After taking a few days to acclimate to the seasonal and time difference in South Africa, a trip was promptly planned to begin to explore. Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden (SUBG) Curator, Martin Smit and I decided to start the adventure by heading north to the region known as Namaqualand. Namaqualand is a general term that refers to a region that spans the majority of the South Africa’s northwest coast and extends eastward. The bioregion experiences winter rainfall and hot dry summer conditions, and the plant communities are dominated by families that have evolved with succulent and CAM adaptations. It is also the region that has made South Africa famous for the seasonal mass flowering events that occur. In fact, Hans Herre, SUBG’s first curator, is acknowledged for producing some of the first color photographs of Namaqualand and sending them to Europe, which ever since has brought the majesty of this biological event to the world. These mass flowering events are highly dependent on high winter rainfall, and in some years the display can be short lived or non-existent. Once the mass blooms have started to occur, optimal conditions can last only a few days if cool weather is present or rapidly decline if a warm front moves. We had heard from field reports that this year was exceptionally good so we decided to head north to see the show.
Driving North out of Stellenbosch, we experienced a great number of differing landscapes. Stellenbosch itself is known to be in the heart of South Africa’s wine region. This is a major component of the horticultural industry as well as for tourism. In South Africa, the season is still considered to be winter with temperatures dropping to as low 70C (450F) and mixed light to torrential rainfall. Many vineyards operate tourist attractions year round with tasting rooms, tours, restaurants and guest houses. One particularly interesting practice in viticulture is the practice of not trellising grapes and allowing them to grow sprawling on the ground. Commonly referred to as “bush vines” it is thought to improve the grape quality for wine and add an extra element of interest to the final product.
On the route we took north we crossed three distinct geologic regions featuring differing low mountains chains. South Africa features a great number of gradients including topography, aspect, elevation, rainfall and geology which has created differing pedogenesis and soil formation processes. These gradients create highly unique areas and undoubtedly play a driving force in the vast array of speciation events that have occurred with the flora.
As we drove across these deserts, the diversity of plants would become apparent when we jumped out of the car to have a look around. What would first appear as areas devoid of life would spring into life as you adjusted to observing the plants on a finer scale. Suddenly the landscape was alive with bulbs, succulents and geophytes.
We made it to the sleepy town of Nieuwoudtville by about mid-day and were greeted with a true back country South African town. Niewoudtville has a single dirt road that consists of its main street, three restaurants, a meat pie shop, an ATM and convenience store. The town subsists on the vast farms that surround the community and from the seasonal tourists who drive across the country to witness the seasonal blooms.