Every year, thousands of nature pilgrims make the trek to Namaqua National Park in a remote corner of South Africa in the Northern Cape. They come to witness the spectacular wildflower display as brightly coloured daisies and flowering bulbs transform empty fields into wild gardens the envy of every horticulturalist.
But I’m not here for Namaqualand’s flowers. Wild Card in hand, I’m in search of something even scarcer and more elusive. I’m on a quest for quiet.
At 141 000ha, Namaqua is the fifth-biggest national park after Kgalagadi, Kruger, Addo and the Richtersveld. It safeguards not only the richest bulb flora of any arid region in the world, but is also home to the only intact moving dune system in South Africa. Along the coast, the park stretches between the Groen and Spoeg rivers, conserving marine life, coastal duneveld and caves where South Africa’s earliest shepherds kept their flocks some 2 000 years ago.
Flower weather is notoriously fickle, so it’s good to know that your trip holds much promise even when the skies are overcast or wind squalls are spiteful. The park is vast and still in the development stage, which means that aside from the offices at Skilpad, near Kamieskroon, and the satellite reception at Groen River Mouth by the coast, the land is given over to nature. There are dirt roads that wind through the park, but no roadside shops or bustling activity centres. I’d heard you could drive all day and not see another person. To me it sounded like bliss.
After checking in at Skilpad, I head to Die Dak van Namakwaland, the Roof of Namaqua, a huge granite boulder that offers a 360-degree view of the countryside. I look out over the gentle folds of the land, all dusky browns and greys, and listen. It’s absolutely peaceful. Then, 'Baa! Baa!' A small flock of sheep wanders into view. During summer and autumn these domesticated animals are put into the park’s fields to trample the ground in preparation for the rains.
As tourism officer Elanza van Lente explains to me the next day, the famous Namaqua daisies bloom in earth disturbed by humans or animals. In fact, the University of Pretoria has conducted research in the park to determine whether grazing by livestock or ploughing is more effective. The result? Sheep and goats work the best. It’s hoped that one day the park’s antelope will take over this gardening duty.
I’m delighted when I see where I will be spending the night: my chalet is one of four, each set far enough apart that you’re not aware of your neighbour. Since this arid area can grow bitterly cold at night, there’s an inside braai and a spacious enclosed stoep (verandah), though the large windows can be stacked away to let the view in. The chalets are situated on a ridge and look out over rolling hills that fade into the distance. Like the most delicate of watercolours, each slope is a softer shade than the one before, until the very last dissolves into a haze formed by the mist of the sun-baked earth encountering the frigid Atlantic Ocean. The setting sun turns the pale greens of the hills apricot and ochre. A deep hush falls on the land and I find myself whispering to my companion, as if in a church or library. This may be the quietest place I’ve ever been.
Namaqua’s tranquillity is what draws visitors from all around the world. Elanza tells me guests sometimes stay put at their chalet for days, simply reading or drinking in the view, the serenity a bigger draw than the promise of game sightings. I’m tempted to do the same, but the park’s coastal section beckons.
Apparently this is where connoisseurs of solitude go to grow quiet. Dotted along the coast are campsites that front on to picture-pretty bays with charming names: Koringkorrelbaai, Skuinsklip, Bamboeskamp. Some of the sites have only two stands, so you can easily book both and have the sea air and silence all to yourself. One of the reasons the Groen-Spoeg area has a secluded feel is that you need a 4x4 or a high-clearance vehicle and a good deal of patience.
There’s no electricity, no cellphone reception and no crowds. It’s a destination for people who are self-sufficient, who know to pack enough wood and water, and who are happiest in their own company. 'One regular told me it’s the only place they can truly relax,' says Mariaan Schreuder, the tourism officer for the coastal section. Her infectious enthusiasm for the area soon has me itching to explore. 'Every time we go for a walk we discover something new,' she says.
Shards of ostrich shell hint at a Bushman burial site. A large mushroom on a dune, its dark spores dusting the sand around it. In flower season, an abundance of vygies (daises) in the most flamboyant colours imaginable. I hope to make my own discoveries as we set off on the Heaviside Dolphin Trail, a new walk that follows the shoreline for 6.5km. At Abjoel, a boardwalk and steps lead down to the beach, protecting the vegetation on the dunes.
The brand-new boardwalks and lookout points along the trail have been constructed by Working for the Coast, a project providing employment to local people. If you’re lucky you’ll see Heaviside dolphins playing in the water, or perhaps a seal from the nearby colony hunting in the surf. In winter, humpback and southern right whales can be spotted. Although I keep an eye on the sea, there’s no sign of marine mammals, only the waves spending themselves on the boulders. A pair of black oystercatchers poses on a rocky platform, while kelp gulls soar overhead. My companion and I are the only people here, our footprints the only ones in the sand. The pristine white beach stretches north as far as I can see. I sit down on a rock and close my eyes, my ears pricking. I can hear it clearly now: the sound of utter quiet – a profound peace I will carry with me when I go back to town.
I can hear it clearly now: the sound of utter quiet – a profound peace I will carry with me when I go back to town.
Weather: Winter rains fall between June and August. Flowers can appear as early as July and last into September. Winters are mild by day, cold at night, while summers can be very hot.
Accommodation: Chalets: R490 base rate for one to two people in low season, R705 in high season (1 July to 31 October). R186 an additional adult, R93 an additional child. Campsites: R75 or R105 base rate for one to six people depending on the site.
Heaviside Dolphin Trail: Get directions for the walk from the Groen River Mouth office. The trail is 6.5km along the beach one way. Time your walk for low tide so you walk on firm sand and can look at the rockpools. Return the same way or follow the jeep track back. In flower season you’ll be ideally placed to see the blooms. Take along sunscreen and a warm top as there is always a cooling sea breeze. There is no charge for hiking the trail aside from daily conservation fees; Wild Card members get free entry.
Namaqua National Park lies 495km north of Cape Town along the N7 to Namibia. Turn off at Kamieskroon. Skilpad reception is another 20km on a good dirt road. The coastal section is approached through Garies. It’s 70km on a rougher dirt track to the park entrance at Groen River Mouth.
Contact the Namaqua National Park directly on +27( 0)27 672 1948, or call SANParks's central reservations on +27 (0)12 428 9111.
* The Wild Card is the most economical way to explore South Africa's wild places. The card allows visitors a year's free access into 80+ game parks and reserves – no need to pay the daily conservation fee. For more information, please go to the SANParks website or the Wild Card
- Magriet Kruger is the deputy editor of Wild, the Wild Card magazine