The spring flowers of the Cape West Coast, Cederberg and Namaqualand in the Northern Cape have a worldwide reputation. This area of South Africa receives little rain throughout the year but after the winter rains from May to July/August, the normally dry landscape becomes a carpet of wild flowers with vibrant bands of gousblomme and vygies, as well as nemesias, lachenalias, babiana and ixias… .
The wide variety of wild flowers is largely due to the varied topography – fertile valleys contrast with high mountains, the semi-desert plains of the north contrast with the unique sandveld region near the coast with its wetter vlei areas.
Certain species are found nowhere else in the world such as the yellow Leucospermum reflexum, the Snow Protea (protea cryophylla), blue Lachanaea filamentosa, yellow sparaxis, pink Cyanella alba and the Clanwilliam Cedar (widdringtonia cedarbergensis).
[This article is written by Cedarberg Africa, a specialist tour operator for Southern Africa. Being based in the Cederberg, we know the spring flower area very well and this article is a collection of our tips for flower viewing for the visitor. Enjoy the article!]
Timing of the Spring Wild Flowers
This is probably the number one thing that visitors mis-calculate. Being a hotter area than the rest of the Cape, our spring starts earlier. (I cannot tell you the number of times we get requests for late September when all the flowers have gone…)
The flower season peaks between early August and late August and it is dependent on the winter rains.
As a general rule the wild flowers begin flowering first in the Northern Cape in Namqualand in late July/early August and then advance southwards through Nieuwoudtville and the Cederberg region and then begin in the West Coast at the end of August. Thus the West Coast offers the best chance of seeing spring flowers in early September.
However there is a large element of luck – as it all depends on the amount of rain. Some years are better than others! If there has been a steady flow of gentle cold fronts during the winter, then it is likely to be a good flower season. But one or two violent storms interspersed with dry weather are not so good.
Spring temperatures are also important. If it heats up too quickly then the early visitors have glorious sunshine but the flowers do not last very long.
The Catch 22 is that lots of rain means good flower displays. But if it continues to rain during the spring (August), then it’s not so much fun to view the flowers!
The bottom line is that ideally you need to come with an attitude of acceptance and ideally be prepared to explore other aspects of the area if the flowers are not so amazing. For example the Cederberg has some stunning mountain passes to enjoy, rock art, walking trails and Rooibos tea farms to visit. The towns have attractive coffee shops to enjoy and arts & craft shops to explore.
Tip One – Book Early
I cannot stress this enough. The ‘season’ is short and so people book months in advance. We run 5 day flower tours and these usually book up a few months in advance. We can assist with ad hoc holidays if you book enough time in advance, but we don’t take last minute bookings because all our preferred accommodation has been booked up. We’ll refer you to the local information offices (see numbers below) who may be able to assist with last minute accommodation enquiries.
Ideally you want to be looking at early to mid August for Namaqualand, mid to late August for the Cederberg and late August to early September for the West Coast. The West Coast flowers can continue until mid September in a good year or only to 10th Sept in an average year.
So depending on your dates, you can choose your area…
(Thus if you are planning a trip for early September, you will be too late for Namaqualand but fine for the West Coast around Paternoster and Langebaan. Similarly if you are coming in early to mid August then the best displays will be further north, with not much happening closer to Cape Town…)
Ways to tour the flowers
Fundamentally there are four main options
- Plan a visit using a rental car and a reputable tour operator such as us – Cedarberg Africa – who will be able to advise you where to go, when and where to stay. This gives you the flexibility as you are free to explore some back roads and get out of the car to walk in the flowers as much as you want. Note: We don’t take bookings for less than 4 nights. If you just want a couple of nights, contact the relevant tourism office – see below.
- Take an escorted flower tour such as our five day Wild Flower Tour with a small group of like-minded enthusiasts. The benefits are that your guide is both knowledgeable about the flowers and also knows which daily routes are likely to prove most rewarding in terms of flower-viewing.
- If you don’t have so much time, you can also do a private day tour from Cape Town. This works well later in the spring when the wild flowers of the southern West Coast are in bloom ie within easy driving distance of Cape Town. However it is too far to get north to Namaqualand or the Cedarberg in one day. The only caveat is that these private tours tend to be expensive and the Cape Town guides are not so knowledgeable. (All the specialist guides are booked up doing longer tours!)
- If you have just 2-3 nights, you can drive (or we can transfer you) to one of the lodges in the Cederberg which usually have excellent flower displays. Good examples would be Bushmanskloof Wilderness Reserve, which also has excellent San rock art and lots of indigenous game or Oudrif Lodge. Again the important thing here is to book early.
Tips for Flower-Viewing
- As the flowers also face the sun, a good general principle is to travel north relatively quickly and then do most of your flower-viewing in a southerly direction so that the flowers are always facing you.
- The flowers are at their best between 10:30-11am and 4.00pm in the afternoon so there is no need to rush out straight after breakfast, (unless you have some travelling to do before you get to the flower region).
- The flowers will not come out in heavily overcast or rainy weather so you should plan to visit other sights on such days. Keep this fact in mind when planning your trip.
- The displays are noticeably better if you travel with the sun behind you so that the flowers are facing you. So when planning your daily circular route, try to travel in a westerly direction in the morning, southerly during the day and turn east in the afternoon.
- Get out of your car and walk amongst the flowers – you will appreciate them so much more!
- Pick up a flower guide to add to your enjoyment. These are available at not much money from various tourism offices.
- Use the local tourism offices to find out which local routes have the best flower displays
- Don’t pick the flowers!
We suggest that you head north to Springbok and then meander southwards at a more leisurely place so that the spring flowers are always facing you. There are various side roads which are often rewarding for flowers. Visit the Goegap Nature Reserve near Springbok and Skilpad Wildflower Reserve at Kamieskroon.
Try to include Niewoudtville on any flower tour as many flowers, bulbs and orchid species that are not found anywhere else in South Africa can be seen here. The other charming aspect of Nieuwoudtville is the number of local farms which open their gates to visitors (usually for a small fee) and allow you to drive all over the farms viewing the flowers – perfect for picnics. Some even also have little curio shops and impromptu coffee shops during the flower season. A very charming way to spend a day…
Accommodation is always an issue in Nieuwoudtville as it has very few guesthouses but you can always visit for the day from Clanwilliam…
Clanwilliam and the Cedarberg
From Nieuwoudtville you travel down the dramatic, if slightly challenging Botterkloof pass and into the Cedarberg – not suitable in bad weather! At the foothills of the Cedarberg lies the picturesque town of Clanwilliam and a number of rewarding flower routes such as the splendid Biedouw valley – which can be the highlight of any flower tour in a good year – the Boskloof valley or Nardouwsberg.
A visit to the Ramskop Wild Flower Garden is an absolute must! Ramskop probably has one of the best displays of wild flowers in the country and looks especially fine during the flower season and beyond. There’s a new medical plant section in the garden.
If you pick your dates right, you can also visit the Clanwilliam Flower Show held at the end of August (usually starting the Friday before the final weekend in August). Every year about 400 species from 32 families are exhibited in their typical setting at the fascinating Clanwilliam Wild Flower show with their botanical names, as well as their very descriptive tongue-twisting local names.
The high Cederberg Mountains don’t usually have many spring flowers (the real displays are in the valleys.) But higher up in the Cedarberg mountains, the protea flowers and other fynbos species are seen later on in the spring (September to October) with their spectacular large bulbous flowers.
The Sandveld & the West Coast
From the Cederberg you can head west to the ocean through an area known as the Sandveld. Then you can continue south along the West Coast Road (R27) via the picturesque fishing villages such as Paternoster with its Columbine Nature Reserve to the West Coast National Park. Along this coastal strip, you find the strandveld of salvias and showy daisies.
Within the West Coast National Park lies the Postberg Nature Reserve, which boasts the greatest variety of birds, game and Sandveld flowers in the Western Cape. This special section of the park is only open during August to October. We recommend visiting during the Darling Flower show held in mid-September.
The Duckitt Orchid Show runs concurrently with the flower show on a local orchid farm. You can also visit the Tienie Versveld Reserve near Darling which hosts babianas, lachenalias, chincherinchees and sundews.