Drive hundreds of miles across the desert to look at flowers? Are you mad? Thousands of people do just that each year on South Africa's west coast. As the winter rains set in over the arid Karoo and Kalahari deserts, the dry grey scrub between Richtersveld in northern Namaqualand and Yzerfontein on the Cape West Coast bursts into the most extraordinary palette of vivid color. What once seemed lifeless reveals itself as one of the most crowded biodiversity hotspots on the planet. This 650-kilometer stretch is known as the Cape Flower Route.
When to Travel
There are spectacular sights throughout the year on the remote Cape West Coast and in the mountainous desert of the Richtersveld, but if you want to see the annual super-bloom, you'll have to time your trip carefully. The exact dates are determined by the amount of winter rainfall, but usually the wildflowers start to appear in the far north around the end of July. The bloom spreads slowly southwards, finally finishing around the end of September.
If you find yourself in the right place at the right time, you can expect to see millions of flowers carpeting the land in a riot of orange, pink, purple, yellow and white. With around 6,000 species of flowering plant clamoring for space on this desert stage, the phenomenon is never the same from year to year. Locals take the Cape Flower Route so seriously that a hotline is set up in season to keep people up to date with where the best blooms can be found.
Driving the Cape Flower Route
One of the easiest ways to ensure that you catch the flowers in bloom is to hire a car and drive the length of the Cape Flower Route. The drive from Yzerfontein to Richtersveld National Park takes approximately 7.5 hours, but it's well worth making a multi-day adventure out of it by taking detours along the way. After all, South Africa's west coast is a trove of little-known treasures, from out-of-the-way wineries to quaint fishing villages and breathtaking Cedarberg Mountain viewpoints. You won't need a 4x4, but a lot of the driving is on gravel roads so be prepared to take it slow.
Most of the desert flowers that feature in this annual spectacular are heliotropic, meaning that they follow the sun. As a result, they are best viewed heading south between 11am and 4pm - so there's no need to get up early. Try to save your flower-spotting for a fine day when the blooms are fully open and the colors are at their most vivid. If you don't want to hire a car, many local botanists offer guided tours into the route's parks and reserves. There are cycle and hiking routes to explore within the parks; and if you're really pushed for time, you can see examples of the route's best blooms in Cape Town's Kirstenbosch Gardens.
The Northern Route
The northern half of the Cape Flower Route centers around Namaqualand, a remote area of the Northern Cape known as South Africa's outback. The region is home to 6,000 plant species, 250 species of bird and 78 species of mammal. 40% of these species are endemic, meaning that they exist nowhere else on Earth. In pride of place is the splashy Namaqualand daisy (Dimorphotheca sinuata), but there are many other bright blooms to look out for, from gladioli to strelizia and freesias.
Start your adventure at the provincial capital of Springbok with a visit to Goegap Nature Reserve, located 15 kilometers southeast of the town center. Here, flower-watching focuses on the Hester Malan Wild Flower Garden, where it is possible to do guided tours in an open truck through a landscape twisted by granite outcrops and populated by flowering cacti.
A little further south is the extraordinary Namaqua National Park. Within the park lies the Skilpad Wildflower Reserve, which has some of the highest rainfall in the region and lays on mind-blowing displays of flowers as a result. Skilpad means tortoise and the reserve is also home to the world's smallest tortoise species, the Namaqua speckled padloper. There is limited self-catering accommodation within the park itself, and plenty of small guesthouses and B&Bs in the surrounding towns of Garies, Kamieskroon, Port Nolloth and Pofadder.
Continuing south to Nieuwoudtville past the Quiver Tree Forest, there are a host of possible flower-spotting sites including the Hantam Botanical Garden, the Nieuwoudtville Flower Reserve and the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve. A number of local farms open their doors to visitors in farm season offering walking tours and 4x4 safaris that give you a real taste of outback life.
The Southern Route
Back in the Western Cape, Clanwilliam marks the gateway to both the Cederberg Mountains and the West Coast National Park. You have a choice of routes through to Langebaan on the Atlantic Coast or through the mountains, with their magnificent hikes and San rock art. If you have time, do both.
The nearest section of the route to Cape Town is located near Postberg, part of the West Coast National Park. Here antelope such as bontebok and hartebeest frolic amongst the blooms while the Langebaan lagoon adds majesty to the coast. From here, it's little more than an hour's drive back to the city center.
This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on June 7th 2018.