Out of dusty dreariness, a sudden feast of flowers

By Stef Terblanche

There cannot be many natural experiences more enthralling on our planet than the annual spectacle when the arid, dusty brown plains and rugged mountain ridges of South Africa’s Namaqualand region almost overnight transform into an endless feast of bright, colourful wild flowers – a kaleidoscopic extravaganza as far as the eye can see.

Welcome to the annual Namaqualand spring wild flower spectacle, a natural phenomenon that never ceases to delight and amaze, and causes people to return year after year, from every corner of South Africa and from far beyond its borders.

Before the transformation

This hot and semi-desert region straddles the area where the Great Karoo meets the western coastal strip adjoining the icy Atlantic. For more than ten months of the year it appears barren, dusty and dry, a seemingly empty wasteland. Apart from the sparsely scattered livestock grazing on the large, spread-out sheep farms, it seems like nothing much can live here.

Dreary small towns and isolated farmsteads are spread far apart, and the landscape appears largely featureless, except for the occasional rugged, rocky hills and distant mountains that break up the flatness. The main highway between Cape Town and Namibia slices through here, gleaming like a long straight ribbon in the heat and the silence, disturbed only occasionally by a passing car or long-haul truck. You may find the odd vulture picking the flesh of some road kill victim, or a raptor nesting on a lone telephone pole or forlornly waiting for better days perched on a farm wire fence.

Off the highway, on the secondary routes and dusty farm roads, the odd tractor or a farm truck or donkey cart might amble by. Perhaps you’ll pass a lone, dust-covered traveller resting himself and his bicycle in the elusive shade of a roadside thorn tree. In the early morning or late afternoon you might also spot a rare mole snake or tortoise making their way across the road, or see the slender neck and flat head of a wild ostrich peeking out from behind some dry bushes in the veld. Nothing else seems to move and the world around is devoid of colour.

If you’re not from around these parts but you’ve seen the movie No country for Old Men based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, or you’ve been to the Australian outback, you’ll know – more or less – what I mean.

The transformation

But then suddenly, come August, and the empty veld magically and mesmerizingly transforms itself. Woken by the last rains of winter, the dry African veld comes alive in a blaze of colour as billions of wild flowers open their cheery faces to the warm sun of early spring. The annual Namaqualand wild flower show has arrived.

It is as if the giant hand of an artist in the sky has reached down with brushes and paint, deftly transforming this wide and endless canvas into a dazzling impressionist exhibition. Even the dreary little towns and nondescript farm houses and labourers’ cottages seem to take on a fresh new life, suddenly surrounded by a kind of flower passion and zing. And soon the area starts filling with cars and people and the tour buses arrive, as if a carnival has come to town. But the region is wide and big enough with space for everyone, so you’ll never feel crowded and will find plenty of spots to be alone with nature in its most colourful glory.

Rain and nature’s changing show

Every year the show may change; presenting a completely different display. For this riotous annual eruption of colour depends entirely on what the weather is doing between July and October in any particular year. With some 4,000 different species of plant seeds patiently waiting in the ground to germinate, it all depends on when it rains, how much it rains and where it rains. This western stretch of South Africa receives little rain throughout the year, especially further north, so the rain that falls from late May through to August is vitally important, and the short rainy season is also the reason why the flowers all bloom for short window period at this time of the year.

These rainfall patterns and the varied topography of the region cause different displays in different areas: swathes and concentrations of different plant varieties with different colour flowers. The typography ranges from Sandveld near the coast, to the semi-desert plains of the southern reaches of the Namib Desert in the north, the high-lying and almost impenetrable mountain desert of the Richtersveld in the far north, and all of it interspersed by fertile valleys and mountain areas, each giving forth a different flower life.

In one area bright orange flowers may cover the entire veld; in another part it may be yellow and white flowers. In some areas there may be a mixture of small patches in different colours. Thus you will find some areas dominated by vygies (succulent Mesembryanthemum) and gousblomme (African daisies), others by the yellow Leucospermum reflexum, blue Lachanaea filamentosa, the beautiful white Snow Protea (protea cryophylla), yellow sparaxis, pink Cyanella Alba and the Clanwilliam Cedar (widdringtonia cedarbergensis). Many of these species are found nowhere else in the world.

The regions

Naming this flower spectacle after Namaqualand may also be slightly misleading, as you will find flowers at that time of the year all the way from Cape Town right up to Namibia. But these will appear in varying density and concentrations, and arguably not as spectacular and concentrated as in the central Namaqualand region, and of course again also dependent on the rainfall conditions.

Nonetheless, when you drive out of Cape Town in a good flower year, as soon as you hit the West Coast Road (R27) or the N7 to Namibia, from Table View to Melkbosstrand and Atlantis, you will already start noticing the flowers beside the road, around the vlei and river areas, on the coastal sand dunes and across the farms on the inland side. From Yzerfontein to the Langebaan Lagoon their density will start increasing. At the Postberg section of the West Coast National Park, on the seaside of the Langebaan Lagoon, you’ll come across the first truly spectacular flower display.

From here one can follow the flower trail towards the Tankwa Karoo National Park, or going north passing towns such as Citrusdal, Wupperthal, Clanwilliam, Vanrhynsdorp, Nieuwoudtville and across to Calvina. If the rains have been generous, and the mix of rain and springtime sun is just right, you will now find yourself immersed in a sea of flowers, with exquisite discoveries around every bend of the road. At Nieuwoudville you can see many unique flowers, bulbs and orchid species that are not found anywhere else. Between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam you can turn off and travel up into the mountainous Cederberg wilderness area which offers its own unique display of flowers.

But there’s even more to come. From Van Rhynsdorp you can follow the N7 up to Garies, the Skilpad and Namaqua National Park and the ‘capital’ of Namaqualand, Springbok. Or take the R355 from Calvinia to Loeriesfontein, Kliprand, Vaalput, Gamoep and on to Springbok. You are now in the heart of Namaqualand and the flower country. Dotted throughout the area are nature reserves that offer superb flower viewing, such as the Gannabos Protected Area, the Hantam National Botancial Gardens, Oorlogskloof, Nieuwoudville Wild Flower Reserve, Skilpad Wild Flower Reserve, Lutzville Conservation Area, Moedverloren Nature Reserve and the Goegap Nature Reserve at Springbok.

But still it does not end there. Follow the N7 from Springbok to the Richtersveld World Heritage Site and the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, or reach the Richtersveld along the R382 via Port Nolloth. All along the way and in the National Park you will still find extraordinary displays of flowers. Plants in the Richtersveld have developed the most unique adaptation strategies to the harsh climate. The Richtersveld is also home to the world’s richest desert flora, mostly tiny succulents that cling to the rock faces and suck the moisture out of the air when mist rolls in from the Atlantic coast. Here you will also find the legendary ‘halfmens boom’ (half-person tree) as well as quiver trees and aloes.

Such is the richness and individuality of flora found here that on a single square kilometre surface area more than 360 plant species of flowering plants can be found despite an average rainfall of only 68mm per year. You will also find lichen fields here, while the area is home to 2,700 species, some 600 of which exist nowhere else. Like Namaqualand to the south, the September rains here transform the area into one of the finest floral displays in the world, and without doubt the finest of any mountain desert. And still it does not end here, as the spring flowers are also found in the harsh desert environs across the border in Namibia, even in the red sand dunes of the ancient Namib Desert.

Routes, tours and facilities

For visitors there are a large number of flower routes to choose from, as well as flower tour operators and packages. If you prefer a self-drive tour, you can set up your own tour itinerary. But to get the most out of it, try to spread it over several days and don’t be shy to call on local tourism information offices to assist you with the best times, routes and locations, as well as finding accommodation. And of course, don’t forget the vital rain: when planning a tour, start calling local information offices in the area you plan on visiting from mid-July until just before you plan to arrive, to make sure the flowers will be there.

The flowers never really fail to appear in any year, but with proper rainfall the display will just be that much more spectacular. Last year was not a very good flower year due to the devastating drought affecting the Western and Northern Cape. This year there are promising signs of better rain, but dam levels remain low in the region and one won’t really be able to tell until late July. Also, the rain does not fall the same across the region, starting at different times and falling in different amounts in different parts.

There are good guesthouse establishments in all the towns of the region, and even on some farms. Some farms throughout the area open their gates to visitors for a small fee, allowing for excellent flower viewing and family picnics. Many towns also have good camping sites. Adjacent to or inside some of the nature reserves and parks throughout the region are also accommodation facilities such as tent or mobile camping sites. Some parks, like the Namaqua National Park operated by SANParks, have rest camps with chalets and guest cottages.

The towns and regions of this vast garden of nature all offer plenty of other things to see and do, which you can combine with your flower viewing trip. Check out the tourism information offices online to find out more. So enjoy watching the spectacular flowers, but please don’t pick them.