SAFARI SCHMAFARI. THERE’S A WHOLE OTHER SIDE TO SOUTH AFRICA THAT’S JUST WAITING TO BE EXPLORED.It’s just cool enough for a light jacket at night. The South African winter is giving way to spring. Soon enough, summer will scorch the land again and the shimmering pink, deep purple, and fiery orange wildflowers that now coat the country’s west coast will disappear. Dry earth will rule. But on this night, that’s all far from the minds of the people gathered atop the roof of a salmon-colored guesthouse in the small town of Garies. Instead, the crowd is focused on a woman not even five feet tall.
Like a shrunken apple doll, 81-year-old Grietjie Adams’s face is all cheeks. An enormous pale-pink ruffled bonnet that would have made a pioneer woman proud is perched on her head. Her voice is high and reedy, but she commands complete attention. As she sings, a lanky young man wearing a feathered hat and holding a pipe in his mouth demonstrates a local dance, his movements mimicking the elegance of the antelope and other animals that bound through Adams’s folk songs.
Seven days into a nine-day trip up the west coast of South Africa, even the people who can’t speak Afrikaans understand the meaning of those songs. Adams’s passion and movements and the man’s dance are infused with the beauty, traditions, and cultures of Namaqualand, named for the Nama people.
This is not the land of the “big five,” the animals that lure most visitors to South Africa. The west coast is, in many ways, quieter than safari hot spots like Kruger National Park. But from the Cape of Good Hope, in the south, up to the administrative capital of Namaqualand, Springbok, 300 miles to the north, the country is no less riveting.
AN AFRICAN PENGUIN CHICK, its downy coat still thick, looks incredibly grumpy. Closer to the water, an older bird cautiously makes its way down a boulder, sticking its head out after each step to see what lies ahead. A boardwalk runs through the entire penguin colony, offering tourists intent on loading their digital cameras with memories the chance to take the perfect shot from just a few feet away.
A short drive from the city center of Cape Town, Boulders Beach and Foxy Beach are great places to start an exploration of the natural wonders of the west coast -- and the penguin joy is just the beginning of a day that will be spent looping around the Cape Peninsula before heading north, away from the city.
But our small white car isn’t going anywhere fast anytime soon. A baboon has claimed the hood as the perfect hangout. It looks like a bored teenager sitting around outside a suburban mall. But this kind of encounter is to be expected on the road to the Cape of Good Hope, at the southwestern tip of the peninsula. The area is loaded with baboons. (Windows rolled up and doors locked are musts on this road.) Everybody on the way into the nature reserve is forced to navigate around tumbling, playful baboon babies, whose mothers look on with an all-too-human “what is he getting into now?” scowl.
Once past the initial baboon obstacle course, the road winds deeper into Table Mountain National Park. Ostriches barely take notice as hikers wander by. Then it’s time to get out of the car and take a short ride up in the funicular (or hike up, up, up the stairs) for a view of the Cape of Good Hope. At more than 700 feet above sea level, the cliffs here are among the highest in the world. The water below is every shade of blue, from bright aqua to deep navy.
THE MOUNTAINS GO FROM SANDSTONE TO SHALE. They begin their ascent to the sky terraced, then are rounded, and, up north in the Goegap Nature Reserve, piles of rock that erupted from the earth thousands of years ago look like they were placed there by heavy machinery.
There is no one way to describe the west coast. Just as it becomes familiar, it shifts.
But it is early spring -- especially after a wet winter -- that brings the biggest change. While the east coast of South Africa has dry winters, the west coast’s wet winter months deliver an early spring surprise: one of the best wildflower shows in the world. African flaxes turn huge swaths of land a purplish blue. Daisies, their orange, pink, or yellow petals with a nearly metallic sheen, cover entire mountains. Spiky pincushions give off a touch of sweet, drawing sugarbirds to swing by for a drink, their long beaks dipping in for nectar.
Drive toward the sun and the fields look green. But as you go by, take another look -- they’re actually a carpet of flowers all turned facing the sun. The same is true of entire mountain ranges. First, they appear green, but then, they’re pink or orange, purple or brilliant white.
As much fun as it is to discover another new-to-you flower, watching the flower watchers is also quite a bit of fun. They go belly down on the ground to snap close-ups. They tumble off the buses, some of which are clearly more luxurious than others, and spread out in search of their own spot under the South African sun. Some people are on a search for a particular bloom, while others are open to discovery, waiting to see what’s next.