It is flower time in Namaqualand and tour operators are abuzz with bookings from travellers from across the globe who want to witness the spectacle. Alan Saunders visited Blommeland last year after an unusually early rainy season traveling in a Mitsubishi Pajero …
For Namaqualand, the rains came earlier than usual last year and the peak flower season was also earlier than expected. In planning our two-week trip, we decided to spend as much time as possible close to the Atlantic shore, travelling north from Velddrif to Alexander Bay — a distance of some 600km.
From Alexander Bay our route took us east into the Richtersveld and then south via Lekkersing to Springbok and finally on the back roads via the Kamiesberge to Nieuwoudtville, and then home to Stellenbosch.
The coastal road from Velddrif to Strandfontein, where we spent the first night, passes through Elandsbaai, Lambertsbaai and Doringbaai. In the past, a toll was levied when you used the short cut service road along the Saldanha rail line between Elandsbaai and Lambertsbaai. On this trip, only the identity of the driver was required.
There was an abundance of flowers on this stretch, especially at Elandsbaai.
After filling up with fuel at Lutzville, we headed back towards the sea. From Brand-se-Baai a sand track took us north again towards Groenrivier. The floral spectacle on this 50km track was what Afrikaans-speaking folk might refer to huil mooi – the beauty of nature certainly brought a tear to the eye. Magnificent colours of purple, orange, red, white, yellow, and green, with the roar of the Atlantic in the background, held us spellbound! The kaleidoscope of colours north of Brand-se-Baai was truly magnificent.
A large part of the coastal area between Groenrivier and Spoegrivier (the original names just sound better) now forms part of Namaqua Park and the Skilpad Wildflower Gardens. Camping at designated spots is allowed, but prior booking through SANparks is essential. There are eight camping areas, with between two and six sites per camp. There are pit toilets and half-moon stone structures that offer some protection against the often howling south-easter.
It is essential to be totally self-sufficient when you visit this remote area – and be prepared for the wind.
The cost was R122 per night for the campsite at Kwas-se-Baai, where we spent two nights. We could use our Wild Cards, so no entry fee to the park was charged.
Camping on the seashore is an experience in itself. The continuous thunder and roar of the ocean eventually lulls you to sleep.
Unique spots along the coast include a seal colony, fresh water fountains close to the sea and the Spoegrivier Caves, where archaeological surveys have shown that sheep were domesticated in the region some 2000 years ago.
There is a 50km sand track from Groenrivier to the northern entrance to the park at Swartfontein. It hugs the coast, and some stretches have very deep, loose sand.
We assisted a fellow traveller who had managed to dig his Pajero deep into the thick sand. With the aid of a hi-lift jack and hi-lift “buddy” from Outback Products, we were able to lift each wheel in succession and repack sand underneath them. With tyre pressure reduced to 1.3 bar, the vehicle easily moved out on its own once the undercarriage was clear.
It was the first time we had used this unique tool designed to lift a modern vehicle that does not have a chassis.
From Swartfontein it is 14km to the gate on the road between Hondeklipbaai and Garies. Hondeklipbaai is a further 12km on a well maintained dirt road, though it can be treacherous when wet.
We spent the night at a place called Noup, 20km north of Hondeklipbaai. Noup lives up to its motto of being a “special place for special people”, and it is certainly managed and operated by “special people”!
The quaint diamond-diver cottages were on the brink of being demolished in the late 1990s when the Benguela Concession decided to close down its Noup operation. In 1997, Dudley and Aletta Wessels were granted permission to renovate the cottages and convert them into overnight self-catering accommodation for tourists.
The huts were originally built by the divers for themselves, so they are situated in a five-star spot and beautifully decorated with natural local items. It would seem that visitors continue to add to the collection.
For those who love nature, there can be little more rewarding than watching a golden sunset over the Atlantic, followed by the appearance of the evening star, like the veritable diamond in the sky.
Dudley Wessels also operates the 37km Shipwreck 4×4 Trail along the coast, where many a ship has met a watery or rocky grave. It is essential to book through Sandy Blake at Kleinsee. The cost is R300 per vehicle. Sandy will also provide further information on accommodation in the area ([email protected]).
Dudley, with his geological and mining background, is an excellent guide and through the radio supplied to each vehicle, constantly shares his knowledge of the area’s geology, history and wildlife as the convoy moves slowly over the sandy and often rocky track that hugs the Diamond Coast.
If you go on this trail, be sure to heed Dudley’s advice and set tyre pressure at 1.3 bar. Although the track is rated as being a moderate 2/3 in 5, it can be challenging because of the very loose and thick sand. On our trip, one dune in particular caught many drivers off guard.
From Noup we travelled farther north to Kleinsee and Port Nolloth, where we spent two days in the Voetbaai Chalets at McDougall’s Bay.
It was sad to see the once thriving towns of Koingnaas and Kleinsee (as well as Alexander Bay to the north) in a struggling state. It does seem as if the mining companies have taken what they wanted and left the area scarred and barren, with mine dumps, and that very little thought has been given to rehabilitation. One wonders what the future holds for the people in this desolate area. Ordinary South Africans should be encouraged to visit it, so that it can be developed and rehabilitated into a remote tourist destination.
The Richtersveld is an example of what can be done. A joint venture between the National Parks Board and the local community shows how nature conservation can work together with the interest of the local people in developing an area to the benefit of both nature conservation and the community.
When visiting Kleinsee and Port Nolloth, it is worth spending some time at the museums. Both are full of information on the history and archaeology of the area, including the old railway line which was built between Okiep copper mine and Port Nolloth. Originally, the rolling stock was pulled by mules. Imagine mules hauling a load of copper ore along a rail line from Okiep to Port Nolloth!
Close to Steinkopf at Anenous are the remains of a water tower, built with stables below for the mules and a water tower above for the locomotives which eventually took over from the mules.
A visit to the Richtersveld National Park is a unique experience. This is the only true desert area in SA, but if one cares to take the time to walk in the veld, it is amazing to see the variety of plants that have adapted to this dry region.
The Orange River, now called the Groot Gariep, forms the boundary with Namibia and can be considered the artery of the region.
The park is jointly managed by SANparks and the local community, and the last nomadic Nama herders are frequently seen caring for their goats and sheep (and dogs) in an area that seemingly has no nourishment whatsoever for the browsing animals.
Campsites are available on the banks of the river at Potjiespram, De Hoop and Richtersberg, and there is also a campsite away from the river at Kokerboomkloof. Self-catering chalets are available at the main entrance at Sendelingsdrif and Tatasberg. Bookings are made through SANparks.
The campsites have ablution facilities with flush toilets and cold water showers. For those who do not fancy a cold shower, the Gariep does offer an alternative!
As mentioned by Sir David Attenborough in the foreword to Graham Williamson’s book, Richtersveld, the Enchanted Wilderness, the desert does not reveal its secrets easily. Just as it can be cruel to the ill-prepared traveller, so it can be secretive to the uninformed eye.
It is most rewarding to climb up a rocky slope and observe the wonderful colours from up high. The scene, in Williamson’s words, is like a very large painting “sculptured by water and chiselled by the wind”, with streaks of dark areas of ancient dykes across the mountain range.
Plants grow in the cracks of what appears to be solid rock, while others are shrivelled and will bloom in their beautiful colours only when brief rains cause a frenzy of urgent flowering. It is an area aptly called the “Playground of the Gods”.
After some wonderful relaxing day in the Richtersveld, we headed south. There are three routes to Springbok. The first is to head for Kuboes and then south to the Holgatrivier and on to Eksteenfontein. From Eksteenfontein you can head back to the Groot Gariep and on to Vioolsdrif and the N7, or alternately turn south and head direct for Steinkopf on the N7.
A third route is to cross the Holgatrivier, head for Lekkersing and then turn south to pick up the tar road from Port Nolloth to Steinkopf.
In the rainy season, the road winding down the Holgatrivier to Eksteenfontein can be very bad as it is close to and in some sections even in the riverbed.
Although the distance from Richtersberg to Springbok via Lekkersing is only 300km, it is a full day’s drive. Getting from the campsite to the exit gate is slow and it is rewarding to stop from time to time to enjoy the scenery. Even on the main dirt road from Kuboes to Lekkersing and further south, the veld remains covered in an abundance of flowers and plants.
Springbok is a town for freshening up again and a hot bath or shower after the camping in the Richtersveld. Many self-catering chalets and other accommodation offering full board are available. Most are listed on the internet.
There are numerous routes west and east of the N7 south of Springbok. In flower season it is best to ask which is the best place for viewing flowers. Our choice was to stick to the Kamiesberge on the dirt road to Leliefontein from where we turned east to Platbakkies and then south-east to Loeriesfontein. From there we headed for our last overnight stop in Niewoudtville.
It would have been rewarding to spend more time in this area, but as our two weeks were running out, we had to move on.
How irritating it was that the worst stretch of road on the whole trip was the 53km of tar between Loeriesfontein and Niewoudtville. It was full of potholes and loose stones that caused a cut tyre. Fortunately the Tyreco pressure monitoring system fitted to our vehicle (after we saw an advertisement in Leisure Wheels), gave us fair warning that the tyre was losing pressure.
Some sections of the dirt roads that we travelled on did have bad corrugation. Our custom was to engage 4×4 when leaving tar roads, and the vehicle’s handbook in fact also recommends engaging 4×4 when you tow a trailer.
It certainly was a most rewarding 14 days spent in one of the most beautiful areas of our country – a true Blommeland.