Gorgeous Namaqualand, so much more than just spectacular flowers

 

Upon hearing the name Namaqualand, most people immediately assume it’s all about wildflowers, flowers and only flowers. And while the region is indeed famous for its annual spectacular display of wildflowers in the Spring, there is so much more to be found and enjoyed here.

So next time you hear “Namaqualand”, think flowers plus all-year-round wonderful West Coast, Namaqualand National Park, the copper mining towns O’kiep and Nababeep, the Goegap Nature Reserve, riel dancers, karretjiemense (cart people), friendly down-to-earth people of different cultures and languages, historical landmarks, hiking trails and 4X4 routes, some of the finest lamb chops in South Africa, star-splashed night skies, biodiversity hotspots, the highest concentration of succulent plants in the world, warmly hospitable guest houses and restaurants, adventure, adrenalin, peace and immense silence, sea diamonds, coastal angling, river kayaking, estuaries, and fascinating small towns and places with indigenous names like Carolusberg, Steinkopf, Stofbakkies, Pofadder, Loeriesfontein, Vaalputs, Soebatsfontein, Kallabaskop, Nigramoep, Goop, Komaggas, Kleinsee, Biesies, Koingnaas, Hondeklipbaai, Garies, Leliefontein and much, much more.

Where is Namaqualand?

Where exactly is Namaqualand? Different experts will give you different expert opinions as to which parts are true Namaqualand. Cartographers will tell you that it encompasses an arid region spread across southern Namibia and the Northern Cape province of South Africa. On the South African side, it extends along its western flank for almost 500km along the West Coast and the Atlantic Ocean and stretches inland for roughly 400km to where it blends into the Great Karoo.

One can try to demarcate it geographically, but really, Namaqualand is more an experience, a feeling, a discovery of a world most people don’t know or seldom get to experience. You’ll know when you are in it, and you’ll know when you are leaving it. But to really feel Namaqualand, you need to slow down and spend some time in it sans cellphones, watches and clocks.

But to make it easier to find, Great Namaqualand lies north of the Orange River in Namibia’s Karas Region. Little Namaqualand lies south of the river in South Africa, roughly 300km north of Cape Town, some 200km southwest of Upington, and 500km west of Bloemfontein and Kimberley. It is best reached off the N7 that runs between Cape Town and Namibia but for those travelling from Gauteng or other inland areas, it can be accessed along the N14.

The region derived its name from the once mighty Namaqua tribe, the largest of the Khoikhoi groups who traditionally inhabited the Namaqualand region. The name Namaqualand in the Khoekhoe language refers to Nama-kwa which means the land of the Nama and Khoe people. They were later joined by whites and mixed-race people migrating up from the south.

Today its predominantly Afrikaans-speaking inhabitants even speak an Afrikaans not spoken or understood anywhere else, sometimes referred to as ‘Manakwalands’, an Afrikaans belonging to the mixed-race people of the region, to the Rehoboth basters of Namibia, the Richtersveld people, the local white Afrikaners and the Namas, who all live around here.

So, let’s start exploring. We’ll do so in a broad sweep, including also areas and experiences on the fringes or even just outside of what the puritans would consider to be Namaqualand. That said, let’s start with the Olifants River in the south, the erstwhile border between the Dutch Cape and the Namaqua hinterland.

Beyond the Olifants River

In this river region, following the R363 national route or the N7 from Cape Town, you will pass a number of quaint little settlements, towns and resorts with peculiar Dutch and German names like Bulshoek, Rondeberg, Trawal, Klawer, Lutzville, Vredendal, Koekenaap and Ebenhaeser, before the river reaches the ocean at Papendorp and a beautiful estuary rich in bird life. This is entirely another world to which city dwellers are not often exposed and it is absolutely worthwhile to take time to thoroughly explore the area.

At Klawer you can visit the old railway station to which the town owes its existence or visit the Klawer Wine Cellar. The area is also home to the largest organic winery in South Africa. To the east of Vredendal, on the Troe-Troe River, a tributary of the Olifants, lies Vanrhynsdorp, a town of 6,000 souls and recognised as the gateway to the Hantam Karoo. It is a small commercial hub that services the large sheep farms of the district. Be sure to try the mouth-watering lamb chops you can buy around here in butcheries and restaurants.

Vanrhynsdorp has a number of interesting attractions such as the Latsky Radio Museum and the Kokerboom Succulent Nursery, various old buildings, and the Victor Smith Memorial.  Smith was an aviation pioneer who, on his second attempt to break the Cape Town-to-London flying record of 8 ½ days in 1932, had to force-land his plane on the farm Quaggakop, just outside Vanrhynsdorp. It was recorded as the first successful forced landing of an aircraft on South African soil!

An hours’ drive north of Vanrhynsdorp lies Bitterfontein, the centre of the Hardeveld and Knersvlakte – an arid region where life does not come easy, as the names suggest: “bitter fountain”, “hard veld” and “grinding plain”. In 1931 the town gained fame due to an £80,000 diamond heist, a crime that remains unsolved to this day.

 

Next, we travelled through the fascinating little towns of Lutzville and Koekenaap. After Koekenaap the Olifants River rapidly turns southwest and flows on to the village of Ebenhaezer where a mission station of the Rhenish Missionary Society was established in 1831, hence the variation of the Biblical Ebenezer. It was originally the site of a Khoi kraal. Later settlers arrived here and were living in huts built of mud and reeds, with some of these primitive homes still standing today.

After Ebenhaeser the river widens considerably as it flows the last 50km to its mouth at the estuary at picturesque Papendorp. The small fishing village, originally known as Viswater, still earns its living from the sea, and small fishing boats, nets and dried fish are spread about on the banks of the estuary.

The estuary is flanked on either side by extensive salt marshes which provide the other major economic activity of the village community. Here too are still to be found the remnants of the old reed and mud houses in which fishermen of former times used to live. When the river rises on the incoming tide, visitors can take a flat-bottomed boat upriver to Lutzville and its vineyards.

The estuary is also a bird-lovers paradise with some 127 bird species, of which at least 60 are water birds, including flamingo. At certain times of the year, some claim, the water bird population grows in number to more than 15,000 birds.

West Coast Wine Route

The region boasts its own well-established West Coast Wine Route in a setting very different from that of the traditionally well-known Stellenbosch-Paarl-Franschhoek region.  But it is an equally welcoming, beautiful wine route with superb wines to be enjoyed. Most of it is situated along or close to the fertile Olifants River valley.

You can start the route in the south at Fryers Cover near Doringbaai and the Klawer Wine Cellars, then slowly head north along the R362 and R363 to Teubes Family Wines, Cape Rock, Namaqua Wines, Rosslo Wines, and Bellpost Tastings, all in the vicinity of Spruitdrift and Vredendal. Further north, coming to Lutzville and Koekenaap, you will find the Lutzville Vineyards and Seal Breeze Wines.

We spent a most enjoyable afternoon at Die Keldery, the restaurant of Namaqua Wines that is also a tourism centre. Here you can enjoy traditional dishes and best-quality wines of the area and enjoy views of the Maskamberg mountains. The venue is also child-friendly and there are regular special offers to be enjoyed.

Along the coast

Staying on the Namaqualand West Coast for a while, we start further south at Lamberts Bay, strictly speaking not part of Namaqualand, but close enough. Here you will find the world-famous Muisbosskerm – an open-air seafood restaurant, or boma, known locally as a ‘skerm’, situated right on the white sands of the beach alongside the Atlantic Ocean. You can sip a glass of ice-cold white wine while watching your meal being prepared on open fires: a feast of mussels, lobster, various fish, oysters, calamari, freshly baked farm bread, and more. All in all, a day-long, mouth-watering treat with family and friends that will add to your lifelong memories.

A local folksinger with a guitar entertains the guests. ‘Ornaments’ such as fishing net corks and buoys, pieces of rope, crayfish traps, rowing oars, battered old dinghies, giant whale bones and other items associated with the sea and boats, are scattered about, adding to the rustic atmosphere with guests sitting at rough wooden tables under the sun. Large gatherings of noisy seagulls lurk about, hungrily eyeing the tables for leftover scraps. The family owned Muisbosskerm was the original first such commercial ‘skerm’, many of which can now be found up and down the entire West Coast from Cape Town to Port Nolloth. But locals have feasted in this way for many generations.

North of Lamberts Bay lie the fishing and holiday towns of Doring Bay and Strandfontein, after which you’ll get to Papendorp. To explore the coast further north, you’ll first have to return to the N7 here, although there are some dirt roads that give access to the camping site at Boulder Bay and the mouth of the Spoegrivier (spit river). You can also make your way to the Groenrivier (green river) mouth and its lighthouse, as well as the Namaqua Flower Beach Camp where you will be surrounded by miles and miles of rugged coastland.

Turning west off the N7 just north of Garies or just south of Kamieskroon, you can reach Hondeklipbaai (dog stone bay), with the well-known Aristea shipwreck on the rocks to the south, the Hondeklipbaai lighthouse, and to the north the mouth of the Swartlintjies River, the settlement of Koingnaas, and on into the adjacent Namaqua National Park which is also home to the Skilpad Wildflower Reserve. Still further north lie the marine diamond mining towns of Kleinsee and Port Nolloth. The town is surrounded by beaches and semi-desert landscapes.

Port Nolloth is quite a historical little town with a pedigree that goes back to when the local Namaqua people called the bay Aukwatowa, meaning “where the water took away the old man”. That tells its own story. And after the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias saw the bay on his epic voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1487, it began to appear on European maps.

With the discovery of copper at Okiep in 1852 by James Alexander, a harbour was constructed, and the copper was shipped from Port Nolloth until the shipments declined due to increasing practical and safety problems between the 1920s and 1944. However, the discovery in 1926 of alluvial diamonds along the coast to the north and south of the town, gave it a new lease of life for several decades, until the diamonds started running out. The town has an interesting museum, nice restaurants and B&Bs, camping site and beaches.

Adventure

For adrenalin junkies and lovers of adventure and nature, there’s plenty to do in these parts. Bring along your mountain bikes, kayaks, hiking boots, binoculars, and whatever helps you get your heart beating and your blood pumping. An excellent hiking trail to try out is the Silversands Trail that runs along the edge of the Atlantic. You can also head with your bike to the Goegap Nature Reserve and pedal among the oryx.

There are at least 14 breathtaking 4X4 trails dotted around the region. To get their phone numbers, you can visit the official Northern Cape tourism website at www.experiencenortherncape.com/visitor/experiences/4×4-adventure.

Other adventure activities to be enjoyed across Namaqualand and adjacent areas include river rafting, hiking trails, abseiling, mountain bike routes, motorbike adventures, sandboarding, paintball, and kayaking adventures.

A favourite and famous river rafting experience, or a kayaking adventure with a difference, can be enjoyed on the Orange River, where you will pass through some awesome scenery. And for an unforgettable 4×4 adventure go a little further north into the |Ai|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park with its haunting moonscapes, rugged mountain desert areas, and the green banks of the Orange River.

Culture and history

For another wonderful experience, you can travel the Old Copper Way and learn about the colourful histories of mining towns like Nababeep and Okiep. There are still active copper mines dotted throughout the area. Mining began in the 1850s and, from 1876, ore was taken to Port Nolloth by train, for export. The mine closed during the copper slump of 1919 but reopened in 1937. It is home to the Okiep Copper Company and the region’s largest copper-mining town. There is also a mining museum at Okiep where Clara, a narrow-gauge steam locomotive used to rail copper ore to Port Nolloth, is on display.

Visitors can also enjoy the cultural interaction with the Nama people of the region, get to know about their nomadic stock-herding lifestyle, see how they live in their traditional huts called matjieshuise, or take a donkey ride in Eksteenfontein. Around here you will also find people who use donkey carts as their main mode of transport. The same occurs in parts closer to the Karoo, but here entire families of sheep shearers live on their carts – known as karretjiemense – as they travel from sheep farm to sheep farm to work.

In Port Nolloth, at the northern end of the Namaqua Flower Route on the Atlantic coast, a fascinating must-do for any visitor to the town, is a visit to the Port Nolloth Museum. It was created in a building dating back to 1880 by Grazia de Beer, born in Italy and educated in Cape Town before marrying Coen de Beer, a diamond diver from here. Her growing interest in the town, its people and the surrounding areas, led to the museum and her avidly collecting artefacts and photos.

Another enchanting journey involves visiting the settlements across the region that started off as small Christian mission stations. Many of the original churches and other buildings have survived and are even still in use. They tell a fascinating historical story of the region. At Pella you can enter the cool and serene cathedral that stands like a ship in the desert, surrounded by a circle of date palms. More mission stations can be visited at Leliefontein, Komaggas, Matjieskloof, Concordia, Kuruman and Steinkopf.

Another wonderful cultural experience unique to this part of the world, is the famous rieldans, an indigenous dance form that over the years was adopted as the dance of farmworkers and sheep shearers in the Karoo and Namaqualand. These energetic, dust-kicking dances portray elements of their daily life and activities. Owing to the original campfire dancing venues in sandy, desert-like rural settings and the later venues on farms, the dance is today still largely practiced upon sandy locations.

Adding to the electrifying energy of the dance produced by the fast tempo music and the dance moves, is the kicking up of a veritable dust storm by the nimble-footed dancers. Many of the dances are still performed in a circular movement, just as they were by the ancient Khoisan around their campfires in the dusty veld. Today this traditional dance form is alive and well with annual competitions taking place among the different dance groups bearing colourful names like Bitterfontein Tradisionele Dansers, Kamiesbergdansers, Vloedrieldansers, Betjies van Betjiesfontein, Betjies Rooirots, Griekwa-Ratelgat-rieldansers, Kuierkraal-rieldansers and Knersvlakte-rieldansers.

And the flowers, of course…

Of course, no visit to Namaqualand can be complete without enjoying the spectacular show put on by Mother Nature each year in the Spring, providing you are there at that time of the year. Each year as the winter rains come to an end and the sun warms the earth, these parts erupt into a spectacle of colour as millions upon millions of wildflowers transform the brown dusty plains in yellows, whites, purples, oranges and more for as far as the eye can see.

Driving up from Cape Town along either the N7 or the R27, you will already be spoilt for flower-viewing choices from Melkbosstrand to Darling, from Yzerfontein to the Langebaan Lagoon and the Postberg section of the West Coast National Park, and from the Tankwa Karoo National Park to Clanwilliam and the surrounding towns and areas.

And then you will arrive at the heart of the flower spectacle – Namaqualand. 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. 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.

For visitors of every kind, Namaqualand truly is a feast in every sense of the word, every day.