If you’ve never seen the wildflowers of Namaqualand you simply haven’t lived. But do yourself a favour and tour slowly on a bike…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey, Fiona McIntosh and Escape Cycle Tours
I’ve seen plenty of spectacular photos of Namaqualand in its spring colours but nothing prepared me for the reality. As I cycled down the undulating dirt road towards the Skilpad Wildflower Reserve I couldn’t believe my eyes. Great granite domes jutted into the dark blue sky while the lower slopes and plains were a mass of magnificent orange, yellow and purple.
By the time we reached the reserve we didn’t know where to look. Vast expanses of pale yellow Cape dandelions and blue daisies were set against a backdrop of quartz outcrops. We cruised through the reserve slowly, stopping often on the road to avoid the reserve’s namesake, the tortoise, and to take photos. The variety of flowers was staggering, butterflies and birds flitted from plant to plant and a large herd of springbok pronked in surprise as we crested a rise.
By the end of the day we were quite exhausted and, having had our fill of one of nature’s most enthralling spectacles, were happy to rack the bikes for the drive back to Kamieskroon. The transformation of the dusty valleys of the Northern Cape into colourful veld every August and September is a natural phenomenon. And there’s no better way to appreciate the wild flower display than slowly on two wheels. This fully supported, catered and guided tour, which includes six days of riding, allows mountain bikers of all levels of fitness and technical ability to experience the flowers in all their glory while enjoying local hospitality and comfortable guesthouses at night.
We joined the tour in Upington (though vehicle transfer to and from Joburg is included in the price) and, after an early breakfast, hopped on our steeds and cycled about 30km through the pretty vineyards that line the Orange River to Keimoes. Then the bikes were racked ready for the 70km drive to the Augrabies Falls.
The mighty Orange, the longest river in South Africa, rises 1 000km away in Lesotho and, at Augrabies, it enters a narrow gorge in the granite rock before plunging 65m into a deep pool. There was time to walk to the viewpoints along the edge of the chasm, and for lunch, before it was all aboard for the two-hour drive to Pofadder. We were glad to be back on the bikes again for the final couple of hours of pedalling to the lovely guesthouse on a huge date and grape farm at Klein Pella.
The following day started with an easy cycle on a good gravel road to the Orange River where we left the bikes for a walk among the date palms. South Africa is the largest exporter of dates in the world and many come from this area. The next section, an 18km technical ride on a sandy jeep track, was unsupported and hard work, but the solitude, sense of adventure, soothing sound of the river and the extraordinary geology and birdlife made it worthwhile.
Once reunited with the back-up vehicle it was an easy cruise to the missionary town of Pella. The historic town is home to a cathedral built in 1875 by French missionaries, and the sisters took great delight in escorting us around and joining us for tea, coffee and scones before we were transferred back to Klein Pella for a leisurely afternoon at the pool.
The ride in the Goegap Nature Reserve, just outside Springbok, was the other highlight of the trip. After unloading the bikes we spent some time learning about the geology and history of the area and familiarising ourselves with the local flora in the beautifully laid out Hester Malan Wild Flower Garden. We then saddled up and headed out on the ‘tourist route’ that climbs gently past magnificent granite koppies.
The veld was covered with multi-coloured daisies and it was hard to keep our eyes on the road but, although largely flat, the 22km circular route has a couple sandy sections so we needed to keep our wits about us. And the daisies weren’t the only distraction; we saw several gemsbok as we rode back to the tar road and again there were numerous photo stops. There are some 600 flower species in the reserve and the plains were an incredibly beautiful and diverse mass of orange, pink, purple and white flowers. It was easy to get blown away by the daisies but when we stopped we would get down on our haunches and find all sorts of intriguing little succulents and deciduous species.
After a picnic lunch at the information centre we wandered across the car park to the very photogenic quiver trees. A rare treat was spotting a halfmens tree (Pachypodium namaquanum), then it was back into the vehicles for the short drive to Kamieskroon.
The ride through Skilpad on day five was a hard act to follow, but on the last day we were treated to some glorious panoramas of Kamieskroon and surrounds on the route up the pass through the Kamiesberg, and back on a winding road through sheep farms to Arkoep. All that remained was the transfer back to Upington, stopping for some local wine and mampoer tastings en route. What a way to do Namaqualand.
Goegap Nature Reserve
- The 15 000ha reserve encompasses the typical granite koppies and sandy plains of Namaqualand, and the vegetation includes a number of ephemeral (short-lived) plants.
- The Hester Malan Wild Flower Garden contains an enormous collection of succulents endemic to the area. Some 581 indigenous plant varieties are found here, including some rare succulents that are found nowhere else in the world.
- In addition to its extraordinary flora the reserve is home to 45 mammal species, including springbok, gemsbok and the Hartmann’s mountain zebra, plus 94 bird species and several reptile and amphibian species.
Namaqualand National Park
- Namaqualand National Park is part of the semi-desert Succulent Karoo biome, a biodiversity hotspot that boasts about 3 500 succulent plants, 40 per cent of which are endemic. It is home to the world’s smallest tortoise, the Namaqua speckled padloper.
- The beautiful 1 000ha Skilpad Wildflower Reserve was created in 1993 to protect the unique flora of Namaqualand, which boasts the richest bulb flora of any arid region in the world.
- One of the park’s gems, the reserve catches much of the rain that blows off the sea and has magnificent floral displays even when the surrounding areas don’t.
Up to it?
- This is a non-technical trail largely along dirt roads, but there are some sandy stretches and mountain passes so a reasonable degree of fitness is required.
- When to go: There are fixed departure dates from end July to end August.
- Bookings: Escape Cycle Tours 011 646 9970, 083 453 5216 or 082 568 6651, [email protected], [email protected], www.escapecycletours.com