Hiking the coastal section of the Namaqua National Park is one of best ways to appreciate the year-round splendour of the Northern Cape. We set out on foot in silver sands…
Words: Fiona Mcintosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey And Supplied
“This is the penny bush,” explained Anzanne Swanepoel as we squatted down to look more closely at the flowers covering the sandy dunes. “The leaves are the shape and size of an old British penny and open up to reveal this yellow flower. And the petals of this little beauty look like drumsticks, don’t you think?” I couldn’t see the resemblance but admired the delicate blooms nonetheless.
Another member of the group looked equally perplexed until it became clear that we understood drumsticks to be the long thin pieces of wood used by musicians, rather than the chicken drumstick shapes of the delicate Zaluzianskya affinis that our guide was encouraging us to spot. But by that point we had covered less than a kilometre in the first hour, so, as pretty as the flowers were, we were going to have to pick up the pace to make our rendezvous at The Dunes that afternoon.
I’ve ‘done’ the flowers several times and, while driving along roads flanked by vivid orange, purples and pinks, or wandering through fields of daisies, has been rewarding, I’ve never really worked out the best way to appreciate the Northern Cape’s annual extravaganza. So I could barely contain my excitement when I heard about the Silver Sands trail through the heart of Namaqua National Park.
This guided, fully catered hike between the Spoegrivier and Groenrivier on the west coast of Namaqualand is a wonderful way to see what is otherwise an extremely inhospitable, remote section of South Africa. The sand roads are only accessible in low-range vehicles, there is no fresh water, no cellphone reception and no development or facilities of any kind, so until recently the area has been the preserve of self-sufficient 4×4 enthusiasts. But the organisers of Silver Sands trail have opened up the exquisite area to groups of hikers seeking to explore this pristine coastline on foot.
We were blown away by the beauty of the coast and, yes, the floral displays are obviously the big drawcard from August until late October, but the wilderness trail has year-round highlights of magnificent coastal scenery and marine life, an extremely comfortable base camp that you return to every night, and wonderful food. Every day there was a different show. We saw whales, dolphins and seals playing in the surf, endangered African Black Oystercatchers, great flocks of cormorants and other sea birds, wild cat, ostrich, shy little duiker and, at the end of the trail, a vlei full of flamingos and herons.
The geology of the coast is bizarre. We’d suddenly come across great outcrops of white quartzite, wriggling snakes of bright pink running through ancient granite, and great folds of rock that told of tectonic upheavals in the distant past. And more recent forces of nature – the crashing of waves and the blasting of wind – have produced dramatic coastal landforms such as intriguing caves, sea arches and deep gullies alive with mussels and redbait.
The trail, or perhaps I should call it the ‘safari’ since it included diversions such as wine tastings and sites of interest en route, began at Ja-toe-se-gat (Get-together-hole), 3km west of Garies, where we met our guides before being transferred on a 4×4 trail to the Kwass campsite, at the picturesque, sheltered Koringkorrelbaai.
Base camp was extraordinary. In this arid land, we were treated to a flush toilet, a hot-water shower (courtesy of a donkey boiler) and a large inflatable communal tent in which we enjoyed our meals. There was a generator for lighting and charging camera batteries, and a full-sized dining table and chairs. No detail had been overlooked – even the wine was included in the trail fee – so we relaxed and enjoyed the solitude of this beautiful spot. Dinner was an absolute feast – a mussel pot, fresh crayfish, snoek and galjoen on the braai and sweet potatoes, spicy rice and home-made bread. Then, after admiring the starlit sky, we headed to our tents where the sound of the waves lulled us to sleep.
The next morning we were transferred to the trailhead at the Spoegrivier Caves, an old Khoisan dwelling believed to have been utilised some 2 000 years ago. For the next four days we wandered the beaches, the rocky paths and sandy jeep tracks, the tides and our curiosity dictating what path. Anzanne made sure that we saw the main attractions – the tiny but striking vygies, the seal colony, the springs and the weird and wonderful landforms but, otherwise, after being transferred to a trailhead each morning, we enjoyed the freedom of finding our own way – our only rule to keep the sea on the same shoulder.
Much of the time we enjoyed clear skies and calm seas, although mornings were often eerie until the mist from the cold Atlantic had evaporated. “We’re in the Nama Succulent Biosphere,” explained Anzanne when we first commented on the phenomenon. “It’s this mist that causes the profusion of flowers in the otherwise dry Namib Desert.”
And our enlightenment was not just restricted to the natural phenomena. As we sat around the campfire on our third night, Anzanne’s father Dana Swanepoel revealed more secrets of this coast. “It was here, at Koringkorrelbaai, that, in 1941, the Nazi-trained Sidney Robey Leibbrandt landed on a covert mission to overthrow General Jan Smuts and to create a revolution in order to install a Nazi puppet-regime,” he explained.
Operation Weissdorn failed and the Fourth Reich remained a dream but the story had us debating long into the night. The harsh coastline of Namaqualand clearly has a shady past but it only adds to the intrigue of this magnificent wilderness.
On the penultimate day we were to see more evidence of the region’s tempestuous nature, when we were transferred to Hondeklipbaai. It didn’t take much imagination to see how bay got its name – the famous Dogstone may have lost its nose in a storm but it’s still pretty distinctive. As we explored the coastline to the south we learnt of the fate of various ships that had met a sorry end on the rocks and, after a brief stop at the shipwreck of the Aristea, retired for lunch at a local restaurant. The safari ended the following day with a wine tasting and lunch in Lutzville before we hit the road back to Cape Town, our minds and cameras full of images of this starkly beautiful frontier region.
In a Nutshell
- Up to it? This is an easy trail that is perfect for novice hikers, family groups and anyone who wants to take it slowly and smell the flowers.
- When to go: The trail is open year round except during July. August to October is the best time to enjoy the flowers while whales are usually seen off the coast from June to December.
- Reservations: Jacana Marketing & Reservations, 0861 JACANA (0861 522 262) or 041 378 1439, [email protected], www.jacanacollection.co.za