Spring in Namaqualand brings the kind of miracle for which time-lapse photography was invented. After the brief winter rains, mile after mile of barren-looking semi-desert is transformed, within days, into a sea of flowers – a dazzling display that sends butterflies, bees and long-tongued flies into a frenzy.
Namaqualand, a thirsty, rocky region encompassing South Africa’s northwestern corner and Namibia’s extreme south, supports over 4000 wild floral species, a quarter of them endemic. It’s this diversity that gives the annual display so much charm. The key lies below the surface: seeds and bulbs can lie dormant through many years of drought, and when conditions suddenly improve, the plants grow roots of differing length, so numerous species can exploit relatively small stretches of terrain.
The least showy of the plants are the succulents, some shaped like fingers, others (such as lithops) like pebbles. These cling to life on the ground, where the colour of the gravel can mean the difference between extinction and survival – a few chips of white quartz may be sufficient to lower the local air temperature by a degree or so, just enough for a plant to cope.
Intriguing though the succulents are, it’s the colourful blooms that draw the crowds. Visit on a sunny day in a good year and you’ll see meadow after meadow sprinkled with aloes and lilies, daisies and gladioli, purple ruschias, golden ursinias and gaudy vermilion gazanias, as bright as hundreds and thousands on a fairy cake.