The sign said Englishman’s Grave and pointed across the dirt road to a single tree in an otherwise rocky landscape, for most of the year only dotted with shrubs.
It was the grave and memorial site of an English officer of the Gordon Highlanders who died in a skirmish with the Boers on 30 January 1901. Lieutenant Graham Clowes, who survived the horrors of Magersfontein and Kimberley in December 1899, died two years later during this battle, the only casualty of the day.
His mother, devastated by his death, made the five-week voyage by sea from England to Cape Town, then, in a three-day journey was jostled and thrown about in a horse-drawn cart, to have the memorial erected at this site.
For many years this genteel Englishwoman left her home in the lush Hertfordshire countryside and made the pilgrimage to the grave during the hottest summer months in South Africa on the anniversary of her son’s death.
No mean feat in the early 1900s, as a round trip would have taken almost three months.
More than a hundred years later I, a mother of two grown sons, stood by the grave in the Biedouw Valley near the Wüppertal turn-off. A sense of sadness overwhelmed me. I thought of a mother who, because of war, was robbed of her son.
Why was I here? What had brought me to this sad place on this beautiful September day? For the past three decades, my husband and I have lived and worked as expats in several African countries.
At the moment we’re living in Kenya and every three months we get a two-week break. We spend a few days at our Free State home and for the remainder of our holiday, tour South Africa on our BMW motorcycle.
Recently, we planned a trip to visit friends on the West Coast and to see the Namaqualand flowers. According to news and internet reports, Namaqualand was already ablaze with floral bounty.
Riding from Marquard through the Karoo, we spent the first night in Victoria West, birthplace and home of rugby legend Mannetjies Roux. The next leg to Clanwilliam was much shorter so we stopped frequently to photograph the wild flowers, already abundant in this normally barren terrain.
We stayed over at friends, who promised to lead us the next day to the most spectacular spring flower displays of the century. That Saturday morning then turned off onto the R27 and were soon swooping through the winding Van Rhyns Pass.
We stopped at the viewpoint about 800m above sea level and soaked up the magnificent view of the Nama Karoo below. At the bottom of the pass, just before Nieuwoudtville, the bulb capital of the world, we turned onto the R364.
During late winter and early spring, the sun shines from the north and the flowers turn their faces towards it as the day warms up.
A colour explosion
We were barely on the dirt when we stopped. And stared. The flowers were spectacular. Talk about feast and famine! Whereas last year there was hardly a bloom to be found, this year we were surrounded by a palette of colour carpeting the countryside as far as the eye could see.
Namaqualand and the West Coast had soaking winter rain with scattered weekly showers in July and August. Dormant seeds from the previous year burst through the moisture-laden soil in July to produce masses of blooms to delight flower enthusiasts, photographers and nature lovers from all over the world.
Then we headed south to the Biedouw Valley. This area, surrounded by the Cederberg Mountains, ruled supreme this year with its abundance of wild flowers. Photographing the flowers from different angles, I marvelled at these unique natural miracles. Luke 12:27 says: “Consider how the lilies grow. They don’t labour or spin. Yet, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these”.
The Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms and the only one within a single country, is one of the 34 internationally recognised biodiversity hotspots in the world. It is divided into five major ecological communities (biomes) of which two – the Fynbos Biome and the Succulent Karoo Biome – are situated within the Cederberg Conservancy.
Right here at our feet, we were treated to flowers so alike, yet so different in colour and texture, that it almost hurt to look at them. There were bright orange Namaqualand daisies and white daisies. Others were yellow and jostled with their cream-coloured cousins.
In-between, purple vygies (Mesembryanthemum spp.) spread under and around the hardy fynbos shrubs and burnt orange gazanias (Gazania spp.) peeped out in-between and taller Cape tulips (Homeria spp.). In retrospect, the visit to the Englishman’s grave was a fitting tribute to all fallen heroes.
And the flowers? Well, these form a wreath for the young lives lost in wars all over the world.
For more information on this adventure, contact Abré J Steyn on 083 253 4822 or email [email protected].
Writing a new, fresh story every week was taking up Abré J Steyn’s fishing, hunting and travelling time, so he has decided to invite other writers to assist him in keeping this column as interesting and diverse as possible. The first contribution is from expat Jo Hedges, now living in Kenya, about a motorcycle tour through the floral kingdom of Namaqualand.
Vibrant-coloured flowers in Biedouw Valley.