Singing Ching-Ching It's Spring
I go ballistic every time Butch announces “It’s Summer!” (Like clockwork he does it every year on the 23rd June).My beady eyes give him dirty looks as I shiver and shake from the cold, but, I start watching the signs. And then. When he starts paying attention to the weather forecasts, reads Die Burger’s “Bylaag”, wears last years’ khaki shorts and checks his diary I know spring is in the air. This year all the elements aligned on the 26th August.
The swallows had returned to their summer nests. (Our friends who migrate annually to spend their summers in South Africa) As promised, two months early, especially so that we could do a walk-about in Namaqualand. It was flower season. God had opened his seed bag once again and spread the love, sprinkling seeds on the raw, barren earth where hundreds of millions of tiny, perfect flowers bloom from mid-August for approximately one month. Rumour had it that the fields of blooms were different this year. The rains hadn’t been as widespread or predictable. It’s been a dry year, with El Nino wrecking havoc all around us.
Number 1 on my “Wish List For Life” is: Days should be 32 hours long, I might get through everything I’d like to do. When Butch pronounced “we’re going to see the flowers tomorrow, I’ve told Megan and Ian, is it OK with you?” I threw my hands into the air, he thought I was doing a solo Mexican wave. I wasn’t. I was demonstrating. Our small home looked like a bomb had hit it. I’d just arrived back from my hike in the Fish River Canyon for Petes’ sake.
When you can’t beat them you join them. Otherwise life would certainly be too boring and I wasn’t going to stay at home and sulk. We’d do a three night road trip starting at the West Coast National Park. Butch did all the logistics, bookings and had the GPS set up to take us on a loop through the most picturesque areas where, hopefully, the flowers would be most profuse.
Our journey started when we saw our friends who’d been away on other adventures, he sailed Lake Tanganyika on a yacht before traipsing through Portugal on their now annual walk from Porto to Santiago de Compostello in Spain. We had so much news to catch up on that our throats cried out for coffee and carrot cake, which we did in Darling.
By now the sun has burnt the last mists away and temperatures had risen to above the desired 18C. The queue of cars waiting to enter the park reminded me of the days my parents lined up, hours before a show, to see a movie at the Drive-In theatre in White River. Angry, impatient, docile or excited the other drivers were. I had a gut feeling a child somewhere was going to get a back-hander for no apparent reason, as parents waited for service and the staff ran up and down attending to clients with their Wild cards, cash and credit cards while the “system” played up. Gunning the engines of their large flat 4X4’s in frustration at the delays sending clouds of dust upwards. Only to slow down to the desired 40KMPH!
We stopped to take our first photographs soon after entering the Park, it was going to be a most rewarding day. The emphatic warning from the German tourist who stopped and loudly declared “Don’t waste your time here guys, you’ve seen nothing yet!” sent us on our way. We were not disappointed. The flowers were magnificent. A landscape photographer's dream come true. I could picture water colourists and artists from years gone by with their easels and brushes, panama hats and picnic baskets setting up for the perfect scene.
All the shades of green with a profusion of yellow, orange, French blue, mauve and shocking pink made up the palette of colours on display. Dotting about were small herds of Eland and Zebra who filled in the blanks to create a perfect Garden of Eden. On such a perfect day it was hard to abide by the rules and happy tourists were eager to frolic amongst the flowers snapping pictures. I followed suit with a "selfie" too.
Hundreds of tourists visit the park daily during this crazy season, there is only one restaurant. Unless you pack a basket, one has no option but to visit the Geelbek Restaurant for a cuppa, lunch or breakfast. We arrived mid-afternoon and the place was still packed. I had my doubts about finding anything available on the menu, but, surprisingly we could pick and choose. Our choices included fishcakes, salad, hamburger and hake and chips. Very good indeed. I must compliment the staff, who, under very difficult circumstances consistently produce excellent fare. Nothing has changed here, the Weavers are still weaving their nests in the blue gum trees, the décor is a tad more shabby than chic, the paintings on the walls are still slightly askew and the staff are still friendly. We couldn’t linger for too long, we had to make haste to Durbanville for a birthday party. We made it, just in the nick of time.
Day two would be the start of our circuitous drive through Namaqualand. We were the first customers to stop for breakfast at the Flower festival in Hopefield, a tiny village where time has stood still and bees produce honey and everyone is terribly sweet, unspoilt and rather conservative. It would’ve been unkind and hurtful if we’d not stifled our giggles when the young schoolgirl, with her notebook and pencil asked us whether anyone would like their Cuppachino black. We managed a polite “no thank you!” The breakfast Croissant with its generous slab of Brie and onion marmalade was delectable, the scrambled eggs creamy and the bacon crispy. I have a suspicion that we were too early and that things were going to hot-up in this little one horse town, probably better, we might’ve overstayed our welcome.
We headed west hugging the coast while doing a slow crawl all along the railway line passing tiny fishing villages dotting the shore. Flowers were everywhere, not as profuse as the West Coast National Park but abundant never the less.
The allure of the flat, stark mostly straight coastline is uncanny as it’s not particularly “pretty” with the evening mists, cold winds and freezing water. The abundant fish have sustained these poor fishing villages and the district farmers have through the decades holidayed here, dancing the days away and diving for crayfish under the relentless sun. Towns nearer Cape Town have seamlessly grown and become “fashionable” hide-a-ways where architects have recreated Greek island style cottages and uber-cool restaurants have popped up. Bookings are essential for a bed or a table in Langebaan or Paternoster (my favourite place). The left break was flat when we passed Elands Bay, and the local Hotel didn’t appeal for tea and cake, here you come to watch rugby on a big screen while listening to fishy tales at the bar.
Isabella’s Restaurant in Lambert’s Bay our only recourse for tea, it had to be. A surprising choice of cakes on offer. We couldn’t ask for more. A perfect day, fishing vessels moored in the harbour, the squall of sea gulls and gannets coming in to land with an excellent cup of Earl Grey Tea. Slices are fresh, large and tasty, the popular Chocolate Ganache cake looked divine. New on the menu, a spicy Apple cake, moist and delicious. Here the Tannies (aunties) bake. Heavenly.
We watched a perfect golden sunset in Doring Bay. The stillness relaxing after a busy day. Dirt roads lead in and out of this quaint fishing village. Spring blossoms had closed for the night yet they still brightened the simplest cottages, lifting their weary spirits. In the bay diamond divers were quietly going about their business, sweeping the ocean floor of its hidden treasure. Die Anker Guesthouse offered a good bed, hot shower and spacious room. The manageress was friendly, helpful and served us an excellent meal in the restaurant. Unfortunately fresh fish is scarce so we settled for the usual offerings served in most locals now days.
Early to bed, early to rise it was as we set off to explore the interior Namaqualand. Breakfast in Van Rhynsdorp. There wasn’t a soul about, although the streets were lined with parked cars. The delightful coffee shop we’d stopped at two weeks ago had a sign hanging all askew “Closed”. The old Hotel now Guesthouse had stopped serving breakfast and the last guests were on their way. Ca-ching the penny dropped. Church. That's where everyone was. TripAdvisor came to the rescue, it was to the Engen filling station we had to go. Breakfast was in full swing. In the forecourt day trippers were lining up to fill up with 94 while we sat down to a Boere Brunch or Omelettes, light, fluffy and oozing with filling.
An hour later the streets were abuzz, the pause button had been released. The coffee shop, museum and nursery were open for business. With a clear conscience the congregants could indulge in a sweat treat.
We did a slow meander to Nieuwoudtville to see the bulbs and other splendors there. Nieuwoudtville is a small rural town famous for its pretty sandstone buildings, flowers and gardens, due to the variety and quantity of bulb flowers that bloom in this particular part of the Hantam Karoo of the Northern Cape – called the Bokkeveld Plateau. Like the Namaqualand further north, the semi-arid Bokkeveld bursts into spectacular flower between the months of August and October when over 1350 species of plant (6% of them found nowhere else on earth and a third of them threatened with extinction) bloom in a profusion of colour and life. Over 40% of these species are bulbous plants – earning Nieuwoudtville the twin accolades of Bulb Capital of the World and Jewel of the Hantam Karoo – an internationally acclaimed biodiversity hotspot.
We were rewarded with perfect weather but to keep us on our toes for photography an intermittent breeze was blowing. I opted for my fabulous 100mm Macro lens. This afforded me the opportunity to get up close to the flowers, to really look and see what this dry, stony, hard earth had to offer. Poor rainfall, erratic winds and high merciless temperatures result in hardier, smaller, lower growing pants and bulbous beauties, moisture is stored in the bulb, the flowering season is short but wondrous. Although the flowers were abundant I missed the huge clumps of sunny Katsterte (Cats’ tails) waving their merry yellow stems in the breeze. This year they were few and far between. The dry, harsh winter took its toll on them. Matjiesfontein and Papkuilsfontein delivered the goods as usual, we stopped to browse in the "pop-up" dining room, enjoying the banter with the two eccentric ladies manning the joint.
At Papkuilsfontein we enjoyed a short tea-break of decadent Carrot cake and baked cheese cake. Afterwards we made our way back to Nieuwoudtville to seek accommodation for the night. We were tired. Die Nedersetting (The Settlement) was our port of call where we were welcomed and were able to secure a bed on a farm a stone’s throw from the village. Supper was an early affair. Amongst the flowers of the famous and not so famous South African artists we dined at Smitswinkel (The Smithy) a large plate of pure traditional Boerekos. Chicken pie, Venison pie and I had fall off the bone lambs neck, slow-cooked to perfection. It was an early night for us.
Satisfied we’d seen the best flowers on show we made a last detour to the famous waterfall and Quiver Tree forest before heading home on Monday. We’d witnessed the magnificence of this other-worldly natural spring garden in all its glory, like a delicious seasonal fruit salad we’d wallowed in its splendidness, abundance and relished in its uniqueness. The stark quiver trees was a reality check, the fresh lime-green fields of new wheat in the Swartland a cool respite from the vivid yellows, reds, oranges of Namaqualand and the yellow blooms of Canola a jolt. Spring is back and new harvests are ready for the picking! We live in a beautiful country diverse in all ways imaginable.
TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL FLOWER TRIP:
• Subscribe to West Coast Flower Update. They send details by e-mail twice a week as to where the flowers are and also as to the abundance
• Flowers only open when temperatures exceed 18֩ C or 24֠C on a cloudy day
• Bookings for accommodation should be made, but, we’ve always found room at the Inn
• Pack a picnic basket and chairs, it’s lovely to sit in the veld and just enjoy the moment
• Take a camera, tri-pod (I didn’t) and if you have a Macro lens to get really close and for a fast shutter speed when the wind blows
• Flowers open at 11h00 and close at 15h30 (more or less)
• Where the blooms are isn’t predictable, what was good this year may not be so next year.
• See which areas had rain and plan accordingly
• Read updates online, social media is quick off the mark with tourists posting pictures, just make sure they’re accurate as far as the timeline goes!
• Take a hat, sunglasses, shorts and light shirts as days can become very warm.
• Celebrate with this year’s vintage wine!
• The tourist offices in the various districts are clued up and part with knowledge willingly, this is their harvest time.
• Newspapers and magazines offer good tips, suggestions and updates.
• Bookings for accommodation should be made, but, we’ve always found a place, usually with the help from the local tourism office.
• Put it on your bucket list as a TO DO.
WHERE WE STAYED
Durbanville Guest House
35 Protea way
+27 21 975 4953
What I thought: Underwhelmed. Quite expensive I thought. Single beds are fine, but, single bed duvets leave me cold. Extra blankets and top sheets would do especially in winter. Bathroom needs a face lift. **/5
Guesthouse and Restaurant
Bookings: 0027 82 496 7875 / 0027 27 218 1897
What I thought: All things considered I thought our accommodations were spot on. New, clean, nicely decorated and functional. Close to the village and all amenities. The cottage is small and the second bedroom very small, but it was totally adequate. The shower was hot with excellent pressure! A lot of thought and effort has gone into this business and well worth supporting. Reasonably Priced
Die Anker Guesthouse
What I thought: beautiful views of the magnificent sunset. Conveniently situated. Large, neat, well equipped bedroom with everything we needed. The beds were comfortable and I was warm. The Manageress was friendly, helpful and considerate. We enjoyed our meal in the restaurant. I would certainly return for a longer stay. Reasonably Priced
The Meal That Impressed The Most:
3 Kriedoring Street,
+27 22 752 2044
Our GPS took us into the old part of town, not uptown, but, where the fishermen have lived for generations, colourful, vibrant and for tourists probably a little risqué. I was delighted. Reuben, I thought, has moved back to where he belongs, his roots. Where his family might have lived (if they ever lived in Paternoster or were fishermen). Nope. We certainly were in the right area but way off the mark. In my opinion, this is where Rueben’s belongs and not in the posh, over-the-top Boutique Hotel Abalone House.
On Mondays most restaurants are closed in Paternoster so we thought we were very lucky to get a table when we made our reservation. There were only 6 guests for lunch. Sad. The room is beautifully decorated as befits a fine dining establishment. I loved the really large wineglasses, the good cutlery and fine linen napery. Our server was outstanding, he knew his Risotto that’s for sure. Our meal was excellent, flavoured just right, perfect plating and portions spot on. Butch had made the perfect choice when he decided this was where we'd have lunch, rounded our trip off 100%.
Sadly, I think the restaurant is too removed from the eatery scene and where the Paternoster buzz is. Lacks atmosphere and should be a stand-alone establishment and not part of a Boutique Hotel.
Never the less Rueben does it again. He trains his staff well, has an excellent menu and the plates are faultless. *****