The arrival of the annual flower season in the North Western Cape is a bit like the folks waiting for Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, USA.
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 year as far as celebrated flowers seasons are concerned. Poor late winter rains and drying Berg winds all conspired to create one of the worst flowers seasons in memory with only isolated patches of flowers evident where previously the fields had been ablaze with blooms.
Nevertheless, flower enthusiasts are perennially hopeful. The 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 of flowers in Namaqualand must surely rank in the top ten of your personal “1 000 things to see before you die” list.
What will this year’s flower season (which, incidentally, starts from mid July to early September) be like? Basically, it’s anyone’s guess.
Those in the know, however, like 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 an exceptional season.
“We’ve had a good start to the winter rainy season,” he says “with good falls of rain in late may and June. So it looks promising at this stage - 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 of “1 000 things to see before I die” 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 four x four and took off down the N14 through towns with distinguished sounding names like Vryburg, Kuruman and Poffadder, managing slight detours to the Mokala National Park near Kimberely (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. So arduous, in fact that at times we could be forgiven for feeling we had inadvertently joined Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s epic “Long Way Round” motorcycle travel adventure as part of the vehicle support team.
Nearly 1 500 kilometres 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, in hindsight, we thought we were. We had arrived armed with the latest reports on where the best flowers were to be seen from the widely consulted “Flower Report” website which has been diligently compiled for years by a woman who goes by the name of none other than “Daisy,” would you believe.
The plan was to camp in my spacious five-man tent in at the Springbok Caravan Park. But that’s when things began to unravel somewhat. Though we had brought everything bar the kitchen sink with us, 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 only problem was there was only one store that kept blankets, and they only had a limited selection. So we ended up buying cheap, made-in-China blankets 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 of Springbok. Here we were greeted by a truly amazing sight of a landscape carpeted by flowers of every colour and description but probably most prolifically orange and yellow Namaqualand daisies (Ursinia sp).
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,” and “meidestert,” “Bokbaaivygies” and “Botterblome”.
We saw wonderful vistas of wild flowers between Springbok and Kamieskroon, and while driving the back roads from Garies to Liliefontein. Here a brief 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 and buy a used car which, in its previous life, has been rented out by a car hire firm to flower sightseers whatever you do.
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, should have been more aptly 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 totally 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 enquired. “Yes,” he said gleefully, “freshly frozen. Ha. Ha Ha!”
Turns out the proprietor hailed from Lichtenburg in the North West Province. He and his family used to make regular pilgrimages to the town - a 13-hour door-to-door round trip he assures me - on fishing expeditions until one day they tired of taking the “Long Way Round” and bought a place there.
On the way back we decided to take the back road up to Kamieskroon, just bypassing the little outpost (you can’t really call it a town) of Soebatsfontein. Along the way we came across a couple from Montague, hood up and peering into the engine of their Ford Explorer, which had come to a dead stop in the middle of the bumpy dirt road.
It appears that they weren’t casual flower watches like us: she was an artist and he dutifully spent the Cape Spring driving her around so she could sketch and paint the colourful flowering landscapes. Talk about notching up Brownie Points!
As nothing we could do 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 were they were staying.
With personal experience of how long it can take to gets parts for imported four x four vehicles back to SA, I sometimes wonder if they’ve ever been able to retrieve their vehicle or whether they are still perhaps wondering around somewhere in the Uluru 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 virtually made it back in one go, stopping only to overnight at a B&B in Kuruman, speaks volumes about how replete we were with our camping experience.
I’ve since done the flower trip several more times, but each time trying different travel alternatives. 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 by them.
It’s important though to plan your trip in advance and book your accommodation ahead of time. There is not an overwhelming amount of accommodation available 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. Also, the best time of the day for viewing is from mid-morning to mid afternoon, 10.00am to 4.00pm. As the evening approaches their petals seem to 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.
An absolute necessity, however, is to check out the Flower Report website before you go. It’s network of correspondents headed by “Daisy” give a day by day 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.
While up until last year the Flower Report specifically concentrated on reports of the flowers in Namaqualand, it has now been broadened to include the south western 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 about 300kms 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 traveling 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 check out the Flower Report website www.south-north.co.za or telephone Bernard van Lente Park Manager of the Namaqua National Park 027 672 1948.