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, the dry grey scrub bursts into the most extraordinary palette of vivid colour. What had seemed lifeless reveals itself as one of the most crowded biodiversity hotspots on the planet.
There are spectacular sights throughout the year, in the Namaqua National Park and mountainous desert of the Richtersveld, but the fun really starts in July and August and lasts through to October - if there are good rains. Millions of flowers burst into bloom and carpet the land for hundreds of miles in fluorescent orange, pink, purple, yellow and white. It is a natural festival of colour that is one of the finest shows on the planet. With almost 4,000 species of flowering plant clamouring for space on stage, it is never the same from year to year.
How to do the Flower Route
It is possible to get an idea of this psychedelic array on a day trip from Cape Town, or even, if you are really short of time, on a trip to the Kirstenbosch Gardens. But to see it in its full glory involves heading way up the coast into the back of beyond. You also see different flowers in the different areas. Allow about 5 hours' drive from Cape Town to reach Namaqualand and the northern end of the route. You won't need a 4x4 but a lot of the driving is on gravel roads, so you can't take it too fast.
The 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. There are guided tours, but it is perfectly easy to hire a car and self-drive. You can do guided tours with a botanist locally if you choose to do so.
There are also cycle and hiking routes within the parks and if you get fed up with flowers, there are plenty of other entertainments such as whale-watching along the coast, and looking at San (Bushman) rock art in the Cederberg mountains.
Most of the desert flowers in this annual spectacular are heliotropic - they follow the sun. The best way to see them is to head north as fast as possible and then drive back slowly, doing your flower-spotting on the way south. They are at their best between 11am and 4pm, so don't get up early as the flowers won't. Nor will they bother to open on rainy days. Wait for the sun to shine.
Namaqualand, in the Northern Cape, has an astounding 6 000 plant species, 250 species of birds, 78 species of mammals, 132 species of reptiles and amphibians. Noone has counted the insects. Forty percent of the species found here are endemic - they exist nowhere else on Earth. In pride of place is the splashy Namaqualand daisy (Dimorphotheca sinuata), but there are many many other bright flowers from gladioli to strelizia and freesias, bulbs that are common in our gardens round the world.
Start at the provincial capital Springbok. The rocky Goegap Nature Reserve lies 15km (9 miles) southeast of town. Here, flower-watching is centered on the Hester Malan Wild Flower Garden (tel: +27 (0)27 718 9906) where it is possible to do guided tours in an open lorry through a landscape twisted by granite outcrops and populated by flowering cacti.
A little further south is the extraordinary 103 000 ha (398 sq mile) Namaqua National Park (Tel 027 672 1948) where the Skilpad Wildflower Reserve (near Kamieskroon) has some of the highest rainfall in the region and lays on mind-blowing displays of flowers as a result. Skilpad means tortoise and this is also home to the world's smallest tortoise.
There is only extremely limited self-catering accommodation within the park itself, but there are plenty of small guesthouses and b&bs in the surrounding small towns of Garies, Kamieskroon, Port Nolloth and Pofadder. To find them, look on www.namaqualand.com and www.northerncape.org.za.
Continuing south to Nieuwoudtville, past the Quiver Tree Forest, there are a host of possible 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 get you a real taste of 'outback' life.
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 at Postberg, part of the West Coast National Park,. Here antelope such as bontebok and hartebeest frolic amongst the blossoms while the Langebaan lagoon adds majesty to the coast. From here, it's little more than an hour's drive back to the city centre.
Flower line: 083-910 1028 (June-October).