If a person were asked to list the ten most spectacular floral wonders of the world, the spring flowers of Namaqualand would be near, or at the top. During a few weeks from August to October, Namaqualand’s spring flora bursts forth with a display of color that stuns the eye and fills cameras with roll upon roll—or flash card after flash card—with images of almost unbelievable beauty.
We had seen presentations of this flora in the media—TV documentaries, travel magazines, etc.—but those images represented only a tiny sample of the spectacle that we saw in person. In this article, and subsequent ones, we will attempt to share with the reader some of the stunning scenes and unique plant life of the area. First, it is necessary to locate the area that we’ll be visiting.
Namaqualand is not a politically defined region; rather it is part of the plant geographic area called the Succulent Karoo, an area that is strongly influenced by winter rain and fog. Technically, the area is defined, roughly, as reaching from the Olifants River (ca. 31°45’ S) at its southern limit, to the vicinity of the coastal city of Lüderitz, Namibia in the north (26°38’ S).
For practical purposes, however, Namaqualand is commonly defined as the area lying between the Orange River (Photo 1) in the north (the coastal city of Alexander Bay lies at 28°40’ S) and the Olifants River in the south, a distance of about 360 km. Namaqualand is, at its widest, about 150 km from east to west.
It is interesting to note that the Olifants River marks the northern boundary of the South African (or Cape) Floral Kingdom. This floral kingdom is noteworthy for its floristic diversity and very high level of endemism, especially with regard to its small area compared to the other floral kingdoms. This fame tends to overshadow Namaqualand which boasts its own unique collection of species and spectacular floral displays. A single fact is probably sufficient to make this point: the Namaqualand flora consists of no less than 3,500 species of flowering plants and includes among that number a very high percentage of geophytes (bulb plants).
After having spent the first part of our visit to southern Africa in the Kalahari (Photo 2) and Namib (Photo 3) deserts, where the vegetation is limited to little more than thorn trees and Bushman grass, the contrast on crossing the Orange River into South Africa could hardly have been more striking. Within a few km of the border the scene changed from dry, brown hillsides to spectacular roadside displays of yellows, reds, blues, and oranges (Photo 4).
Although a stop along the highway wasn’t scheduled, we—there were twelve photographers, six in each van—insisted on recording our first experience in Namaqualand. Our drivers—both experienced natural history guides—were happy to oblige, and immediately began naming the plants, many in Afrikaans!
Since there were only three professional botanists among our group, the task fell to us to come up with names that the others in the tour might understand. Mostly, this involved attempts to recognize the botanical family of the new (to us) plants and then find some plant that the others knew to enable at least some connection with a familiar plant from home.
Our first scheduled visit to a botanical garden was to the Goegab Nature Preserve, which is located 15 km from Springbok. It was there that I bought an illustrated guide to the Namaqualand flora—the first of several—thus making our task as plant identifiers a bit easier. The preserve encompasses about 7,000 hectares and boasts over 575 species of flowering plants, many of which are known only from the reserve. The extent and richness of the floral display are illustrated in Photos 5 and 6.
Since there were only three professional botanists among the group, it fell to us to come up with names that the others in the tour might understand. Mostly, this involved attempts to recognize the botanical family of the new (to us) plants and then find some plant that the others knew to enable at least some connection with a familiar plant from home.
The Namaqua National Park system consists of several geographically separate units, one of which, the Skilpad section, lies 67 km south of Springbok and 22 km from Kamieskroon, the closest center providing accommodation. (Skilpad is the Afrikaans word for tortoise.) This smaller, but nonetheless stunningly beautiful, area consists of about 930 hectares and boasts a flora of about 600 species.
The most abundant plant in this area is the Namaqualand daisy, Dimorphotheca sinuata, which covers large areas with brilliant orange displays (Photos 7 and 8). Often found growing intermixed with the daisy, and offering a stunning color contrast, is a species of Felicia (Photo 9). Most of this park was at one time farmed with traces of earlier wagon traffic evident in the lanes of orange seen in Photo 10. Other areas show evidence of earlier farming activities as seen in Photo 11.
One of the striking features of southeastern border of Namaqualand is the Bokkeveld Escarpment that forms the western boundary of the interior plateau. The next leg or our journey took us up the escarpment, an elevation gain of about 400m, to the quaint town of Nieuwoudsville, which served as a base camp for the next two adventures. As before, we were treated to grand floral vistas as seen in Photo 12.
An excellent example of the influence of moisture—what little there is—on community structure was the existence of a large field of pink to red flowering species, as opposed to the extensive yellows that we had met elsewhere (Photo 13). This area lay at an elevation only a few feet lower than its surroundings.
Perhaps the strangest place we visited on the entire trip was the Knersvlakte, an area of about 48,500 hectares lying between the escarpment and the Atlantic Ocean. Knersvlakte can be translated as “the gnashing plain” in apparent reference to the sound wagon wheels made while moving across the surface. The remarkable feature of this plain is its surface, which consists of quartz pebbles that, in addition to being crunchy to walk on, strongly reflect sunlight from their white surfaces (Photo 14). Reflection of the strong sunlight renders the soil more amenable to plant growth by lowering the surface temperature.
Despite the seemingly inhospitable nature of the Knersvlakte, at least at first sight, it is an area of significant floral diversity. Endemism is high with 112 species of flowering plants native to this area. As well, this is home to some of the smallest plants that we met on our journey, including the miniature succulents Oophytum nanum and Argyroderma delaetii (bababoudgies, baby bottoms in Afrikaans) growing together (Photo 15). All of the nearly dozen members of the genus Argyroderma—the name means ‘silvery skin’—occur naturally only in these quartz fields. Members of Aizoaceae (mesembs, or vygies in Afrikaans) (Photo 16) add a very colorful touch to this seemingly barren area.
The next stop on our tour took us out of Namaqualand and into the northern reaches of the Cape Floral Kingdom. Our target was a visit to the Cederberg Conservancy, a tract of mountainous land (Photo 17) of some 162,000 hectares lying to the southeast of the city of Clanwilliam. This area lies within the botanical community known as fynbos, a key characteristic of which is the presence of members of Proteaceae.
A prominent member of the family in the area is Protea laurifolia, the large shrub seen in Photo 17. Its flower head is shown in Photo 18. For successful propagation in the wild, many proteas require periodic fire; a recently burned hillside is shown in Photo 19. The plant in Photo 20 is a species of Leucadendron, a genus of approximately 80 species in the Proteaceae restricted to South Africa. Complementing the shrubby flora, this area also boasts a number of bulb plants exemplified here by one of the many South African endemic species of Gladiolus, the beautiful G. elatus (Photo 21).
To top off our botanical tour we also visited two coastal areas, one on the west coast near the town of Paternoster (ca. 140 km north of Cape Town ), and one near Hermanus on the south coast (ca. 80 east of Cape Town). The Paternoster site features a beach flora within close proximity to crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean (Photo 22). Strong winds limit the height of vegetation on the beaches, of course, but low-lying species certainly make up for any loss of variation. A particularly striking species is Pelargonium fulgidum (Photo 23). And, as always, there is the contribution made by members of the Asteraceae (Photo 24).
Among other attractions in Hermanus—it is a major whale watching destination—is the opportunity to see coastal fynbos vegetation in a totally undisturbed setting. The 1800 hectare Fernkloof Nature Preserve lies in the Kleinrivier Mountains on the outskirts of Hermanus. The small area of the preserve is home to no fewer than 1474 species of flowering plants! Many of these species are endemic to the local mountains, while the preserve itself is home to an endemic species of Erica (which we did not see).
One of the most colorful plants in the preserve is the false everlasting species Phaenocoma prolifica (Photo 25) (Asteraceae). Other attractions include representatives of the South African family Bruniaceae; a species of Nebelia (syn. = Brunia) is seen in Photo 26. Details of several of these plants and many others will be described in future articles.