Wind and rain swept through the dark streets of Nieuwoudtville like a highwayman claiming his sweetheart. Sheltering from the storm in the large kitchen of a stone cottage, a group of friends sat round the hearth, where a woodfire crackled. They chatted and laughed and urged Hennie O’Kennedy to sing.
Late in the evening he called for his guitar and in his deep, time-etched voice he crooned:
‘As jy vir my can se (“If you can tell me)
Waar did Bushmanland le (Where Bushmanland lies)
Bushmanland vat my hand…’ (Bushmanland take
For a full minute the elements were reduced to a whisper by one of the most haunting songs in the Afrikaans language. It rose from the wide, arid plains to the north of the town, known as Bushmanland: that never-never land in the far Northern Cape, where you can journey for hundreds of kilometres without seeing a soul. A place where you can sing ‘Bushmanland take my hand’ today and the echo will respond tomorrow.
Hennie O’Kennedy, a sheep farmer from the district and owner of the local hotel, passed away some years back, yet his time-etched voice still lingers in the rugged veld.
That night was my first introduction to Nieuwoudtville ten years ago when a longstanding friend, Hendrik van Zijl, who lives in Nieuwoudtville, invited me to do a story here.
Ten years later, the exact scene could have been re-enacted once more, with friends from the district gathering to celebrate togetherness, the storm and the flowers.
“We’ve had wonderful rains this year, they came at just the right time for the flowers, which means that all things being well, we are in for an excellent year,” Hendrik said in June this year.
From early August to late September the landscape from here to Springbok will erupt with flowers. Around Springbok there will mostly be daisies, but around Nieuwoudtville there’ll be hundreds of different varieties of bulbs.
Known as the ‘bulb capital of the world’ Nieuwoudtville has more floral bulb species than anywhere else on our planet. This is what attracted Hendrik to Nieuwoudtville twenty years ago when he swapped his life as an attorney in Cape Town for his life in Nieuwoudtville. An authority on indigenous flowers and the history of the area, he leads floral and ecoystem tours and has restored several historic houses in the town, which he now runs as guesthouses.
“I’ve returned to my roots,” explained Hendrik whose Dutch ancestors traveled by ox wagon along this same route from Cape Town in the early 1700s.
The 350-kilometre journey from Cape Town follows the Cederberg mountain range to Klawer, where you turn off to Vanrhynsdorp, gateway to Nieuwoudtville. From here you head across the infinite knersvlakte plains – so called because of the sound of the wagon wheels on the quartzite – and up Vanrhyns Pass onto the Bokkeveld Plateau and the vast wetlands where the flamingoes have recently returned.
Flamingoes once lived here in great flocks but gradually disappeared. It could have had something to do with the fact that they were once eaten in these parts. South African author and poet Leipoldt, who grew up in this area, published a famous cookery book in 1934 titled ‘Kos vir die Kenner’ in which there are three recipes on how to prepare flamingo, as well recipes for stuffed blue crane and tortoise soup.
“Nothing was regarded as finite then,” said Hendrik whose main message is “to conserve” and who talks about the bird, butterfly insect and animal species and their relationship to the flowers.
“We are extremely fortunate that the floral populations are still largely intact here, and for this the farmers must get much credit because they have been on the land here all these years.”
Another contributing factor for the floral intactness, he explained, is that so few people live in this part of the Northern Cape that human impact has been relatively light.
The Northern Cape in its entirety covers 30% of South Africa’s land, but only 5% of the total population lives here. There is little industrial development, few exotic species (which they work at clearing) and the air and water is crisp and clear.
Ten kilometres into the Bokkeveld Plateau is the turnoff to Nieuwoudtville, with a sign that reads: ‘Welcome to the bulb capital of the world’.
“One of South Africa’s greatest contributions to horticulture has been its bulbs,” Hendrik explained. “South Africans have been the last to capitalise on the commercial potential of our indigenous flora, whereas the Dutch, French, Americans, Japanese and British have been growing our bulbs for years.”
The region’s latest find is a new Clivia species – Clivia mirabilis – discovered in the heart of the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Nieuwoudtville.
My first stop on entering Nieuwoudtville, which has remained a small village, was Die Smidswinkel, the old smithy shop Hendrik converted into a restaurant and kuier hotspot.
Every bit the nerve centre of greater Nieuwoudtville’s floral experience, Hendrik has an impressive library here with several maps and countless books on the flora, fauna and history of the area. In the flower season he often gives talks at night at Die Smidswinkel, which bustles with people from all over the world.
The food, I must tell you, is delectable; the main courses include lamb shank, leg of lamb and leg of springbuck. Also on offer is bobotie, homemade chicken pies, spinach quiches made from spinach grown in the vegetable garden and homemade soup. Hendrik grows vegetables for the table and cures his own olives, offered as a complimentary snack.
I have to warn you about Die Smidswinkel though, as you might well find in the presence of excellent wine and animated conversation that the early night you planned extends towards dawn. The good thing about flowers is that they too take time to awaken and open. Sometimes, weather dependent, they don’t open at all for the day, but that’s nature for you, and there’s so much to see around Nieuwoudtville. Ask Hendrik.
For one, you have to visit the quiver tree- or aloe forest near Nieuwoudtville, once a sacred hunting ground for the Khoisan who would hollow out the quiver tree stems to make quivers for their arrows. These trees grow to 400 years and produce vivid yellow flowers in May and June, as they have been doing for many thousands of years. It’s an ancient world that will silence you and inspire you; it will remind you that time is round and that the natural world has witnessed far more than we will ever know.
This profound sense of mortality repeated itself when I visited the ruins in Nieuwoudtville, of which there are 617; all previously homesteads from up to 160 years ago.
“Today only the remnants of life back then remain: a wall, an arch, a piece of mud-and-reed ceiling. But they tell the story of the first white settlers in this area,” Hendrik explained.
One of the larger settler ruins was the home of a wealthy farmer by the name of Klaas Losper who had 12 000 sheep, 600 cattle and 200 calves. We know this from the writings of Swedish botanist, Carl Thunberg, (a protégé of Linnaeus) who visited Nieuwoudtville to collect plant specimens in 1774 and who stayed with Losper whom he described as “a generous host”.
The settler ruins are surrounded by fruit trees, planted by the original inhabitants: fig, almond, quince, pomegranate, mulberry, orange, pear, all planted from seed. There was no sugar as we know it, so all sweetening came from dried fruit and honey.
“I often come here at sunset and think about the people who lived here. It reminds me of Grey’s Elegy to a Country Church,” said Hendrik. “People were born, christened, grew up, married and died here. You can almost hear their voices. And what is so interesting is that even though farming methods have modernised, the issues of life here have remained exactly the same: how much rain we’ve had, the condition of the crops and flocks, what the flowers are going to be like this year, what the political future holds.”