If you thought the Netherlands was the bulb capital of the world, think again. Follow the Northern Cape’s colour-popping wild flower route in spring. Words and photographs by Steve and Ann Toon
box of M&Ms, a Pixar movie, a dazzling paint chart? How do you describe the eye-watering colours of the gorgeous flowers spread before us? They stretch as far as the eye can see — Fanta orange, fuchsia pink, sunshine yellow, sky blue, violet, vivid purple and, every now and then, big hits of brilliant white. Yes, this really is South Africa’s arid Northern Cape region, but not as you know it. Watered by good winter rains, the vast, barren landscape has become vibrant, clashing, blooming dales.
It’s not the first time we’ve experienced this amazing transformation, but this season has to be one of the best spring flower shows we’ve witnessed. What better place to begin our trip than the bulb capital of the world? Nieuwoudtville — never heard of it? Neither had we until we stumbled across the endless swathes of colour lining the road one year when we were driving from the Kalahari to Cape Town. How could wild flowers have such intense shades? We had to see more of the ‘Serengeti of the floral kingdom’ and today, several springs later, we’re back for another fix.
For 10 months of the year, Nieuwoudtville’s a sleepy little dorp (Afrikaans for ‘hick town’). It goes about its business — sheep-farming, growing wheat and rooibos tea — with little regard for the outside world. The place is charmingly low-key: there’s not much here save a ribbon of low-rise stone cottages, faded shutters closed against the Northern Cape’s infamous heat and dust. Nevertheless, this town is legendary. For a small spot like this, 1350 plant species is an impressive tally. Of these, 80 are unique to the area and a third, threatened with extinction, are pretty rare. The place is so flower-filled that it’s not uncommon to find as many as 2500 bulbs and 50 different species in a single square metre. Even in the town centre, colourful blooms are everywhere in August and September, poking through cracks in the pavement, colonising cast-off tyres and resplendent around rusting farm machinery.
Come the spring, a number of local farms open up their land to tourists in addition to the town’s special reserve and botanical garden. We’re staying at Papkuilsfontein, a farm owned by the van Wyk family. It has a short public flower route, which costs just a handful of rand to drive and is brimming with blooms. Alrie van Wyk, daughter-in-law of owners Willem and Mariëtte, runs a restaurant on the farm during this season. “The flowers are just amazing this year. You must go there straight after lunch. Just follow the signs,” she says. “I have been fortunate to see some really good years, but this is really up there. They look wonderful right now, and the afternoon light will be perfect for them.”
She’s right. The veld is crowded with colourful flowers, so densely packed you can’t see the earth between them. The profusion and diversity of species is partly explained by the fact that within a space of 20km there are four different types of soil. And, with so many blossoms to go at, nobody minds if you walk among them to take pictures or simply marvel at their intricate, delicate structures close-up. Picking them, of course, is a no-no.
Basing yourself on a farm has many advantages. Papkuilsfontein, for example, has further routes for guests to explore that are not open to the general public, as well as rock art, hiking paths and a 180m waterfall. And you don’t really need to go far from your doorstep to find more flowers. The lands surrounding our converted farm cottage look like a scene from The Wizard of Oz because we’re completely surrounded by the tall spikes of banana-yellow bulbinella. It’s enough to make your eyes ache. There’s also the chance to enjoy more of Alrie’s cooking: she and her team will deliver a hearty three-course dinner to your cottage after dark if you book ahead.
An African flower safari may not have quite the thrill of the Big Five, but it does have one advantage over your conventional wildlife-watching trip: a lie-in is obligatory. There are no 5am starts here, because many species unfurl only when the sunlight hits them. Head out early and your experience will be much poorer than if you delay your drive. Drive too late in the day, and the blooms may have gone to bed.
Although there are enough flowers here in Nieuwoudtville to keep us busy for several days, the different spots on the route each have their own highlights, so we press on. Our next stop is the Skilpad section of Namaqua National Park — another floral gem — about a three-hour drive north.
When we first visited Skilpad several years ago, there was no accommodation on the reserve. Flower lovers, painters and photographers alike based themselves at the old-fashioned Kamieskroon Hotel. Skilpad is now part of a growing national park, which stretches to the coast and has a handful of well-equipped chalets (book them a year ahead). You can drive the main sections of this reserve in a 2WD sedan, but (if you’re feeling intrepid) there are 4WD routes, coastal camping spots and annual camps, providing increasing access to remote areas.
The park is famous for its carpets of orange Namaqualand daisies. If the season is good, you’ll already have seen hundreds of them along the main road, yet nothing quite prepares you for the profusion of them on the reserve. Located on a ridge some 700m above sea level, the area is watered by mists and rainfall blowing in from the coast. As a result, the pulsing orange blooms seem to jump right out at us as we drive in: it’s as if the whole terrain has been ‘Tangoed’. But, though all these orange daisies may seem ubiquitous, there are 3499 other species to spot in Namaqualand, as many as 1000 of them unique to the area. As well as endless orange, you’ll also see lots of white-and-yellow annual daises, gazanias (orange again, sorry) and lots of what the locals call ‘vygies’ — mesembryanthemums to you and me — in all sorts of psychedelic shades.
It’s hard to pull yourself away from each hotspot on the route, but there’s always more to see. We make Springbok, our next stop, by nightfall. It is a typical Northern Cape town, encircled by rocky outcrops that glow copper as the sun sets. There’s always a trickle of people passing through, but flower tourism brings a larger crowd. We’re staying at Springbok Lodge. It’s basic but has bags of character, and a night in one of its many period cottages will give you a real feel for the area. There’s a buzz in the retro bar and diner, and when we enter, the well-informed owner is busy directing visitors to various reserves. Here you’ll also find excellent books, maps and guides, as well as a fascinating display of minerals.
Tomorrow we will pack our flower guides and cameras once again and head for the Goegap Nature Reserve, about 15km south-east of the town. It’s one of the biggest and best spots for seeing the spring blooms and the surreal, stunning quiver trees, which dot the landscape in this particularly arid part of the Northern Cape. The reserve is known for the eye-watering purple vygies that fill the veld and appear to fluoresce in the noonday sun. We’re excited about the change from all-over orange, but first, of course, we’ll enjoy another lovely, long lie-in.
For a short flower-gazing guide by the Toons and to see more of their photographs, visit travelafricamag.com.
• Getting there Self-drive flower safaris are simple to arrange. Fly into Cape Town, hire a car and drive north along the N7 to Namaqualand through the Western Cape. Key stops include the West Coast National Park, the Cederberg, Calvinia, Nieuwoudtville, Namaqua National Park and Springbok. Alternatively, many tour operators can organise everything for you. During the flower season, there’s plenty of information about what’s coming into bloom where, so chat to lodge owners for the latest gossip.
• Where to stay There’s a broad range of accommodation, but you need to book well in advance (up to a year for national parks) for peak flower season. South Africa National Parks (SANParks) now runs a series of annual camps; details are on its website.
• When to visit The flowers bloom in South Africa’s spring, generally from the middle of July to late September.
• Health Visit your GP for advice on vaccinations.
• Further reading Pocket Guide: Wild Flowers of South Africa by Braam van Wyk; Photo Guide to the Wildflowers of South Africa by John Manning