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Nieuwoudtville, South Africa CNN —
For most of the year, the vast and rugged terrain of the Namaqualand region of the Karoo, South Africa, is desolate and dry. Few travelers venture this far, deterred by the long distances and because most prefer to explore the country’s greener, more scenically dramatic regions.
But after the winter rains have fallen and soaked the soil, colorful daisies, scented arums, bright bonnets, aloes, herbs and countless other varieties of flowers transform the once lifeless landscape into a breathtaking wonderland.
Nieuwoudtville, on the southeastern edge of Namaqualand, forms part of the grand spectacle that draws in flower enthusiasts worldwide. While flowers bloom throughout the year, the pinnacle of the flower showcase begins in early August and mid-September, when the famous spring flowers come into bloom, and the area is enlivened by the displays of thousands of colors.
Pronounced knee-vote-ville, this charming town, founded in 1897 on a piece of land bought by a farmer named Nieuwoudt, also has a reputation for being the “bulb capital of the world.” It was one of the few parts of the Northern Cape to receive reliable rains and has since become part of the Namaqualand flower tour.
Last year, its air quality stood out as a beacon of freshness, making it into the 2022 World Air Quality Report as one of the least polluted areas across Africa.
“Visiting Nieuwoudtville literally is a bucket list experience,” says Craig Taljaardt, tour guide and owner of Capey Tours, who has witnessed the wonder this region inspires in visitors for nine years.
“And its people are the salt of the Earth,” he adds.
The tranquil farming town has seen a migration boom in recent years, with city dwellers seeking a respite from the urban hustle and bustle. “It’s not just retirees moving to Nieuwoudtville, but young families too,” says Mandie Kotzé, chairwoman of Nieuwoudtville’s Info and Tourism Office, adding that she and her husband made a move to the town 16 years ago and haven’t looked back since.
According to Nieuwoudtville’s tourism website, run by Kotzé, there are some areas where up to 25,000 bulbs grow in one square meter of soil. The diversity of geophytes (bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes) – plants that store water and nutrients seasonally – is partly explained by the diverse geology, which gives rise to many different soil types suitable for varying plant and flower species.
The natural floral displays extend to Hantam National Botanical Gardens, the ninth official botanical garden in South Africa. The biodiversity treasure attracted British naturalist David Attenborough in the 90s (when it was still a farm), who returned to photograph the area during the dry season with his team. According to Kotzé, during one peak season, CCTV footage captured nearly 800 tour buses, packed with tourists, entering the vast 6-300-hectare garden to witness the wildflower bonanza.
Once a year the barren desert around Nieuwoudtville erupts with a superbloom of flowers.
Research from the University of the Witwatersrand in 2022 revealed that climate change is adversely altering the timing of the celebrated Namaqualand daisies’ blooming season, jeopardizing tourism and the very survival of these celebrated wildflowers.
“The annual Namaqualand daisy flowering spectacle is a world-renowned environmental event,” the researchers wrote. “The advances in the timing of Namaqualand daisy flowering will have a significant impact on the tourism sector in the region, as flower viewing tours need to be pre-arranged months in advance.”
But there are opportunities for improvements: co-author Jennifer Fitchett, a professor of physical geography, explains that intervention measures, such as data-driven research, could effectively combat this problem. “I presented this work to SANParks [South Africa National Parks] last year, and they were very interested in integrating these findings into their monitoring programs,” she says.
Quiver tree forest
Nieuwoudtville is home to the southern hemisphere's largest Quiver tree forest.
If you continue north and reach the sign for Gannabos (about 12 miles from Niewoudtville), locals and visitors recommend turning right and driving on a gravel road until you encounter the Quiver Tree Forest – the largest in the southern hemisphere.
Here you’ll find a remarkable colony of tree aloe (Aloidendron dichotomum), known as kokerbooms or quiver trees.
These peculiarly shaped aloes, which grow over eight meters (up to 29 feet) high, got their name because their hollow branches were used as quivers for holding arrows by San and Khoi-Khoi hunters. They are protected plants, and cost a pretty penny at nurseries, says Jade Leon, who’s previously experienced the wildflower season. “Yet they grow so naturally there. Every hill is covered with the quiver trees.”
Kokerbooms can live up to 400 years and come in various shapes and sizes. In Nieuwoudtville, the forest is privately owned by a farmer and his wife. They don’t mind visitors and charge a small entrance fee in exchange for a guided route tour.
Waterfall in the wilderness
The Nieuwoudtville Waterfall appears after heavy rains.
With enough winter rains, there is another natural wonder in town: the Nieuwoudtville Waterfall, located around four miles north of the village, on the R357 (Loeriesfontein Road). Measuring 90 meters (295 feet), the waterfall cascades down the Doring River, leaving visitors with a “spectacular sight,” says Ian Renecle, owner of African Moon Adventures. “People don’t believe there’s actually a waterfall of that size in the area.”
To round out your day, stop by Blou Huis in Voortrekker Street, a fully licensed restaurant and hangout spot offering self-catering accommodation and live Afrikaans music. “Nieuwoudtville has also been nominated as Town of the Year, a competition currently being run by the weekly Afrikaans magazine show kykNET Kwêla,” Johan Kotze, owner of Blou Huis, says proudly.
A few miles from Blou Huis, you’ll spot the neo-gothic Dutch Reformed Church on Kerk Street. Built in 1906, just after the devastating Boer War, the church is made entirely from Table Mountain sandstone and is one of the last remaining churches in South Africa built with this material.
Following the scent to the nearby market offers a chance to try its famous pancakes. While some recipes skimp on ingredients, the creators of this tasty treat remain loyal to a costly recipe guaranteed to please palates, says Kotzé.
Where to stay
Starwors is a 'Star Wars'-themed campsite near Nieuwoudtville.
Visitors should secure their accommodation well ahead of time as every available room for miles around is snapped up during peak season. Options range from cozy B&Bs and self-catering units converted from old sandstone homes to rustic guest houses tucked away on local farms and campsites within town limits.
Die-hard “Star Wars” enthusiasts will be delighted to discover the extraordinary glamping destination, Starwors Village. The campsite is steeped in the iconic themes and characters of the series, from Darth Vader to Yoda and Jar Jar Binks. “It’s a very underrated campsite, and it’s on our accommodation wishlist for our next trip,” says Leon.
Earlier this year, Selma and Andre Ohlsson visited the campsite and found it particularly unique. “Interesting artwork is scattered throughout the terrain, and it feels like you’ve stepped into a movie set.”
If accommodation in town is fully booked, surrounding regions also boast a range of inviting options, including the highly sought-after Letsatsi Lodge in Vanrhynsdorp – the gateway to Nieuwoudtville. According to tour guide Craig Taljaardt, accommodation at this lodge must be booked several months in advance to secure a spot.
As you make your way past Vanrhyns Pass, a marvel constructed by the legendary road builder Thomas Bain in 1880, visitors strongly suggest you take in the breathtaking views of the rugged plains below.
“The views blew me away as we ascended Vanrhyns Pass, and … made me realize how amazing South Africa is and how many ‘hidden gems’ there are,” says Arzelle van der Merwe, who toured Nieuwoudtville in 2019. Jade adds that the view from the top offers an aerial-like perspective akin to that seen from an airplane window, a rare opportunity that ought to be cherished.
Through the flowers
The flowers are not for picking.
For many, organized tours are the best way to access Nieuwoudtville and its flowers. But if you’re traveling privately, call the West Coast’s flower hotline at (+27) 79 741 0113. This little tip will provide information on the latest blooms and their whereabouts, allowing visitors to confidently embark on their floral odyssey.
Nieuwoudtville, is no stranger to the whims of nature. Just a few years ago, the town weathered a severe drought. Fortunately, the return of the rainy winters has relieved locals of their weather woes. “In fact,” says Taljaardt, “locals proclaimed 2021 as the best season in 30 years,” and while last year wasn’t too far behind, it was still exceptional in its own right.
Still, it’s best to do research – find out when the winter rains fell – and plan a trip so that it coincides with when the flowers are in their full glory.
Visitors can step out of their vehicles and explore the fields on foot but must avoid picking any flowers. “There are many thousands of people who come after you, so it’s important that you preserve it,” says Taljaardt. “There’s a saying in tourism: ‘Once you’ve been to a place, leave no trace.’”
Those that time their visit just right and witness the gorgeous carpet of pastel hues, will be thrilled they did, says Van der Merwe.
“There is something surreal about it. You can’t quite believe that this arid earth can produce something so magnificent.”