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The Namaqualand Caper

The Namaqualand Caper

Four travelling friends take on the back roads of Namaqualand in the wildflower season. Will they survive? Will Namaqualand ever be the same again?

Words: Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit
Pictures: Chris Marais


flowers0005OK, so this is how it goes down. Dirk and Sonja van Rensburg (Arto Junko collectors and bakers supreme) of Calvinia, my wife Jules and I put together this Flower Safari from Loeriesfontein to Leliefontein and beyond. I would have the lenses, Jules would have all her scribe’s senses on full alert, Dirk would be on the lookout for enamel signs and Sonja, ever the baker, would provide the muffins. Everyone would try to pitch in with the humour. And so we would go.

There would be a convoy of two cars: their doughty little green Suzuki Jimny and Travel Dog, our old Isuzu bakkie. We meet up in the middle of a Nama Riel dance during last year’s Williston Winter Festival, drive back to Calvinia and, on a bright Monday, venture into the nearby hills for a foretaste of flowers.

We find a likely field and the hours just zip by. I am in a macro space of bee wings, stamens, leaf patterns, lying flat on the ground, totally immersed in this little big world through the 100mm lens.

Dirk is bekruiping a padloper tortoise he’s found on the road, trying not to startle it into sprinting down the hill. And if you’ve ever seen a padloper in spring, you’ll know that there’s nothing like tortoise testosterone (now say that fast, and then backwards) for pure speed. Spring, for tortoises, is Love Season. Namaqualand is Paris to a tortoise in September, if you get my drift.

I’ve always wanted to paint an old hippie peace sign in white on the shell of a padloper, but I fear the blokes from Fauna & Flora would have me in a second. Jules has put aside her Canon G-10 and is scribbling in her notebook. ‘It looks like little book clubs of daisies out here’, she writes. ‘It’s as if they are gossiping’.

“Anyone for muffins?” asks Sonja. The next day the real trip begins, and we’re on the less-travelled R355 to Loeriesfontein, heart of Windpump Country.

flowers0004Benjamin Daniels greets us at the Fred Turner Museum, which also does duty as one of the largest windpump collections in the world. He’s a distinguished-looking schoolteacher (retired) who now curates the Fred Turner with panache, verve and style.

“What a pity you’ve come so late in the season,” he says. “The flowers are mostly gone.” Ah, Benjamin. You say that every time. And I know you’re kidding because you happen to be standing in a field packed with startlingly white daisies right now.

Keeping a straight face, he bends down to draw Jules’s attention to a tiny pink flower that is acting as groundcover. He also takes us to a vygie that starts with white flowers that slowly turn pink. In the background, from somewhere in the village, you can hear Radio Namaqua playing gospel music.

The Steel Flowers of Loeriesfontein are far from still today. The Canadian North is pumping water like gangbusters. The Star Zephyr swings proudly in the breeze, making sure to catch and reflect the light of the sun. The Conquest and the Gearing Self-Oiled and the Dandy creak out a mournful dirge in rusty harmony.

A few old warriors shift restlessly against the chains that hold them motionless, head tied to tail. It’s like they want to join the conversation. Benjamin tells us of a story written by Tannie Annie Nel of Loeriesfontein. It’s about a certain Oom Koos van der Merwe of Calvinia. On a certain day, Oom Koos had to climb up to the top of his windpump to repair the brake wires.

“But when I reached the top a dust devil arose and all I could do was clutch onto the swinging main section of the windpump. The whole head – with me holding on – swivelled 14 times!” His neighbour, Tannie Bettie, overheard this and could not help asking: “Oom Koos, how did you know it was 14 times?”

And right there I, together with the curator of the Fred Turner Museum in Loeriesfontein, Oom Koos and Auntie Bettie, have to leave you hanging without a punch-line. This is, after all, a family magazine, you know. The museum has a little outdoor restaurant called the Asbosskerm. There’s a crowd of overseas visitors, about 40 of them, and we pick up snatches of conversations about the Taliban, droughts and veld fires in Texas. We descend like wolves on salty meat, roosterkoek, real butter, jam, and potatoes in their jackets.

flowers0016Now we’re on the back roads of beyond. The names of places suddenly become like delicious all-day sweeties you want to roll in your mouth forever: Kliprand. Platbakkies. Gamoep. Kammanassies. Kliprand, just beyond Platbakkies, an old stone dam and two Climax windpumps, is bedecked with acid-yellow Piet Snot blooms shivering in the wind.

Kliprand has a post office, a Firestone shop, oornagkamers and the Oppikoppi drankwinkel. Soon we come to a crossroads. Roads lead to Bitterfontein, Pofadder; Loeriesfontein and Bitterfontein; Gamoep and Springbok; and Kamas.

Vaalputs, the country’s only radioactive waste dump, is on the Gamoep road and this is the one we take, because it leads to Garies, and the road to Garies forks towards Kamieskroon. Along the Kamieskroon road we will find Leliefontein.

And where the hell are the Van Rensburgs? We can see neither hide nor hair of their Jimny. We stop at a hilltop sign that says ‘Flooding’. Today, this barren little hill looks like it comes from the Richtersveld.

Finally, our deliciously goofball buddies arrive, and you can see they’ve been playing in the flowers with their cameras. They have the Macro Eyes – the opposite to the Thousand Yard Stare.

Driving on, we come across a woman staring at goats. The usual goatherd is having personal problems, so she’s just helping out a family friend. The goats belong to a family in Lekkersing. She is perfectly dressed for life in the harsh sun, her face in the shade of a green bonnet that also protects the back of her neck. Long sleeve shirt, gloves. She carries a long stick with a length of black plastic piping on the end – presumably with which to manoeuvre goats. You can see she’s too busy to bother with 15 seconds of fame. I’m a little worried about her stick, but I shoot
a frame anyhow.

flowers0012There’s something about the sign at the entrance to Leliefontein that makes you stop, take a slow walk around it, step back and wonder. The sign looks like a crumpled old man on crutches. So vrot and ugly it’s unbelievably beautiful as it stands there in the thick mist.

Tucked into the thick folds of the Kamiesberg range, the oldest settlement in Namaqualand possesses a lost-in-time magic. Nama herdsmen and their families lived in little round beehive matjieshuise in these hills for centuries before the Methodists arrived and made a mission here in 1816.

At the Leliefontein Lodge, we have the choice of overnighting in a matjieshuis, but this maatjie over here, the old guy who’s been driving and falling down in front of daisies all day, wants a room with a shower, a TV and a big bed and stuff. I’m pushing 60 – whadda you want from me?

Vera Engelbrecht is Leliefontein’s tourism powerhouse. She saw the tourists arrive here many years ago, and heard their pleas for a place to stay. The flower upwellings around here can be truly spectacular. “So I first built a kookskerm to feed them, then a couple of matjieshuise to house them.”

And then Vera and five of her friends received some government support and they built the lodge. In addition to the matjieshuise (which are the most popular) their lodge offers six en-suite bedrooms. And boy, can they cook for you! Ask them and they will prepare veldkos like melkkluitjies (milk dumplings), pofadder derm (liver sausage), skilpadjies (liver in kidney fat) afval (tripe) and those warm, tasty roosterkoeks.

The Afrikaans poet, writer and veld gourmand, C Louis Leipoldt, would use two English words to describe the setup at Leliefontein: Hog Heaven. So Jules, I and our Jimny Buddies stay on in Leliefontein in the mist. In the bliss of flowers, friendship and the finest muffins that ever emerged from the depths of a Hantam stove. . .

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