned with Winnie the Pooh and Tigger logos. Don't laugh. That's all they had.
Somewhat thawed out by the next day, we ventured out to see what flowers were on offer. First stop was the Goegap Nature Reserve just outside Springbok.
Here we were greeted by the amazing sight of a landscape carpeted by flowers of every colour and description, but probably most prolifically orange and yellow Namaqualand daisies (Ursinia cakelifolia).
Somehow the English and Latin botanical names for the Cape's wild flowers just don't do it for me. I much prefer the more descriptive Afrikaans nomenclature such us Pietsnot, Rooi Afrikaner, Varkslaai, Bloukappie, Meidestert, Bokbaaivygies and Botterblomme.
We saw wonderful vistas of wild flowers between Springbok and Kamieskroon, and while driving the back roads from Garies to Leliefontein.
A word of advice: if the Flower Report says the road is recommended for four-wheel drive vehicles only, believe it. This part of the west coast has some of the roughest terrain imaginable. Don't ever try to buy a used car which has previously been rented out by a car hire firm to flower sightseers.
We had heard that the flowers along the section of road from Garies to Hondeklipbaai were particularly impressive. So one day we set off for that odd-sounding little town, which, in retrospect, would have been better named Hobson's Choice.
Having miscalculated the time it would take us to get there (the roads were that bad), we eventually arrived in Hondeklipbaai (or should I say Hobson's Choice) at around 2.30pm, weary and famished.
We were pleased to note that there were three restaurants in the town, but unfortunately only one of them was open (Hobson's Choice, I suppose). We pulled up and asked the restaurateur if he could serve us a late lunch.
"Yes," he said obligingly, "but I can only offer you fish and chips." It seemed like it was going to be Hobson's Choice for us once again. That can't be too bad, we thought. Hondeklipbaai, is after all, the fishing capital of the West Coast. "Is it fresh fish," I inquired. "Yes," he said gleefully, "freshly frozen. Ha, ha ha!"
Turns out the proprietor hailed from Lichtenburg in North West Province. He and his family used to make regular pilgrimages to the town - a 13-hour round trip, door to door, he assures me - on fishing expeditions until one day they tired of making the drive and bought a place there instead.
On the way back we decided to take the back road up to Kamieskroon, just bypassing the little outpost of Soebatsfontein. Along the way we came across a couple from Montagu, hood up and peering into the engine of their Ford Explorer, in the middle of the bumpy dirt road.
It turned out that they weren't casual flower watchers like us: she was an artist and he dutifully spent the Cape spring driving her around so she could sketch and paint the landscapes. Talk about notching up Brownie points!
Nothing we did could get their vehicle started and, as evening was fast approaching, we piled them into our vehicle and dropped them off at the Kamieskroon Hotel 10 kilometres away, where they were staying.
With personal experience of how long it can take to get parts for imported 4x4 vehicles, I sometimes wonder if they've ever been able to retrieve their vehicle or whether they are still perhaps wondering around somewhere in the wilderness near Soebatsfontein.
All too soon our sojourn to see the flowers came to an end and we found ourselves back on that soul-destroying route across the top of the country back to the Highveld. The fact that we almost made it back in one go - stopping only to overnight at a bed and breakfast in Kuruman - speaks volumes about how replete we were with our camping experience.
I've since done the flower trip several times, but tried different travel alternatives each time. For my money, it's probably easiest to fly to Cape Town, hire a car there and head north along the N7 until you encounter your first flowers. They are not hard to find. If the season's a good one the sides of the road and the surrounding countryside will be blanketed with them.
It's important, though, to plan your trip and book your accommodation. There are not many places to stay in the small towns that you will pass through and, judging by the tour buses full of gawping and camera-clicking Taiwanese tourists, it's not hard so see why they fill up so quickly.
Sunny days are the best for viewing the flowers; when the weather is inclement or cloudy they tend to close their petals. The best time for viewing is from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, 10am to 4pm. As the evening approaches, their petals close again.
Sunny, north-facing slopes generally present the best views of the flowers as they generally turn themselves to face the sun.
Flower aficionados advise that you should make frequent stops and get out of your vehicle and walk among the flowers: many, like the mesembryanthemums, Oophytum and Oxalis families, are low-growing and you need to get among them to appreciate them at their best.
It is absolutely essential to check out the Flower Report website before you go. It's network of correspondents, headed by Daisy, give a daily account of where the best flowers are to be seen, with information on the best routes to follow and the condition of the roads - an essential reference point for any serious flower enthusiast.
Until last year the Flower Report concentrated on the Namaqualand, but it has now been broadened to include the southwestern Cape areas such as Vanrhynsdorp, Klawer, Nuiewoudtsville, Clanwilliam, Citrusdal, Darling and the West Coast National Park.
My travels in this part of the world have taught me something else as well: unless you have all the time in the world, it's not practical to try and fit in the northerly flower routes as well as those in the south. Ideally you should choose one or the other and attempt to do it thoroughly, driving the back roads wherever possible to make sure you don't miss anything special.
Vanrhynsdorp, 300km from Cape Town along the N7, probably represents the cutoff point between the northerly and southerly flower routes.
Driving north from there will take you into the heart of Namaqualand proper, while heading south and east will allow you to explore the feast of flowers available in the Hantam Karoo and along the West Coast.
- For further information visit (http://north.co.za/flowers/) on the South-North Tourism route website (www.south-north.co.za/).
- Alternatively phone Bernard van Lente, the park manager of the Namaqua National Park 0276721948. - © Graham Fiford