Confessions of a Flower Stalker

If Goethe was right and ‘a flower is a leaf, mad with love’, then flower-holics are passionate crazies who think nothing of spending their time on their knees in unusual places. Particularly after the rain in Namaqualand…

Words and Pictures: Marion Whitehead

4So there I am once again, on my elbows, backside in the air next to a gravel road in the back of beyond, creeping up on a tiny bloom, practically hyperventilating with excitement, camera poised. At the crucial moment of shutter release, a bakkie thunders past in a cloud of dust, hooting noisily.

I sigh and wait for the dust to settle, covering my lens. At least it was a friendly toot-toot, thanks to the fact that this is Namaqualand and it’s flower season. Try lying next to the road in old hiking clothes elsewhere out of blooming season and they take you for a dronklap who’s squeezed the soft cushion of a papsak too fondly.

Flower stalking is a different kind of intoxication and I am not alone in this addiction. We are no less obsessive than twitchers. Add that there are far more species of plants than birds, and the challenge of identifying and learning names is almost endless, particularly in a country with a biodiversity as rich as South Africa’s.

Namaqualand is part of the succulent Karoo biome, a biodiversity hotspot that has more than 6 000 species, and the amateur botanist who can pick out even a fraction of those will die happy to push up any number of daisies, plus a few of the special endemic succulents for which the area is internationally renowned.

Come spring, Namaqualand is inundated with flower lovers, all the way up the West Coast to Springbok and beyond. But, as with the fruit of the vine, there are degrees of intoxication: tourists move around in busloads on the main routes and have a yen for pictures of themselves posing amid bright carpets of colour. Happy snappers go anywhere and ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ as they hold their cameras high to capture the magnificent scene. The serious cases are the ones heading for the hills, field guides in hand.

They want something more challenging than the dazzle of daisies carpeting the Skilpad section of Namaqua National Park outside Kamieskroon, where single species of daisies dominate the former ploughed fields in succession, indicating the veld has been disturbed. Diversity is natural and in South Africa we literally have mountains of it.

Kamieskroon becomes the Ground Zero of the flower world for a couple of months each spring, and meandering down the gravel road from there to Hondeklip Bay, with a seafood lunch as an excuse to lure the less botanically inclined, can yield some good sightings after rain. Above Grootvlei Pass, I was rewarded with a classic scene of a windmill amid orange Namaqualand daisies.

Serious stalkers are not deterred by bad weather. They know it’s only daisies that need sunshine to open their petals for business and the rest of the floral kingdom will be punting for pollinators even on a cloudy day. So while other guests lingered over breakfast at Kamieskroon Hotel, I set off on another favourite back road, up the Kamiesberg Pass. It was splashy from the previous night’s storm, and I spotted some delicate white cup-and-saucers (Colchicum capense) in the mud at the roadside. I’m not yet flower-bedonnerd enough to lie in puddles, so I photographed them from a low crouch, revelling in the diffused light created by low clouds.

On the way to Garies for a late lunch at the Tourist Barn, a patch of bright magenta Springbok-painted petals (Lapeirousia silenoides) pulled me over on Studer’s Pass. A special fly with an extra-long proboscis is the sole pollinator of this and a number of similarly coloured and shaped flowers.

During a hearty country dinner at Kamieskroon Hotel that night, new guests waxed lyrical about the flowers at Goegap Nature Reserve outside Springbok. Of course I had to see them, but no stalker in her right mind would waste time driving up the N7 at speeds above flower spotting, so genial host Helmut Kohrs sent me off on the Arakoop gravel alternative that winds between great big granite kaalkoppie outcrops. Near the quaintly named No Heep farm, I met the farmer and asked what it meant. He laughed: it’s derived from a Nama word but no one’s yet been able to explain it to him.

The verges were dotted with floral delights and I stopped often. At times I was lured through rusty fences to the base of the big, bald outcrops, where runoff from rain, mist and dew created temporary pockets of glistening blossoms below spiky quiver trees that made their own timeless statement. There were plenty of gates to open and close, another excuse to aim my camera at nodding apricot-coloured moraeas, a type of wild iris, and pale pink oxalis. The road was rutted and bumpy, and while the Land Rover Defender

I was travelling in was tough enough to handle it, I was tired of feeling like I was stuck on one of those machines that try to vibrate the fat off you. Fantasies of the grader some travellers had reported seeing south of Garies became overriding. Why didn’t the Northern Cape Roads Department grade the prime flower-spotting routes around Kamieskroon?

My answer lay around the next bend: one half of the road was smooth and a glorious big yellow grader was parked while the driver enjoyed a tea break. I hailed this hero of flower tourism. Jacobus Masent explained that the Northern Cape had only two graders; he operated east of the N7, while his colleague (the one who’d been spotted south of Garies) smoothed the roads west of it. Quite a daunting job in a province this size.

Goegap was disappointing. A berg wind had swept relentlessly through the 15 000-hectare reserve the previous day, desiccating the colourful blooms among the statuesque quiver trees, and I had to be content with the excellent interpretation centre at the Hester Malan Wild Flower garden, where a staggering variety of succulents crowded the rockery. On the road out to Concordia, I entered gates left open by some kind farmers for visitors during flower season, but the blossoms were only marginally better.

It was mid-August and more rain would hopefully revive the veld and bring out the next round of flowers. The peak of the spring flower season was moving south and I headed for the next hotspot: Nieuwoudtville, bulb capital of the world. After that, there was Clanwilliam in time for the annual flower show, the West Coast National Park, Darling’s wild flower reserves, Rondebosch Common bursting into bloom in the middle of Cape Town, the rare serrurias above Simon’s Town and a plethora of fynbos in the Kogelberg Biosphere at Betty’s Bay…

Being a flower stalker is a year-round obsession and flower season never ends – happily there’s always something in bloom somewhere.

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