Written by: Andrew James Hofmeyr
I’ve been dreaming about seeing the West Coast and Northern Cape flowers for years! Growing up in Jozi’s concrete wonderland however, the only flower show I ever got to see was the blooming jacaranda trees in what rumour has it, is the biggest man made forest in the world.
Now to be fair, the jacarandas are magnificent. The canopy of mauve dapples the blue Jozi sky while the falling blossoms carpet the streets in a buzzing purple haze of petals and bees. But i’d seen pictures of the West Coast and Namaqualand during the September flower season and I wanted my own personal slice of the russet tones, red earth, bleached grass and kaleidoscopic colours of the flowers.
Time for a road trip and the Bredasdorp Flower Expo!
You’d think it would be easy to just step out and see the flower spectacular,. But, like many urban centres, Johannesburg is a land-locked island of sorts and the open spaces are often a stretch too far. This year however is different. I’ve moved to the Western Cape and have been watching the bulbs and flowers popping up along the N2 from Bontebok to De Hoop and Marloth and the time has finally come for a flower filled road trip!
Having whet my appetite at these Cape Nature gems, I headed off to the Cape Floral Kingdom Expo in Bredasdorp in the middle of August. This expo is an ode to everything Cape Floral from the reptiles to the fynbos flowers and the things that people can do with them. The expo attracts fundis, enthusiasts and laymen alike. Luckily for me, in addition to the flowers, West Coast Tourism had a stand stocked with a smorgasbord of information. Loaded up with a goody-bag of books on plants, information brochures and maps I headed home to plan my trip.
When is the best time to go?
Having such concentrated and easily accessible information helped me along the way by giving me routes and maps and direction as to where to go and what to see. All the info says that the flower season runs from August until the end of October with the peak times falling in early September (spring time). This leaves a pretty large window of opportunity so the way I figured it, I had plenty of time. With that reassuring thought I took my time going through the maps, checking routes and distances and juggling the logistics of a trip that would take me up into the Northern Cape and back down along the West Coast.
What the flower hotline had to say
A couple of days before we were to leave I made the mistake of leaving the flower map open on the table where it proved easy pickings for our six month old Hungarian Vizla. After gathering up the pieces which had been evenly distributed around the garden, I set about sticky taping the map back together and noticed a number for the flower hotline. That’s right, a number dedicated to telling you where the flowers are the best. Surprised that I had not noticed it before, I gave them a ring only to be told that the Northern Cape show had already been and gone – the result of high temperatures and low rainfall – and that the best place was probably along the coast closer to Cape Town.
Driving Swellendam to Niewoudville
Now, while the advice from the Flower Hotline was probably good, I wasn’t about to let the a lack of flowers deter me from my plan to get to the Northern Cape. Surely, I told myself, being mid-September there must still be some flowers. So up we packed and off we went. The open road unfolded and peeled away behind us, through Tradouw’s Pass and then west on the famed R65 to Montagu. The road took us north east towards Ceres and we stopped for the breath taking view, back through the fruit growing valley from Burger’s Pass.
Despite our best laid plans, when we hit the T-junction of the R46 and R355 we needed to make a choice. Left, the tarred road through Ceres and onward to the N7 coastal route, the main artery for the West Coast flowers – sure to be thick with SUVs, 4x4s and flowers. Right, on the other hand, took us onto a two hundred-plus kilometre dirt track to Calvinia. “Isn’t this, after all, what road trips are all about?” I pleaded. Of course the romance of the open road and the promise of adventure triumphed and off we rattled towards Calvinia, much to the exasperation of my partner and the detriment of our poor little VW polo.
The road through this part of the Karoo bisects huge farms, private game reserves and the Tankwa National Park. It is an ocean of desert fringed by blue mountains. Dust, sand, sun and flowers. To drive through this landscape is to drift with the sands of time, the open road a canvas onto which your mind flows and wanders undisturbed. Heat rises in a mirage, blurring the distinction between earth and sky. It is disarming in its simplicity and perhaps it is this quality that makes it so remarkable and so full of surprises.
After the first 35 kilometres of dirt track there is a sparkling little gem, a proverbial phoenix risen from the dust and ashes. The Tankwa Padstal, famed for the arson attack that levelled the building in 2014 and its subsequent rebirth, is worth a mention not only for its colour, eccentricity and dolphin skeletons but also for the reminder of the community spirit that reveals itself when least expected. So dear is this little padstal that news of its demise spread like wildfire on social media.
Donations rolled in and volunteers arrived with building materials and helping hands. Within ten weeks it was business as usual. It’s a powerful and uplifting story. The padstal has all its original quirks as well as exceedingly excellent roosterkoeks, the perfect panacea for a hungry tummy on a long road! Appetite satisfied and imagination fired on the eccentric mini stopover, we headed off again.
The road to Calvinia took my breath away with the sheer scale and beauty of this prehistoric sea bed. Other than the handful of 4x4s that passed us moving in the other direction, what really surprised me were the swatches of yellow flowers along the roadside. Could this be – despite what the hotline said – the first sign of the flowers to come? Just before we crossed the border into the Northern Cape we stopped to take a close up look. These yellow gems turned out to be little hairy pom-poms of delight, silky soft to the touch and blooming in mass. Enthused by the showing and the promise and possibility of more to come we forged ahead.
Just under four hours of dirt track later, our bones sufficiently rattled and the car circulating dust through the air conditioner, we arrived on the beautiful tar road that connects Calvinia to Nieuwoudtville. Having been told that the flowers were “over” in the Northern Cape and never having been to this particular part of the world before, I can only describe the rest of the drive as surprising. Along the roadside, between the grasses and shrubs, peeked pink clusters of vygies. These flowers are tiny, only a centimetre or so across but blooming in such profusion that they literally coloured the landscape pink.
After a very long day in the car on gravel roads we had some dinner in Nieuwoudtville and passed out to the sound of Karoo silence, snug in our electric blanket heated B&B bed. Tomorrow was another long day and promised to be just as rewarding.