On a West Coast safari, treasures beckon across all seasons. Few places on the planet offer galaxies of stars at night, and gazillions of flowers by day. By Peter Chadwick
They say the darkest hours are those just before the dawn, when the moon has slipped over the horizon to bed itself down for a well-earned rest. This is also the time when night skies sparkle at their brightest, showing off a million distant constellations.
As I sat enjoying the transition from darkness to dawn, it seemed these glimmering lights in the heavens above transferred their glow and energy down to Earth, placing them as dewdrops onto the sleeping forms of thousands of Namaqua daisies. The fields in front of me were carpeted in delicate yellow, orange and white flowers. As the sun rose ever higher, they raised their sleepy heads, opening their vibrantly coloured petals to track the path of the sun’s rays.
Now it was summer and I had brought my family to discover this wonderland outside the popular flower season. We had arrived in Namaqua National Park late the previous day, having travelled from the southern Cape on a circuitous, yet easily drivable journey. After a warm welcome from parks staff, we had settled into one of the four cosy self-catering chalets that offered spectacular views towards the west, where deep valleys and hills lay silhouetted against a setting sun. As darkness arrived, and with eager anticipation, we explored the pathways outside of our chalet with our torches. We found hunting thick-tail scorpions, a variety of spiders that ran around as if they were on steroids and huge Bibron’s geckos that gorged themselves on insects drawn to the outside lights of the chalets.
The next morning, rising early, we sat on the veranda with steaming cups of hot chocolate to marvel at the starry skies before driving the short distance to the Skilpad flats, renowned for their floral displays. As the flowers opened towards the sun’s rays, scrub hares, steenbok and springbok wandered around, feeding between the daisies and gazanias, while a dawn chorus of bokmakieries, large-billed larks, ant-eating chats, Cape robin-chats and Karoo scrub-robins all sang in the arrival of a new day.
Leaving the flat areas behind us, we followed the road down a winding pass to Soebatsfontein and onto the coastal section of the Namaqua National Park. Large outcrops of grey granite boulders channelled our path- upon these huddled rock hyrax families and the occasional klipspringer huddled. As we continued slowly down the pass, isolated flowering plants held our attention. The diversity of shape and colours they represented are enthralling, perhaps even more than flower carpets. Delicate pale-purple flowering rooisalie bushes, yellow kandelaarsbos flowers and varkore, the upside down red Cotyledons with their yellow anthers, were amongst our first sightings. Pockets of quiver trees dotted the horizon and at the base of their trunks, greenish-yellow geelmelkbos plants attracted large numbers of iridescent green flies to their tiny flowers that gave off a pungent smell.
Crag lizards and rock agamas emerged to sun themselves on the rocky outcrops, cautiously keeping a watchful eye around them, yet totally ignoring the herds of gemsbok and red hartebeest that picked their way through the succulent vegetation growing adjacent to the koppies. Down in the flatter areas, bird parties of pririt batis, fairy flycatcher, Karoo eremomela, rufous-eared warbler and grey tits moved quickly through the yellow-flowering Acacia karoo trees that lined the dry riverbeds.
Reaching the coastline, a network of deep sandy tracks necessitated lowering the tyre pressures on our vehicle and engaging 4×4. These tracks lead us close along a wild and unspoilt coastline where massive waves crashed upon the shoreline and white beaches stretched between outcrops of boulders. Amongst these boulders, patches of different vygie species grew in dome-shaped bushes covered in brightly coloured pink, purple and white flowers. Orange, red and pale-yellow lichens covered the crowns of bushes and on the edge of the coastline itself, orange salad thistle flowers pushed their way between the cracks in the boulders, or grew between piles of bleached mussel shells. Mesembryanthemum alatum, known as ice plants or locally as brakslaai, spread out their tendrils along the sand.
Just south of Boulderbaai, we found the Cape fur seal colony. Sitting next to our vehicle, we watched the crèches of seal pups jostle and tumble with one another in play that already had a deeper meaning in terms of determining dominance status. To our surprise, a Namaqua dwarf chameleon showed itself next to where we were sitting. If it had not moved, we would have failed to see this well-camouflaged endemic reptile. Continuing south, we passed flocks of ostriches that ran easily in the soft sand and meerkat families that paused from feeding to stand upright and watch as we drove past.
Our campsite at Kwas-se-Baai lay right on the beach edge. Having set up camp, we viewed the orange orb of the sun melt into the sea as African black oystercatchers, Hartlaub’s gulls and sanderling flocks pecked at invertebrates that emerged in their thousands along the sandy beach. The new dawn had us packing again for a southward journey past the Groenrivier estuary and onwards to Doringbaai, Lamberts Bay, Elandsbaai and Velddrift before reaching our destination of the West Coast National Park and the tropical blue waters of the Langebaan Lagoon.
To try something different, we had booked into one of the houseboats at Kraalbaai. For my two daughters, this turned out to be the highlight of our trip. There were repeated delighted leaps from the boat into the warm waters where they swam for hours on end, only breaking to canoe around the houseboats or get towed behind a boat on a rubber ‘alligator’ by Morgan Sambaba, who looked after us during our stay. Cape fur seals were constant playful companions. At dusk thousands of southern mullet rose to the surface around the boat and began a feeding session that had us all enthralled by the wonders of nature.
Back on the Kraalbaai shoreline, we watched squadrons of bull rays and sand sharks feeding on hermit crabs and sand prawns in the clear shallow waters, while a short drive took us to the coastline at Tsaarsbank. Here we stood on top of a large grey granite boulder that lay on the very edge of where land meets sea in an angry turmoil of gigantic waves that were born deep in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The spray from crashing waves washed over us and the very ground shuddered from their awesome power. Kelp gulls hovered and dodged down with millisecond timing between these waves to snatch at invertebrates that were briefly exposed on rocky platforms.
At Geelbek, wooden boardwalks led us across nutrient rich salt marshes to bird watching hides, where we observed greater flamingoes landing in flashes of pink. Marsh harriers and black harriers hovered over reed and restio beds. On our return to Kraalbaai, herds of eland and bontebok grazed and browsed between the strandroos plants with their pink and purple flowers that grow along the narrow finger of land that separates the Atlantic Ocean and the lagoon.
The next morning we paid a final visit to the Seeberg lookout that showcases spectacular views across the entire park. Red and yellow Cape cowslip bulbs pushed up from the sandy soils around the massive granite dome and in the distance, southern black korhaans gave their ‘rusty-pump’ calls while an adult rock kestrel encouraged its three recently fledged chicks to follow it in flight.
We had started our journey in search of floral splendours. In addition we had been blessed with a diversity and constant buzzing of life. These memories will call us back again and again to this paradise.
Knersvlakte Nature Reserve
This newly proclaimed reserve is well worth a visit during the spring months of August and September when the white quartzite gravel plains reveal a splendour of rare dwarf plants in flower. To date about 1,500 plant species have been recorded, with at least 900 of these being endemic and thus making the area a region of international importance.
The Knersvlakte is about a three-hour drive north of Cape Town and is best reached from Vanrhynsdorp, where it is the ideal stop-over en route to the Namaqua National Park. Currently, accommodation is not available on the reserve and visits should be confirmed with the CapeNature offices in Vanrhynsdorp by phoning +27(0)27 219 1480.
Namaqua National Park lies along the N7, about 500km north of Cape Town. Winters are mild by day, cold at night, while summers can be very hot. After winter rains, the veld bursts into bloom. This can happen as early as July and last into September. Conservation fee R32 a person, R16 children under 12, free with a Wild Card. Chalets R525 a night for one to two people in low season, R880 in high season. R210 an extra adult, R105 an extra child. Campsites R115 for one to six people. Contact SANParks Central Reservations on +27(0)12 428 9111 or www.sanparks.org
West Coast National Park is situated along the R27, about 100km north of Cape Town. It has mild weather year round, with winter rainfall. Prime flower season is August to September. Conservation fee during flower season R60 a person, R30 children under 12, free with a Wild Card. Outside flower season R42 a person, R21 children under 12. The park has sprawling self-catering cottages, which from R1 105 a night for one to four people. Contact SANParks Central Reservations +27(0)12 428 9111 or www.sanparks.org
Larus Houseboat sleeps up to four adults and two small children. R2 100 a night. The luxurious Nirvana Houseboat sleeps up to 22 people. R10 125 a night. Both rented a minimum of two nights. Contact +27(0)21 526 0432 or visit www.kraalbaaihouseboats.co.za