The Desert Blooms of Namakwaland
I’ve been fortunate in visiting South Africa many times but still the sight of the Namakwaland Desert blooming eluded me. The Northern Cape, close to the border with southern Namibia, is renowned for its spring flowers and this is triggered by spring rain.
Normally this region, which is now called Namakwaland, is dust dry and has very sparse vegetation. But come the arrival of spring and much needed rains, flowers pop up almost overnight and carpet the desert with colour!
When to go?
Timing is everything. But since the main Namakwaland Desert blooming occurs over a 3-4 week period, a trip between late August and mid-September stands the best chance of seeing this natural spectacle. Some years are better than others. This September we saw what the locals described as a fairly average year. Average or not, we found Namakwaland Desert truly spectacular!
Which flowers will you see?
Many of the flowers belong to the daisy family. Some are close relatives of- or the very same plants – that are popular in patio pots and hanging baskets here in Britain. So various forms of Gazania, Osteospermum, Dimorphotheca, Ursinia and Felicia are plentiful. They carpet the barren fields wherever you look.
Some useful tips
But to see these at their best you first need to travel to the north. Once there, turn around and drive south so that those sun-seeking blooms are all facing you! If you approach from the south you might ask what all the fuss is about since you will be looking at the duller backs of these blooms. Another tip that we quickly picked up was to not linger too long over lunch since come 3.30 pm many of these blooms close up for the night! The vast majority of these daisies are white, yellow, and orange with the sky blue Felicia daisy a notable exception.
And succulents too
Succulent plants provide the softer magenta and pink colours to the Namakwaland Desert colour palette. Indeed in some areas they dominate! Plants closely resembling Livingstone Daisies blanket the landscape. They lack the vast range of colours that we are used to with our bedding plant version but are no less spectacular. Growing between rocks and up the sides of low hills it looks like a dramatic rock garden but on an epic scale. You are brought back to reality when a Mountain Zebra, Gemsbok or Springbok antelope ambles gracefully through the scene!
We had hoped to see many spectacular bulbs in flower but it seems that most flower later in high summer which is of course our mid-winter. Paintbrush lily, our florist’s Chincherinchee and true Amaryllis grow wild here. Bulbs are perfectly adapted to this climate since for most of the year they lie dormant below the dry baked soil. They only come to life when the spring rains soak into the soil to awaken them from their slumber.
How to travel
To see Namakwaland [formerly Namaqualand] and the West Coast at its best is easy. One can join a guided tour from Cape Town or, as we did, hire a car and self-drive. The roads are excellent and uncrowded but to see the best flowers some dirt road driving is necessary. Few of those dirt roads had anything less than a smooth but very dusty surface.
And where to stay
Local accommodation is generally good. However, as you drive further north you will find that there is less choice and what there is can be a little quaint! Don’t expect great luxury or even 3 star hotels. What you will find is a safe and friendly local population who are only too happy to give you the latest news of just where the flowers are currently looking best. Pre-booking accommodation at this time of the year is vital since it is limited. The coastline is wild and stunning and in many instances the flowers bloom right down to the shoreline so I would strongly recommend a few coastal stops. It is possible, as we did, to drive from the Namibian border to Cape Town in a long day of driving but I wouldn’t recommend it. Far better to make stops along the way, sample the local food, the hospitality and of course- for the passengers- the excellent local wines!
We had a South African friend help us expertly plan our trip but you may care to book accommodation through a website such as this.
There’s more reading here on Namakwaland.
You may care to read about a hike that Alan Down and Felicity Down took through the Cape fynbos later in this trip to South Africa.
Here’s a useful blog that lists 100 things that you might like to do on a visit to South Africa. I’m unable to give them my personal recommendation – largely because I have not [yet] visited many of these – but they do look good!