SPRING is a magical time of year along South Africa’s pristine Cape West Coast when the fields and roadsides come to life with wildflowers.
White rain daisies herald the start of spring.
Once the sun shines there is soon a carpet of flowers – tiny yellow button daisies, blue flax, pink nemesias, paraxis, lechenalia and babiana.
From late July until late October thousands of visitors from around the world descend on this beautiful pocket of South Africa to see what has been dubbed one of the greatest flower shows on Earth. The most remarkable displays are in the West Coast National Park and we join a long line of cars waiting to get into the park.
There are 80 species of flowering plants here found nowhere else in the world and although, once inside the park, there are signs politely asking you to stay in your car, many can’t resist getting out for a closer look.
However, there’s more than flowers to see. The park is also wetlands of national importance for birds.
More than a quarter of Africa’s birds can be seen here and the park supports up to 55,000 water birds in summer, including the beautiful flamingo.
We dine at the Geelbek Restaurant housed in a historic Cape Dutch building near the Langebaan lagoon. Geelbek has a reputation for fine, yet traditional, West Coast dining, and all recipes – some more than 300 years old – are rooted in South African heritage.
After enjoying food infused with ingredients such as tamarind, cardamom, sour fig, caraway, aniseed, honeybush and cinnamon, we wander to the bird hide to watch flocks of pink flamingos elegantly pick their way across the lagoon.
Cape West Coast is one of the least-known areas of South Africa (at least among international tourists) but that only adds to its charm.
The best way to see the area is to hire a car and driver. Our small group is travelling in a minivan with tour guide Kevin Burns who has been engaged by Hylton Ross Touring.
Kevin proves a delightful companion on our two-day journey. His previous job, as a security guard to visiting dignitaries, meant he always had to be poker-faced while on duty. “Now I can smile all day long. I love it!”
Because this area has such a great reputation for food and wine, many of our stops include sampling the local produce.
We visit Het Vlock Casteel (castle) in the fertile Riebeek Valley for a session of wine, olive and jam tasting. Here Ansie Vlok makes everything by hand, constantly revising and introducing new products and flavours including intriguing flavours such as the (non-poisonous) nightshade jam.
The valley’s Mediterranean type climate, with long hot summers and short cold winters, has attracted many artists, winemakers and gourmet chefs.
The quaint villages of Riebeek Kasteel and Riebeek West lie at the foot of the Kasteelberg Mountain.
We stop at Mama Cucina, an Italian inspired restaurant in the pretty village of Riebeek Kasteel, with a blackboard menu offering delicacies such as fresh mussels and slow roasted pulled springbok.
A visit to nearby Riebeek Cellars to sample some choice wine precedes a stop at craft brewery Flagship Brew to enjoy a paddle of its four signature beverages. The new brewery is fast attracting a following among craft beer enthusiasts from Cape Town and further afield.
That night we stay in the small township of Hopefield in an 1880s restored guesthouse known as The Merry Widow Retreat.
Hopefield’s position in the heart of West Coast Fynbos Country, with easy access to spectacular displays of wild spring flowers, makes it popular with visitors from Cape Town, 135km away.
Dining options are limited but The Merry Widow’s owner Ulrich, a third generation South African, cooks us up a generous meal of free range chicken with sides of three bean salad, small bell peppers and cucumber pickle followed by wild watermelon. The breakfast next morning is even better.
Next door is the town’s original flour mill, now home to a weekly Saturday market known as the Mill Country Fair. People with surplus produce from their farms and gardens bring it there to sell. You’ll find everything from freshly baked bread to preserves, vegetables and olives, and two women are kept busy cooking and serving crepes.
Close by is Simply Bee, a family-owned business where you can learn everything about the life cycle of honey bees and buy a range of beeswax, honey and propolis products.
Our final stop is to the !Khwa ttu San Culture and Education Centre, a centre of San culture and heritage. The San are South Africa’s first people, and this tourism and training project enables the San people to learn about and showcase to others, their culture and heritage.
Swiss anthropologist Irene Staehelin bought the farm that became !Khwa ttu. Today you can take one-hour tours that provide a fascinating insight into the culture, heritage, knowledge, skills and contemporary life of the San and stay overnight on the property.
If you go...
- West Coast National Park: www.sanparks.org/parks/west_coast
* Sue Preston was a guest of the Cape Town and Western Cape Convention Bureau and travelled to South Africa with the assistance of South African Tourism and Qantas.