By Tom Cohen
South Africa – Not much happens in this mountain town built around the rusting hulk of an abandoned copper mine in South Africa’s parched northwest. Folks mostly talk about the past, an era of mine barons and runaway outlaws that made the region the closest thing to America’s Wild West. Then times changed and copper prices collapsed, leaving Okiep as just another lonely backwater with few links to the old days.
Except for the flowers.
In one of the world’s great natural spectacles, the surrounding countryside of the Namaqualand region blooms in a psychedelic fantasy of teeming colours each spring (corresponding to fall in the Northern Hemisphere). Entire valleys become a fertile rainbow, resembling tinted clouds from a distance. Flowers line the roadsides, fill the fields and sprinkle between the tough shrubs and bushes of a semi desert environment that gets only eight inches of rain a year. "That’s Mother Nature at her best," drawls Altus Mostert, proprietor of the Okiep Country Hotel. "You can’t explain it and you never try to explain it . . . . You just stand in awe." No one here knows exactly why it happens amid the dusty granite hills of the arid Namaqualand.
Named for the Nama people, the territory boasts spectacular rocky vistas set against the deep blue African sky. In flower season, which usually runs through most of August and September, hues from tangerine to purple to scarlet tinge the landscape. Ursinia and Dimorphotheca, a prolific local daisy, blaze orange across entire fields, set off by the purple of the lilac Senecio arenarius. The Colpias, a small, bell-shaped flower, imparts a fluorescent yellow glow.Guillaume Theron, a retired professor from the University of Pretoria, says most of the best flower areas are former farm fields, where ploughing and overgrazing removed gnarly shrubs and aloes.
With the flowers come tourists by the thousands, mainly South Africans making annual pilgrimages. Germans visiting their country’s former colony just 60 miles to the north, now known as Namibia, also drop down regularly, and now other Europeans are coming. Locals of the region, about 300 miles north of Cape Town and 720 miles southwest of Johannesburg (Gauteng), have taken notice.
Jopie Kotze, who runs the Springbok Lodge in the town of Springbok down the road from Okiep, says Namaqualand could be a year-round tourist destination. He cites its history as a mining center and a Boer War site and its proximity to coastal diamond mining about 35 miles to the west. But attracting more visitors would require more paved roads and other development, like the 20-inch pipe that brings water down from the Orange River at the Namibian border.
There is no lack of local lore. Back at the Okiep Country Hotel, where a portly bull terrier named Regina Victoria lies legs up by the fire, Mostert gladly recounts tales of times gone by. "The stories that used to go with the diamond smuggling are quite amazing," he begins, telling of his grandfather who swallowed diamonds to smuggle them and got a "tight stomach" or constipation for his troubles. Homing pigeons also were used to fly diamonds out, Mostert says. "My father still runs the shop my grandfather bought with diamonds."
For Kotze, the lure of Namaqualand includes a desert calm compared to the bustle and stresses of big cities. He chuckles while describing visitors from Johannesburg who panic when they see the locals leave cars unlocked. "In Namaqualand, people steal diamonds," he says. "They don’t need to steal cars." A ringing telephone interrupts him. Someone wants a room the following week, which Kotze confirms at 60 rand ($13.50) a night. Before he finishes his next sentence, the phone jangles again. Another reservation.