The flowers of the West Coast and Namaqualand are one of the wonders of the natural world. Visitors gather every spring to gasp in awe at the solid carpets of flowers. As far as the eye can see, the earth is ablaze with colour.
It’s an enigma. An arid area, wedged between Namibia and the Western Cape, along the Atlantic seaboard, seems far too harsh and inhospitable to support any life at all. Except maybe some of the hardiest and less appealing species. The area is rough on the eye and jarring to the senses, all 55 000 square kilometers of it.
When the winter rains fall and soothe the parched earth, there’s a sense of renewal in the air and a frenzy of revival on the ground. Then the earth explodes into rainbow colour as billions of flowers appear, as if to worship the sun. For a few weeks every year, between July and September, the West Coast and Namaqualand becomes wonderland.
Stretching in a technicolour carpet from horizon to horizon is a tightly-woven carpet of flowers, in pink, orange, yellow, red and white. There are daisies, vygies, lilies, perennial herbs and a host of others blanketing the ground between the resilient aloes and kokerbooms so characteristic of the area. From dry desert to Eden of plenty, the transformation after rain is dramatic and takes just a few days. The countryside literally bursts to life in anticipation of the arrival of the pollinators – and in advance of the dry desert winds that will again parch the earth and send it into the next cycle of dormancy, rain and revival.
This annual flower extravaganza usually begins in early August in the Sandveld, along the coast, and in the Klipkoppe area around Springbok and Steinkopf. The display then moves southwards and eastwards, as the weather becomes warmer. Since the flowers orientate themselves towards the sun, the best viewing times are between 10am and 4pm on warm, windless, sunny days. No sun means no flowers.
The billion-strong flower carpet includes an estimated 4 000 species of plants, of which over 1 000 are endemic to the region. On closer scrutiny, the cycles of dormancy and flowers make perfect sense. Since there is no grass cover in Namaqualand, it is easy for flowers seeds to find a resting place. The windblown sand provides quick protection and cover for the seeds, while the stony ground surface is constantly decomposing and replenishing the soil with chemical foods. In addition, the periods of drought destroy any insect parasites. So all that’s needed to complete the perfect recipe for abundant flowers, is rain. When the rain falls, at the right time and sufficiently, there are flowers literally for Africa.
Still, rain is a scarce commodity in Namaqualand where just 250mm per year falls on average. There are places that receive less than 50mm per year. However, the plants are expertly adapted to survive in these harsh conditions. Along the coastal Sandveld, plants get their moisture from the nightly mists that swirl in from the cold Atlantic. In a bid to survive, many of the plants in the area are succulents and store water in their stems and leaves. They further slow evaporation by the sun by having deep pores, thickened leaf-skins and protective coverings of wax and hair. Leaf size may also be smaller than usual to reduce the area exposed to the sun and wind. Other plants survive the heat as bulbs or tubers below the ground, and arrange their large leaves on the ground to minimize evaporation of soil moisture. Miracle grass germinates, flowers and goes to seed within eight days of rain. Some plants don’t even have leaves at all, just green stems, to combat the effects of heat and evaporation.
So for a few weeks of the year – between July and September – the West Coast and Namaqualand is abuzz with activity, people awestruck and cameras clicking. Then, after the flower season, life returns to a slower pace. You could almost believe that the earth needed to rest and recover from the flower frenzy, and then immediately start preparing itself for the next Spring Show. For yet another flower extravaganza to amaze and astound all who see its splendour.
The best months to see the flowers are usually August and September, but it all depends when the rains come. The most spectacular displays are normally around Vanrhynsdorp, Nieuwoudtville, Kamieskroon, Springbok, in the Postberg Nature Reserve, around Clanwilliam and in the Biedouw Valley. Also visit the West Coast National Park and Velddrif. Flowers open with the sun, so on overcast days they won’t open at all.
From Cape Town: drive north on the N7 to Springbok. From Gauteng: take the N14 to Upington and Pofadder.
By Keri Harvey http://www.travelideas.co.za/
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