The Million-Dollar Question
Firstly, there are actually flowers throughout the year. Summer-flowering succulents (such as crassulas) add a dash of colour during the hot months from November to February.
Many geophytes and bulbs (such as the Amaryllis family) bloom as the temperatures starts getting cold, in late autumn-early winter. The Scented Candelabra Lily, Brunsvigia bosmaniae, puts on a particularly spirited display, flowering three weeks after heavy rains in March-April (although this doesn’t happen every year). Then, in winter, many aloe species start to bloom.
The main event, however, kicks off when the weather starts getting warmer in late winter-early spring. So, broadly speaking, the famous spring flowers come out between early August and mid-September, give or take a couple of weeks on either side. Mid to late August is usually considered the peak season, but there are several variables to consider.
More Rain, Better Display
Firstly, there are several different kinds of wildflowers, including annuals (such as daisies), vygies (mesembs), perennials, geophytes and shrubs, that all come into bloom during the spring season. These various species have different life cycles and will bloom and die at different times during the season.
Secondly, you have to find out when the winter rains fell. The flowers will start to spring a month or two after the main rains, and these may occur at different times in different parts of the region. The intensity of the rain is directly related to the intensity of the bloom – the more rain, the better the display.
Then, you must ask yourself, where are you? The flowers tend to bloom as temperatures start to rise. This increase usually occurs first along the coastal areas and in the north, before moving in an easterly direction across the interior of Namaqualand. Altitude also plays a role, as the higher up you are, the colder it's going to be and the later the flowering will begin. The heights of the Kamieskroon Mountains may even have flower displays as late as October.
Book in Advance
You also have to consider the vagaries of the spring climate. If there is a sudden shift from the cold winter to a hot spring, the flowers will die faster. If, however, the spring temperatures are low, with cold nights, the flowers will stick around a lot longer.
Local conditions are another factor as a strong, hot berg wind blowing down the mountains can wipe out an entire colony of flowers overnight, so you have to be on your toes.
Therefore, depending on where you are and what kind of flowers you want to see, the season can start as early as mid-July and go on until the end of September. August is the safest bet, especially in Nieuwoudtville and Springbok. However, there is a problem.
You cannot wait until the flowers start to bloom and then jump in your car and race off to Namaqualand.
This is because, during flower season, the entire region is booked up months in advance. I found this out first hand when I arrived in Vanrhynsdorp without pre-booked accommodation, only to find that every single hotel, guest house and campsite was totally full, and I mean full to bursting. The nearby towns of Vredendal and Nieuwoudtville were also choc-a-bloc.
It’s a horrible feeling to be stuck in a strange town, at night, making desperate phone calls from the petrol station, only to find that there is literally no room at any of the inns, at any price. I eventually drove to Klawer (20km away) and booked into the last room at a guest house that was, until recently, a farm school.
As I sat in the converted gym, eating my breakfast, I realised that it was foolish to think that I could just rock up at the height of the season and waltz into a hotel room. But I took solace in the fact that I had made my mistake on your behalf.
One of the reasons for the shortage of accommodation is the tour groups. You see them everywhere; huge busses hauling thousands of rather elderly people across Namaqualand on flower expeditions.
The hotel at Vanrhynsdorp was crawling with them, all wearing name tags pinned to neat leisure suits and floral frocks; big teeth and bigger hair glinting in the lamp light. It was actually a bit overwhelming to stand there as they thronged the lobby, chatting excitedly with their celebrity hosts on the way to the buffet.
Now don’t get me wrong. For many people, organised tours are the best way to access Namaqualand and its flowers, and who am I to denigrate their fun? Tours offer you security, supervision and convenience. They can also be very cost-effective.
By David Fleminger