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We only had a short time in Niewoudtville, and I admit that I did very little research in advance of our visit. Which is a great pity, as if I had, I would have made a point of visiting the glacial pavement a few kilometres south of town.
A 'glacial pavement' is an exposed rock surface that has been polished and scoured by ice sheets during glacial periods: these parallel scratches (technically known as 'striations') are etched by rock fragments embedded in the base of the glacier which scrape along the exposed land surface and score into exposed rock surfaces. The striations in this region date back to the glaciation of the ancient Gondwanaland supercontinent, about 300 million years ago.
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Despite being a small 'dorpie', Niewoudtville boasts a very impressive sandstone church in a Neo Gothic style, which I think is one of the most beautiful in South Africa.
The church itself is relatively recent - consecrated in 1907 - and replaced an earlier, less permanent structure. Its claim to fame (as told by the adjacent Skuldmonument) is that "£8,000 of the £11,300 the congregation had saved to pay the builder, disappeared" (ie. was stolen), thereby obligating this poor rural community to pay for its construction twice.
The church served the entire surrounding area, and given the remoteness of the region, families on outlying properties would only have been able to get to church a few times a year. The highlight of the year was the Nagmaal in October, when weddings and baptisms were performed. This gathering also served a very important social function as a 'matchmaking' forum where young men and women from the region had a chance to meet ... thus ensuring a steady flow of Nagmaal weddings and baptisms in years to come!
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This somewhat bamboozling sign, welcoming you to Niewoudtville, 'the bulb capital of the world', is located on the main road into town from Vanrhynsdorp.
I admit to having few preconceptions about Niewoudtville, so perhaps it's unsurprising that I hadn't expected it to be a hotspot for bulbs, and I'll admit by the end of a day exploring the town and surrounding region, I wasn't a whole lot wiser on the issue.
But the Internet is a wonderful toy for terminally curious souls such as myself, and a quick Google soon highlighted what I'd been missing. It turns out that Niewoudtville sits at the junction of several botanical zones, and boasts an amazing diversity of plants, even by the high standards of the Cape Floral kingdom (which is itself the most diverse floral kingdom in the world). The plants which occur here are mainly geophytes (bulbs and bulbous) plants, which have evolved to thrive in the harsh Karoo conditions: these are dormant during the summer months, with no leaves or stems above surface, and store their reserves underground to avoid the plant dehydrating. After the brief winter rains, the geophytes resurrect themselves into colourful and abundant life in the Southern Hemisphere spring (August-September).
The statistics speak for themselves: the Niewoudtville region has 309 species of geophytes of the 1551 geophyte species that exist in the entire Cape Floral Kingdom. Of the approximately 1 350 species of plant that occur on the Bokkeveld Plateau, over 600 of these are found in and around Nieuwoudtville. And of the 40 plant species that are endemic to the Bokkeveld (ie. occur nowhere else), 22 grows only in the Nieuwoudtville area.
As you might expect with such botanical diversity, the size and shape of the geophyte bulbs varies enormously, with the extravagant Boophone bulb sometimes reaching the size of a football. An unexpected consequence of this abundance in an otherwise food-scarce environment is a high concentration of large rodents such as porcupine and mole rats, which happily feast on the bulbs.
There is a Wild Flower Reserve on the Glenlyon property just outside town, and Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve (10km south of town) is also another hotspot for floral enthusiasts. Bear in mind that the wild flowers can only be seen for a short period in spring when they are in bloom, and that the Cape wild flower season results in an influx of visitors to a region that has limited tourist facilities, so be sure to book your accommodation well before time.
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Visiting Waterfalls 101: firstly make sure your waterfall has water! If you are used to more temperate climates, then this will sound ridiculous, but in arid regions such as the Karoo, most rivers only flow after rain.
So, my Top Tip for visiting the Niewoudtville Falls is not to go in later summer if you want to see water: we visited in March, and the falls were bone dry. The Southern Hemisphere winter (May-September) is the rainy season in the Western Cape, so six months after the last rains and at the end of the scorching summer heat, it wasn’t a surprise that water was scarce, although I confess that I didn’t think that they’d dried up completely. The only water around was restricted to the deep plunge pools at the base of the falls and little relict ponds in hollows along the river bed. By this time of year, the water quality is vile, but it represents one of the few sources of water in the otherwise parched landscape, and acts as a magnet for wildlife.
Nonetheless, I think that it’s worthwhile visiting large waterfalls when they’re dry, as you get a better opportunity to appreciate their scale without being distracted by huge volumes of cascading water that obscure your view. In the late 1980s, I visited Vic Falls towards the end of a prolonged drought period, and thought that they were more impressive with only chutes of water cascading over the precipice into the gorge below than I’ve found them in full spate when the force of the spectacle is overwhelming, but when you can see little more than water and spray.
We were able to clamber along the dry river bed and edge nervously towards the edge of the gorge, where the water plummets over the lip of the falls into the gorge beyond. This is not something that I’d recommend for vertigo sufferers, but it does give you a spectacular and uncommon perspective on what is a 100m drop!
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Gauging by the photos of people swimming in the river below the Niewoudtville Falls, it must also be possible to hike down into the gorge to the plunge pools at the foot of the falls, although we didn’t attempt this.
If you decide to do this, you should bear in mind that the scale of the falls is such that it’s likely to be a long, hot and energetic hike into and out of the gorge, and that the path is likely to be rocky and slippery, particularly after rain. From a safety point of view, I would not recommend attempting this if you are unaccompanied, particularly outside of season when there are few visitors to come to your aid should you have an accident.
Also beware of being swept away when the river is in full flow: it would be particularly unwise to bathe upstream of the falls where you easily could be swept away by the current and hurled over the edge into the gorge below.
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The kokerboom ('quiver tree') forest is exactly the sort of 'off the beaten track' attraction that I most love to discover when I'm travelling, and in my mind, reason enough to visit Niewoudtville in its own right.
The ‘forest’ isn’t a forest in the strict sense of the word, just as the kokerboom (‘quiver tree’ in English) isn’t actually a tree, but a huge member of the succulent aloe family. However, it is an impressive spectacle, and certainly the biggest stand of kokerboom that I’ve ever seen – certainly much more extensive than the celebrated kokerboom forest outside Keetmanshoop in southern Namibia.
The kokerboom is a fussy plant that prefers specific soil conditions and favours sites that have a particular aspect to the sun. They don’t like to grow close together, as this limits their access to the scarce water and nutrients available in this harsh landscape, so they space themselves out at about 10 metre intervals. On this site, there must be tens of thousands of kokerbooms, dotted over the flanks and summit of a flat topped hill and it is odd to see so many plants together, yet each one curiously separate from its neighbour. The spectacle is rendered even more impressive by the virtual absence of other large plants.
Kokerbooms are prehistoric-looking plants that wouldn’t look out of place with a pterodactyl or two wheeling overhead. I have a passion for aloes, and for me, they are incredible beautiful plants that are superbly designed for the inhospitable environment in which they love. Their name comes from the fact that Bushmen apparently used the dried leaves, which have an elongate, almost conical form, as quivers in which to store their arrows.
With their bizarre, spiky crowns and distinctive ‘trunks’ covered with papery ‘scales’, kokerbooms seem almost more architectural than organic, and are a photographer’s dream. They’re a thankful subject, and even rank amateurs are likely to end up with some decent shots if they’re prepared to snap away with gay abandon (the joys of digital!). The best time to photograph them is in the early morning or late afternoon, before the sun gets too high – in the middle of the day, the bright sunlight can make the Karoo look ‘flat’ (particularly in photographs) and the gentler light conditions bring out the subtle definitions in the landscape.
The ‘forest’ is located about 50km out of town on a private farm: access is via about 4km of good gravel farm road which is signposted from the main tar road (on the right if you’re driving from Niewoudtville). If you decide to visit in late afternoon, then you’d be well advised to consider staying over in Niewoudtville to avoid driving in the dark: whilst the roads in this area are good, there is a danger of hitting wildlife or livestock on the road after dark (and not much passing traffic to come to your assistance), so this is simply not a risk worth taking.
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Niewoudtville is a sleepy dorpie (‘little town’ in Afrikaans) perched on the border between the Western and Northern Cape provinces. It is located on the fringes of the Karoo – the great inland thirstland that forms the geographical heart of South Africa. The topography comprises flat plains, punctuated by flat topped mountains reminiscent of the western states of the USA. It is a wide, expansive landscape which gives you the sense of being able to see forever – if there were anything specific to see through the shimmering heat haze. It’s the sort of landscape you've seen in spaghetti westerns, except that it’s painted in a brown palette rather than red and therein lies its charm: the stark beauty of a landscape almost untouched by human influence.
You either love arid landscapes or you hate them. I find them challenging and endlessly fascinating places to visit – although I think that I would find it unnerving to permanently live in one. They are places where the power balance between human and landscape is reversed and where you have have no option but to play by the rules of the uncompromisingly inhospitable landscape if you want to survive.