Geophytes and Glacial Pavements in Nieuwoudtville

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Nieuwoudtville is not the kind of place you drive through by accident. 350 km from Cape Town and straddling the border between the Western and Northern Cape, it’s at the centre-point of the triangle formed by Vanrhynsdorp, Loeriesfontein and Calvinia. Not quite the Bermuda triangle, but definitely a blank spot on the map.

 

Spring Sensation

At least that’s how it used to be. These days Nieuwoudtville markets itself – quite rightly – as the ‘bulb capital of the world’, and local and international tourists flock to the town every spring for Namaqualand’s equivalent of the Alleluia chorus.

The great diversity of flowers is what sets Nieuwoudtville apart from the rest of Namaqualand. While colourful daisies can be found from Darling to Springbok and everywhere in between, Nieuwoudtville boasts all this and much, much more. There are more than 300 species of geophyte (plants which live underground but flower above ground, aka bulbs, tubers, corms and rhizomes) in the vicinity of the town, and it is not uncommon to see as many as 50 different species flowering in a single site!

Obviously this amazing variety has amateur and professional botanists going weak at the knees, but the display is still mighty impressive if you’re a complete floral philistine. The range of colours is a stark contrast to the monotone blocks of colour found elsewhere in the region, and the element of height contributed by species such as the cat’s tail makes for interesting photographs.

The Hantam Botanical Garden (which offers great guided tours during flower season) is just out of town, and numerous private farms open their gates (for a small fee) to flower seekers. In reality the location of the flowers on any given day depends on many factors, all of which are entirely beyond our control. A combination of listening to local advice and completely disregarding it will usually ensure a good day’s flower-spotting: just buy a copy of the excellent map which is available all over town, and be prepared to coat your car in dust.

If, when your time in the Hantam is all over, you want to take a bit of Nieuwoudtville home with you, a visit to the bulb nursery just out of town is a must. Buy a few of your favourites, and see if you can get them to grow in your own garden!

 

Dancing to a Different Tune

Spring is definitely the best time of the year to see flowers, but there are a few species which operate on an entirely different schedule. Around April, the brunsivigias, or candelabra flowers, make an appearance, transforming the drab scrublands into shimmering seas of pink lollipops.

Nieuwoudtville is also home to the most southerly concentration of quiver trees in the world, and the quiver tree forest (situated 24 km from town, off the Loeriesfontein road) is a hauntingly atmospheric place – especially during the interstices of the day, when the low sun turns the spiky trees into awkward silhouetted figures. We drove out one evening with a bottle of wine, and were lucky to have the forest all to ourselves. Next time, I’ll try to make my visit coincide with the flowering of the quiver trees which is usually some time in May. Their bright yellow flowers attract countless sugarbirds and other nectar feeders, and it’s said to be quite an experience.

 

Sandstone Symphony

Even if you visit at a time when absolutely nothing is in bloom, you’ll still be enchanted by Nieuwoudtville. You’ll find a quiet pastoral village which seems more 1913 than 2013. Livestock grazes on almost every property, and everyone you meet will have the time to chat. The quirky petrol station with its collection of vintage motorbikes and scooters sure beats your local Engen, and the notice-board advertising second-hand fridges and fox terrier puppies really took me back to a time before the internet.

The Dutch Reformed church and the Post Office are two very fine examples of the dressed sandstone buildings created by the town’s first master stonemason, Pieter Bründyn, and they warrant close inspection: those are not conventional bricks; they’re 100% local sandstone hewn into the size and shape of normal bricks. Once you’ve seen the church, wander over to the adjoining hall and enjoy a cup of tea and a koeksister: the local tannies put on quite a show, and your five or ten bucks go to a good cause!

Nieuwoudtville’s recent fame has meant that there are now quite a few restaurants and places to stay and even an annual art exhibition. Wherever you choose to eat, you can’t really go wrong if you order lamb. And if you visit out of flower season you’ll be able to pick and choose from the various hotels, farm-stays and self-catering cottages in the area, some of which are excellent.

 

On the edge of the earth

As you approach Nieuwoudtville, from Vanrhynsdorp, you ascend the impressively snaking Vanrhyn’s Pass, and come out on a plateau which at 700m is both cooler geologically different to everything around it. Obviously this has a lot to do with the botanical diversity of the area, but it also contributes a few fascinating geographical features to Nieuwoudtville.

Just 7 km out of town you’ll find the Nieuwoudtville waterfall, where the Doring River tumbles abruptly into the canyon it has forged along an ancient fault-line in the plateau. The 91 m sheer drop doesn’t get any smaller during summer months, but the waterfall is definitely more imposing after heavy rains. In winter it can make quite a racket.

The glacial pavement, on the other hand, remains unchanged from century to century. Believe it or not, the whole area was covered by glaciers during the last ice age. If you need some convincing, why not drive 5 km south of town, on the small gravel road which ultimately leads to Clanwilliam, and follow the signs to the pavement. Huge slabs of exposed rock are streaked with grooves and scratches which were formed 300 million years ago as the glacier moved overhead. It made me think of tyre-tracks in the desert, only no amount of wind will get rid of this evidence. If you’re here during flower season, this road is also very good for geophytes, so you really can’t go wrong.

 

Plan your trip

The 2013 flower season is already underway and it’s shaping up to be a bumper year, so get down to Nieuwoudtville if you can. If you can’t find a way to make it happen this time round, why not wait for the candelabras in April or for the quiver trees in May? Or just visit whenever you can – Nieuwoudtville is a special place regardless of the season.

More Information:
Niewoudtville Guided Tours
Niewoudtville Accommodation

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