The Knersvlakte, about a three-hour drive north of Cape Town, is a particularly fascinating portion of that well-known biodiversity hotspot, the Succulent Karoo. Sprawling roughly between the towns of Vanrhynsdorp and Bitterfontein, the Knersvlakte’s characteristic white quartzite gravel conceals plants with an indomitable instinct for survival.

Did you know?

There are dwarf mesembryanthemums in the Knersvlakte that only open their seed capsules when raindrops fall on them.

If you drove through the area known as the Knersvlakte without being told, you’d cast a bored look across the white quartz-strewn plains and think there was nothing there.

However, it is a world of miniature succulent plants, sheltered from the worst of the summer heat (from December to February) by the reflective quartz gravel.

This botanical treasure is sprawled between the towns of Vanrhynsdorp and Bitterfontein, about a three-hour drive from Cape Town.

It falls within the Succulent Karoo region, considered one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world.

Knersvlakte (pronounced k-naers-fluk-teh) means gnashing, or grinding, plains. Opinion is divided about whether this refers to the difficulty of crossing the plains in an ox wagon (and the attendant gnashing or gritting of teeth), or the crunching noise made by iron wheels on quartzite gravel. These are just two theories about how this inhospitable place got its name.

Here you will find plants with names as cute as they look: baby bums, donkey ears, little buttons, fingers-and-thumbs.

Some look like tiny green marbles, others like flowering pebbles. Others emerge above the soil only during the temperate spring and retreat back into the soil, almost invisible, when the summer heat arrives.

Experts say these plants are extremely vulnerable to climate change and a number of strategies are being explored to safeguard them.

Not surprisingly, a large section of this botanically rich area is on the verge of being proclaimed a nature reserve by CapeNature. A conservation manager, based in Vanrhynsdorp, is available to give information on the area.

There is also a community-owned reserve, called Ratelgat, where you can stay. Here you can experience Griqua culture, history and food. You can stay in a traditional matjieshuis (a cosy shelter made of branches and woven reed mats) or in chalets.

However, if you have no time to take the drive north from Cape Town, you can also see a Knersvlakte section in the conservatory at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, or at the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden outside the town of Worcester.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Ratelgat 
Tel: +27 (0)27 213 5472
Email: ratelgat@trusc.co.za

How to get here

The Knersvlakte starts just north of the town of Vanrhynsdorp, three hours’ drive along the N7 north of Cape Town. Here you can obtain information on the region. If you’re headed to Ratelgat, its entrance is off the N7, 35km north of Vanrhynsdorp.

Best time to visit

Spring flowers, depending on the winter rains, come early to this region. It is at its best between the end of July and the end of September.

Tours to do

Enquire at the numbers below for guided tours. If you’re staying at Ratelgat, you can go on guided walks among the plants to rocky overhangs with San (Bushman) art.

What will it cost

The quartzite plains at the side of the road are, obviously, free. Should you want to stay at the Ratelgat Griqua community reserve, you will pay R95 per person to stay in a matjieshuis, or R270 to stay in a two-bedroomed chalet. A four-bedroomed chalet costs R720 per night. A four-bed rondavel costs R300 a night. However, it is currently closed for upgrading following floods in the area.

Length of stay

Whether you’re staying in Vanrhynsdorp or the Ratelgat Griqua community reserve, it’s best to stay at least two nights.

Where to stay

Vanrhynsdorp has many guest houses, or you could stay at Ratelgat, within the Knersvlakte (although floods have closed the facility temporarily).

What to eat

If you large group staying at Ratelgat, you can order traditional South African food, like barbecue, potjiekos (a stew made in a three-legged pot), maize or even offal.

Best buys

It’s strictly forbidden to take plants from the wild, but if you fall in love with them, there are two nurseries where you can legally purchase Knersvlakte succulents – one in the town of Vanrhynsdorp, and the other close by, along the N7 road. Check to make sure the laws in your country do not forbid the importing of plants.