Nieuwoudtville is a quaint, otherworldly little town sitting squarely at a biased crossroads in the middle of immense fields. The main artery is the very ordinary R27 leading inland from semi-coastal N7, up the escarpment, across the border between the Western and Northern Cape provinces and into the Karoo proper, towards Calvinia. At about a right angle and slicing right through town, a dirt road lazily offers travel alternatives as well as farming access, disappearing north and south into the land as if smudged casually by the color chalk–stained finger of an artistic god.
This area acts as a damper between Namaqualand and the Karoo. In season, Nieuwoudtville remains brilliantly flowered and surprisingly wet, the tourism industry flourishing along with botany, infusing an ephemeral glamour and a puff of activity into the otherwise rural and quiet community. Everyone cashes in, bed and breakfast, rental and farm owners opening wide doors to the short-lived flow of botanical freaks and camera addicts, in an apotheosis of colors and a magnificent bloom. That flower season is, like the sardine run and other natural events, a short, furiously intense and rather unfair migration of strangers, but this time driven by a curious instinct and an insatiable need for beauty.
Later, when the dust lifted by tour buses and four-wheel drive conquerors settles, the farmers go back to their hybrid circadian rhythms, dryness reclaims the land and poverty once again crushes most people with the heavy hand of inevitability.
As we turned right on the south dirt road and idled through town in our fancy tank, eyes darting curiously to the sides, there was no doubt in my mind that we were the sharks of this sardine run, top of the food chain, invincible.
Nieuwoudtville itself was rather pretty. All but the main streets were dirt but well packed and an attractive rust color. Flowers abounded, trees were lush and the houses often coquettes. Once again we were arriving slightly past peak and crowds appeared to have receded. But beyond the pretty blocks, we could already see fields and, from the deep orange of the previous park, they had turned bright yellow.
Marie had been here before and could not resist a quick visit to the local church, which is surrounded by the most amazing purple parterre. We then set out to find the De Lande section of the Papkuilsfontein farm from which we had rented accommodation. We would not stay on the premises but rather in a place called Matjiesfontein, unfortunately once again a seasonal self-catering ban. Guest farms have to make a living and dinners help.
There are so many “Fonteins” in South Africa, it has the be the most common name on the map. Marie likes to remind me that finding even the tiniest source of water in such arid land would have been reason enough to grind to a stop with relief and start surviving the settlers’ life.
De Lande was located some ten kilometers out of town. Its main building was not necessarily that good looking, square and more modern that expected. We picked up our keys and were given a small photocopied map and instructions to our cottage, further down the road next to a farm stall. Our instructions were to come back for dinner, served at seven, but we had to be there at six-thirty or else. We saluted and left, pondering the iron fist that seemed to govern Namaqualand tourism.
We drove another few minutes and at about the right distance, found an adorable white house on the right, across a ditch flooded with a foot of muddy water. We looked at each other, hesitating. This did not look like your typical rental bargain.
But the map said we had arrived, so we led Mogashagasha through the puddle – she sighed in delight – and up the other side, turning around to come park next to a small gate into a low wall. We were still frowning. This was gorgeous and big. We feared we were about to invade someone’s privacy. But the gate was open and almost to our surprise the key effortlessly opened a split, barn-style entrance door with a murmur. We had indeed arrived.
There was a moment of silence as we absorbed that fact, and mentally compared the six square feet of the previous night’s tent to the present palace. The old Cape Dutch style house was nestled against a pond surrounded by white walls that might have been a cattle enclosure. There was nice rectangular space in front, also surrounded by the wall, and a tall pepper tree in a corner. Everything was neat, the open garden had been raked and a simple metal table along with a couple of chairs on the patio were just begging us to sit down and relax.
Inside was even better. Built as one long suite, the house had been split in two parts, ours being roughly two-thirds of the overall length. We assumed the other part was also for rent but no one was there and the curtains were pulled. The walls were half a meter thick.
Our section consisted of three sequential rooms; a large living room with sofas first, then an equally large bedroom and at the end, through a double door, the nicest and largest bathroom I have ever seen. We have lived in Brooklyn, years ago, in a space barely bigger than this bathroom was! Just as throughout the house, the floor was made of large tiled stones, a clawfoot tub stood at one end next to a window with tall white curtains, and at the other, another split door opened unto the garden.
The main rooms were adorned with heated carpets, not quite needed as the air was chilly but not freezing, but a nice touch so out of our realm that we consistently forgot to switch them off.
Unpacking quickly, we grabbed a bite sitting on the front stoop, discovering to my utter dismay that our supply of biltong had gone to mold.
Birds were busy around the house and we watched a new specie of colorful weavers and a couple of shy coots that inhabited the puddle. Then we jumped back in the Landcruiser and roamed for the rest of the afternoon in this broken, stop-and-shoot driving style typical of our arrival in bliss land, Marie stepping on the brakes or ordering the same as she spotted exciting flowers, and I responding in kind with picture opportunities. How she manages to single-out a tiny specimen by the shape of its leaves or a subtle hue – from a moving vehicle no less – is beyond me. I love to witness passion at work.
Entire flocks of graceful blue cranes were grazing not far from the road – I had never seen that many together. The fields spread almost to infinity, their uneven, undulating design highlighted by the tone of flowers and a steely sky.
Back at Matjiesfontein, we sat once again on the stoop, with our G&T’s this time, but cameras at the ready, one never knows. We planned the following day’s exploration, a canyon we had heard of and many more flowers in mind.
Dinner called and we rode to the De Lande farm, arriving on time just after dusk. Not too happy to have to go to a communal dinner again – we had spotted large tables in the dinning room when we had picked up the keys – we would have much preferred a braai on our own, discussing the day in hush tones, or maybe a few bursts of laughter
People had gathered in the large dinning room, a fire was burning in the fireplace and our hostess Mariëtte van Wyk introduced herself. Marie and her had again been in touch by email, and I finally recognized signs of the hospitality I have worked immersed in for many years in the Caribbean. She was the farmer’s wife and they seemed to run a split operation as he was now at the main Papkuilsfontein farm. We learned that we were staying in their very own house, Matjiesfontein only being used as a rental overflow in busy season. The closed section next to us was actually for one of them to sleep in a few hours between long days. They arrived late and got up so early that we would never see them there.
Dinner was served buffet style, and all guests took place at a large rectangular table. We had daringly brought our wine again but nobody else had and people drank a variety of locally available spirits, writing their consumption down themselves in a notebook. Gone was the prison camp. The chatter, however, was unexpectedly as bad or worse. We did not have much in common with the other travelers who ranged greatly culturally but somehow ended up talking about rugby and politics, our mental shields automatically going up. We later agreed to skip breakfast the next morning.
The food was a notch better than it had been so far; when the lady chef wearing a toque made an appearance at the end of the meal to bow, we tried hard not to cringe. But truth be told, by our North American standards we were getting such an amazing deal it would have been insane to complain.
On the way back, we watched a porcupine busily digging for bulbs in the halo of our headlights and I carefully approached for a very blurry shot. We slept like babies and I got up early to go to the farm and beg for a flaskfull of coffee*. We had Woolworths rusks that would go admirably with it. Half-awake guests said hi, wondering why I was not joining them, but I noticed that morning tables were smaller and we might want to chance it the next day. I waited for my coffee looking around. There was history here, old portraits on the walls that spoke of days long gone and a convoluted past.
Coffee was brought back to Matjiesfontein and served on the wobbly metal table on the stoop for a perfect morning moment. We discussed our day and agreed to start at one end of the immense playground and work our way back, time allowing. The first destination would be a much talked about canyon, which actually ran through the van Wyk family land to the south. We stopped briefly at Papkuilsfontein to get directions, meeting the farmer who suggested the most interesting angles.
Driving through fields of green, yellow and white, we marveled at the isolation and beauty of the few cultivated patches. Then the dirt road became tightly framed by dryer vegetation. We knew we were getting close. We parked, grabbing our cameras and heading along a narrow path into the wild, and towards the edge. The flowers were scarce in this much drier landscape, but kept Marie dashing right and left in utter pleasure.
About a half-hour into the walk, we reached the top of the rim and were awarded a first view of the canyon and the very tall waterfall that marks its northeastern end. Standing right at the edge of the precipice, or actually a little way back because the stone slabs and boulders of the rim looked frighteningly loose, we felt humbled and actually a bit spooked.
However young I think I am, it seems the few years I have gathered, like a kid winning marbles in school and lining them up proudly, have chipped away at my old self-assurance at heights. I am fine when airborne, but with my feet on the ground, gravity has become a source of gut tremors and valiance shakes. Long gone are the days when I could stand happily on a ledge barely wide enough for my shoes, half-way up a gigantic vertical face of white limestone almost a kilometer in height, on the southern flanc of Montagne Sainte-Victoire near Aix-en-Provence, and feel perfectly content. Nowadays, my ascents are of the elevator kind. O tempora o mores.
We reached and passed the top of the fall and crossed the peaceful stream that fed it. It would, according to the literature, be at times so violent that the entire valley would flood. But it was so low then that the sandy banks were left exposed. Marie, who excels at reading animal tracks and signs, found a problematic stool on nearby rocks. It was obviously not a herbivore’s, and only a large carnivore could have produced it. Leopards came to mind in the absence of other contenders. The sample was relatively fresh, from the morning, she figured. I did not think this was as obviously feline-esque as she thought, maybe just out of ignorance, but did not have too many other alternatives to offer and I settled for keeping the rear in the strategic retreat that followed.
Dinner that night was a bit easier, smaller tables having been arranged and people having had a chance to adjust to one another. The second night’s sleep was as good as the first. In the morning, we bravely went back to the farm to settle our stay and have breakfast. South Africans typically eat porridge in the morning, and along with the bacon, eggs, cereal, toasts, yogurt and the likes, our porridge bowl was so delicious we still talk about it. Creamy, finely textured, it was milk-based and served with butter and sugar. The simplest things at times have the greatest impact.
Our next night was going to be spent some thirty kilometers away on another farm, and we took our time vacating sumptuous Matjiesfontein. Driving through the small town, we stopped at the local liquor store, its stash of bottles locked away behind a metal-fenced counter, Harlem style. We had run out of Gin for our ritual afternoon road trip drinks.
The man running the shop interrupted his conversation in Afrikaans to ask if he could help me, in English this time. Insightful, he checked if I also needed tonic, then let me in behind the counter to go and pay through a door in the grocery store section where not much was happening.
Nieuwoudtville, it seemed, always slept.
* For those of you who like both coffee and spaghetti westerns, this sounds like a great post name, A Flaskfull of Coffee. I could follow with For a Few Coffees More, and Once Upon a Time in the Coffee Shop. How about Froth You Sucker? Or My Name is Nocafeine…
«The Namaqualand Bloom» Series
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Marie’s recount: Turn North for Flowers