Once every year, the Namaqualand desert in South Africa
changes its colors. Driving north, after leaving Cape Town, my sight was amazed by the huge yellow, violet, orange and scarlet spots displayed on the ground. There were flowers – millions, billions of flowers.
A continuous strip of daisies followed us along the highway – it was like passing by a bright and colorful road shoulder. Further, dividing the highway from the field, little purple flowers fought for space with stones and gravels.
When I drove by that same area five and a half years ago it was mid-summer and everything seemed totally burnt. Back then, the heat was intense and the feeling was of desolation and death. However, now, thanks to the winter rains, we were participating in an amazing festival of wild flowers. Humidity had brought its gift of life to the region, initiating the spring in the Southern Hemisphere. A surprise of nature, one of those only She is capable of offering.
As the miles quickly passed by, the road seemed a line without end and Richard Cowling, one of the top South African botanists, started explaining to me what happens during this time of the year. “In August and beginning of September – he said – the plants here go onto ecstasy. Ultimately, it is about sex. The plants need to be pollinated, they know how little time they have, and, consequently, they provoke an explosion of flowers to attract the right insects.”
Foreign travelers have already discovered this natural phenomenon that brings so many different benefits to locals. Niel McGregor, a farmer from Niewoudtville, leaves his sheep aside during these months of the year to take care of visitors, mostly Europeans. Niel took us around his farm in his 40-year-old school bus and told us about the survival tactics each plant has developed in such an inhospitable region. During these two months, he devotes six days of the week to flowers and visitors, who come from afar to admire them.
It was at the Namaqualand National Park where that explosion of color rose to its climax. Various acres were entirely covered by golden flowers. I even thought that someone had given them a hand, casting seeds and dispersing them with a tractor. But the park staff assured me they were all wild flowers. Proof of that: every year their color mixture was distinct.
But Namaqualand’s peculiarity did not end there. Something more interesting was still awaiting us. When we passed by the so-called region of “Knersvlate” (word that means “to grind one’s teeth”), we left the highway and took a dirty road. We were engulfed by dust for about half an hour. When we stopped the van, I noticed that we were in a field covered by small white rocks. These one-inch stones were pure quartz. Even then, in silence, I questioned myself if it had been worth it to breathe all that dust just to see little white rocks. My thoughts were interrupted by Richard, who asked me to step out of the car and to walk randomly. “You will be able to find the real treasures of Namaqualand”, he predicted.
After few steps, my vision became more acute, getting closer and closer to the soil. My eyes became progressively familiar to an intense luminosity. I started to scan the surface as if I was using a macro photographic lens. Then, I was able to perceive that, among the little white stones, other subtler forms were profusely springing out. Very slowly, gently and with utmost care and total amazement, I touched a strange “something”, the size of a thumb. I felt its smoothness and how it was magically filled with water.
“They are the succulent plants of Namaqualand, authentic jewels of this region. You won’t find them anywhere else in the world, some not even 500 feet from here,” uttered Richard, aware of my astonishment. “Now, you may search for other species of succulents.”
When my eyes finally understood Richard’s commandment, they started sweeping the ground in search for more of those unusual forms. Indeed, all these minuscule plants seemed to be one and the same with the miniature quartz. I didn’t need to move too far to find at least a dozen of different species around me. They were all surviving in harmony and cooperation with the graveled desert, and making optimum use of the scarce humidity. In order to accomplish their task of endurance, they knew they must never adorn themselves with leaves and should always keep water reserves within their small body.
“That is why, for their survival, once every year, they need to have sex,” confided Richard, showing to me a lovely specimen of a three-flower yellow succulent plant with very fine petals. The succulent looking up into the sky seemed to have germinated directly from the soul of earth.
Why so many species coexist among the little stones? It happens because of the intense heat. During the summer time, the plants are under almost 15 hours of hard sun, from horizon to horizon. Certainly, the plants felt much better sharing their space with little white rocks than by themselves in an open field. Remember that, contrary to a black stone, which concentrates and cumulates the heat on its surface, a white one reflects it. As a consequence, the temperature next to a white stone, no matter if it is a tiny one, may have a difference of minus three or four degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, because the white rock cools faster, it is able to condensate a tiny drop of water. When that drop of water runs into the soil, it nurtures the neighboring plant.
With extreme care I stood up from my squatting position with heart-filled awe and reverence, and returned to the van. I was measuring my steps to avoid hurting a succulent or dislocating any little piece of white quartz. At that moment, I realized, once more, that everything in Nature has a vital function – even a little white stone, because it promotes life in the desert.
This article was originally published in Portuguese in the December 2004 Special Edition of "VIAGEM."