The end of winter and the start of spring marks one of my favourite times of the year: it is flower season in the Western Cape, the Namaqualand and the Northern Cape. Mother Earth responds to good winter rains by carpeting vast areas of the countryside in bright, cheerful colours.
The West Coast National Park
In August and September every year, the otherwise restricted Postberg Flower Reserve inside the West Coast National Park on the shores of the Langebaan Lagoon is opened up to the public.
Our friends (L, V and little N) with whom we’ve done some lovely hikes lately (Constantia Nek to Kirstenbosch, Newlands Forest to Kirstenbosch, Silvermine River Walk and Jonkershoek Nature Reserve), were also very keen to see the flowers, so when Sunday morning dawned clear and blue (after days of unpredictable weather), we quickly decided to drop everything and head north.
The quickest way to the Park from Cape Town is to follow the coastal route: take the R27 northwards, past Table View, Melkbosstrand and Koeberg Nuclear Power Station (yes, South Africa’s one and only – thank goodness! – nuclear power station), and past the holiday resort of Grotto Bay and the fishing village of Yzerfontein.
Alternatively, you can follow the inland route: take the N7 northwards, past the turn-off to Philadelphia, turn left at Malmesbury, and head down to the coast via the delightful town of Darling, which is the route we took to reach the southern entrance to the West Coast National Park (the northern entrance is just outside the small town of Langebaan).
We showed our Wild Cards at the gate, and were pleased that these entitled us to free access to the park. In the flower season, entrance is R40 per person per day; outside flower season, I think it is R30 per person per day (you can find the tariffs here).
Can you see something unusual in this picture of the entrance to the park?
What was it?
If you can’t see it, have another look.
The answer will be revealed at the end of this post. (Go ahead and peek, if you can’t bear the tension!)
The park covers a fairly large area, surrounding the Langebaan Lagoon (you can download the official map here: Map of the WCNP)
We drove roughly northwards from the gate, until the road divides just south of the lagoon: The right branch goes past the Geelbek Visitors’ Centre and Restaurant (where you will also find bird hides right on the edge of the water) and up to the Langebaan Gate. The left branch takes you along the spit of land that separates the placid turquoise waters of the lagoon from the churning breakers of the Atlantic ocean. The northernmost section of this is the Postberg Reserve – with the area beyond it operated by the South African National Defence Force and thus out of bounds.
As entrance to the Postberg section is apparently limited to a certain number of visitors per day, we drove straight there.
Unfortunately, you are only allowed to leave your vehicle at the designated picnic sites and viewing points. As disappointing as this was, it is understandable: the park authorities don’t want hordes of people trampling over these vast fields of flowers. But for a photographer, this was reallllllly hard!
A tip: When you want to take a photograph from your vehicle, turn off the engine; otherwise, the vibration of the engine will cause a slight blurring, which is worsened if there is a brisk breeze (which there was during our visit).
Another tip: Make sure you not only have a wide angle lens to capture these amazing vistas, with fields of colourful flowers reaching to the horizon, but take along a telephoto lens too, if you have one, so that you can zoom in on any of the animals (look out for ostrich, bontebok, eland, zebra, wildebeest and Cape grysbok, in addition to whales and dolphins), who are bound to be well camouflaged quite some distance away from the few roads that are open to vehicles.
You can also use the telephoto lens to get close-up shots of the flowers, though you won’t be able to play with the angles much if you are limited to taking photos through the car windows or the open door!
I admit, being so confined was rather frustrating for me.
Another reason for driving fairly slowly in the park – apart from the fact that it gives you time to scan the surrounding shrubs and plains for well-camouflaged wildlife – is that you occasionally come across a tortoise. When you do, it is best to stop and to give it a chance to cross the road safely (in case it changes its mind and turns back…) – and to warn oncoming traffic or vehicles behind you, who might not have seen the little fella. We met one that had only three legs, but despite this impairment, it fairly motored across our path.
And occasionally, you may encounter something ominous slithering across the gravel…
There are a couple of hiking trails in the Reserve – shorter day ones, as well as two-day trails.
When you do go hiking, it is advisable to wear long sleeves (protection against insects, including ticks, which like to nest in the fynbos), as well as long pants and proper ankle-covering hiking boots – and to watch your step! Puffadders and Cape Cobras are common in this area, and you definitely do not want to step on one. Puffies like to lie all curled up in a sunny spot (such as in the middle of a narrow path through the fynbos and the strandveld), minding their own business (or lying in wait for unsuspecting hikers…?). Because they are so extremely well camouflaged, you may not see them until you are very close. A good reason not to go hiking on your own, I think!
Picnic at Postberg
There are a couple of viewing sites and picnic spots where you are allowed to climb out of the car. We made our way to a large rocky outcrop, from where we had a lovely view of the Langebaan lagoon towards the east. A cluster of flat rocks made the perfect picnic spot, and it was also fairly sheltered from the wind. And Little N had her first experience of the wonders of the Cape Wildflower Season!
The island you can see on the left is Schaapen Island, a bird sanctuary that hosts the largest colony of Kelp birds. It is also a Ramsar site (named after the Ramsar Convention):
“The Ramsar Convention (The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat) is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands, i.e., to stem the progressive encroachment on and loss of wetlands now and in the future, recognising the fundamental ecological functions of wetlands and their economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value. It is named after the town of Ramsar in Iran.” (Wikipedia)
Inbetween munching fresh bread rolls with generous helpings of a truly superlative salad and sipping cups of hot tea, I scampered around our picnic site, getting up close and personal to an array of pretty flowers. I’ve included a selection for you in the slideshow.
Eventually, the time came to pack up our goodies and head back to the car for the return trip. Coming down from the rocky outcrop, we saw vast open areas, carpeted with flowers. Here and there, we could even see herds of zebra and bontebok and a couple of ostriches. You really need good eyesight for these, though – or binoculars and a good telephoto lens!
We stopped briefly at Tsaarsbank (I think), where the Atlantic Ocean breakers were fairly pounding the rocky shore, sending an impressive spray high into the sky!
Can you see the two youngsters on the rocks? Like kids across the world, they were really keen to get as close as possible to the Wild Ocean – mind you, from this angle, it looks more dangerous than it really was. Although they might’ve gotten a bit damp with the spray, it’s highly unlikely the waves could’ve swept them off the rocks.
Geelbek Visitors’ Centre
By now, with all this slow driving and stopping by the roadside to peer into the distance, we were starting to feel a little peckish again. An excellent reason to visit the Geelbek Visitors’ Centre and Restaurant! So that is what we did.
In not-so-nice weather, you can shelter inside the beautiful whitewashed building with the thatched roof; and when the sun is out, there are plenty of tables and chairs outside, either on the front lawns, or out the back, in the shade of some massive trees. The trees have been adopted by a twittering and tweeting and chirruping colony of weaver birds.
There was a splish-splashing water feature under the trees, where the birds cooled themselves off after all this hard work. They are so entertaining to watch!
If you are into birdwatching, and have a fair bit of time, you can also amble down to two bird hides, which are right on the lagoon. I’d think, bring a thermos of tea, a picnic, some cushions and get comfortable with a tripod and a powerful zoom lens. 😉
And if you have kids, there is a delightful playground at the back, with all kinds of obstacles on which the youngsters can test their balance and their agility (adult supervision is advisable, though). They are bound to have a great time, working off all the sugar from the scrumptious deserts!
We ordered an apple crumble with cream, and an unbaked cheesecake, both to share (have to watch those calories, you know… ;-)).
They were excellent, and I can definitely recommend this place.
An inspirational story
When we arrived at Geelbek, parked outside the centre was an interesting contraption that looked like an aluminium pushcart with four wheels, and dayglo-yellow flags mounted at each corner.
Curious, we investigated it more closely.
The description on the front of the cart was ‘Ten Million Steps for Cancer’, with a link to a website: http://www.tenmillionstepsforcancer.org.za/.
When I got home, I looked it up. The website tells the story of Joppie whose daughter Marlené died of a particularly aggressive form of bone cancer in July 2009:
“5 100 kilometres, 113 towns, approximately one year and Ten Million Steps for Cancer! A man, his love for his late daughter and those who are suffering from cancer, a customised hospital bed and about ten million steps.
This is the story of 50 year old Joppie Fourie from Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo, South Africa for 2011 and 2012. On Saturday 6 August 2011 Ten Million Steps for Cancer will start in honour of Joppie and his ex-wife’s daughter Marlené Fourie. 17 year old Marlené was born on 9 August 1991 and passed away on 5 July 2009 after suffering from a very aggressive and extremely painful type of bone cancer.”
On the top of the cart was mounted a map of South Africa, with a route marked out in green pen, with several dates printed onto it. This is what it looked like:
On 6 August 2011, this courageous man left Oudtshoorn on a year-long walk around our country; he hopes to have made it back home by 30 June 2012. During his walk, he will be raising funds for cancer support and research services, visiting oncology units, hospitals, mayors, cancer patients and cancer interim houses in a whole range of towns around the country, presenting motivational talks, and visiting community and national radio stations in various towns on his way.
Isn’t that amazing?
From the bottom of my heart, I wish him well. I hope he will have the strength, the courage, the energy, and all the support he needs to finish his walk on time. You can follow his blog here. I look forward to hearing more about this inspiring story!
* Now to solve the mystery: In the first picture, right at the top, showing the entrance to the park, the unusual element was the green stop sign. It’s rather counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Normally, after all, one associates Red with STOP! And Green with GO! Well, apparently not in the West Coast National Park. 🙂
And now, sit back, and enjoy the slideshow!