Sanna and a few of her co-workers are sitting in the shade of a large warehouse that, when it is peak production time, is probably filled with trays of bulbs. They’re all in royal blue overalls and beginning to think about packing up to go home when we show up. They appear to toss a coin for who gets to show us around, not literally of course, but there is a subtle conference during which Sanna stands slowly, and smilingly tells us she will take us through the nursery.
Nieuwoudtville is famous for its bulbs. But when the bulbs aren’t in bloom and you’re visiting out of flower season, where do you go to find them? We found ourselves in this very predicament and, whilst there is a lot other than bulbs to entertain you, there are still a couple of places you can visit that will reveal flowers if you know where to look.
We swing right down Church Street from Voortrekker Street (the main road through town) and follow the signs to the Bulb Nursery. It is not well sign posted. About two thirds of the way there, signs peter out completely and you need to follow your nose to find it at all.
Surprisingly it is not all that well marketed by the town either. Yes, it is in the local brochure as a place to visit, but little is communicated about the fact that it’s run by the local community and that it is alive with bulbs, both hybrid and indigenous, of every description and hue, even weeks after other bulbs in the vicinity have died back.
We drive past the Nieuwoudtville caravan park, and yet another caravan park, and then somewhere along the dirt road, just as we seem about to drive straight through someone’s farm, and I begin to mumble about turning back as it obviously isn’t here, another sign has us swinging right and up a little side road to the nursery. We arrive late afternoon with no expectations. We uncover a veritable treasure of flowers. And Sanna.
As Sanna begins explaining how the nursery works – that you hand pick your own bulbs – I’ve already caught sight of the flowers. And since this is what I was hoping to see out in the wild, I dash off to photograph the wild flowers that have sprung up on the borders of the nursery’s myriad bulbs.
Photographs at Nieuwodtville Bulb Nursery – Left: Bulbs at bulb nursery / Centre: Sanna at the nursery / Right: Bulbs galore at the bulb nursery
Sanna in the meantime guides my other half and son, who is flitting in and out of flower beds whacking the hell out of mole hills with a spade and occasionally needs reminding that there are flowers around him, down to the bottom reaches of the nursery where there are row upon row of bulbs in flower. Most of them are hybridised, which is a pity as we’d hoped to see indigenous bulbs, but there are row upon beautiful row of ixias, freezias and the like, and the scent of the bulbs is intoxicating (later we learn to our detrimant that driving for over an hour in the company of flowering bulbs is going to bring on a hefty dose of hayfever).
Sanna and her contemporaries plant, water and look after all of the bulbs here. They sell them to those who visit – most of them come during the flower season, says Sanna – and you can hand pick your bulb by seeing exactly what colour flower it produces. It’s a far better deal than scrutinising handfuls of dried bulbs. The community, we later learn, also ship a lot of their bulbs overseas and there are crates loaded with dry bulbs waiting for such a destiny.
We spend what feels like hours, selecting our 50 odd bulbs to take home with us – nevermind that we are five days away from Cape Town. The thought of how they will look in the front garden excites us. In hindsight, now that I’ve travelled in close company with the bulbs for a couple of days, I wonder what a good idea it is to have them anywhere near the house as we’ll no doubt spend weeks sneezing when they’re in bloom?
On the other side of town, along Voortrekker Street, lies the Hantam National Botanical Gardens. It is a rather intimidating name for what used to simply be a sheep farm called Glen Lyon, owned by Neil MacGregor. Neil always had a love of conservation and before long found himself asking questions about the flowering plants in the region. After taking down the farm’s internal fences, he enclosed areas according to vegetation types, protecting the most delicate and rare from his sheep. After a while he began to notice that, rather than protecting the flowers, those inside the fenced areas were not as prolific as those left to the fate of his sheep.
Photographs at Hantam National Botanical Garden – Left: Walking in Hantan Botanical Garden / Centre: Wild flowers on edge of bulb nursery / Right: Wild flowers in Hantam Botanical Garden
He also left traditional sheep predators alone and re-established the natural ecological balance of the bulbs’ environment. Before long, people began arriving in their droves to see his flowers. So much so that he had to buy a bus, which he named Flora, to take them on tours around his farm, rather than let them use their 4x4s in and around everything.
He later sold the farm to Sanparks, who converted it into a botanical garden visited by thousands. The bus is still there, but it only does rides during flower season. If we want to find flowers, and the guy at the gate assures us that there are a few left in the fields, we’ll have to walk. I begrudgingly agree, looking down at my perfect-for-walking mules. Hope it isn’t a long walk.
One of the basic rules for hiking listed in our pamphlet urges the need to wear comfortable shoes and to take water along. We know about hiking rules. We usually comply. But this time we’re only doing a short 4 km walk, by combining the procupine and gifbol walks in a shorter version. We’ll be okay (I obviously forgot how long 4 km can feel).
Midway through our traipse we realise our mistake. This is what our son calls a ‘long’ 4 km walk. In other words, it’s more than 4 km we end up walking, and we haven’t brought along any water. But we do get to learn all about porcupines.
For every square kilometre we walk, there are about 8 porcupines. Of course we don’t see them. They only come out at night. Porcupines are regarded as the largest rodent in Africa. Their burrows are very obvious and they make a mess of everything, or so it seems. Actually their diggings promote soil turnover and in these excavations organic material, water and soil collect to form a nursery for the next generation of plants.
Photographs at Hantam National Botanical Garden – Left: Butterfly on wild flowers in Hantan Botanical Garden / Right: Porcupine burrow in Hantam Botanical Garden
The area through which we walk is peppered with their quills and diggings. Interestingly, although these prickly creatures eat bulbs they do not reduce the numbers. Actually they maintain the quantities of bulbs by the way in which they forage and disturb the soil. We managed to see quite a number of flowers too, on the latter part of the walk, which is a bonus.
By the time we reached the car, the only prickly customer was me. But a wonderful, juicy naartjie and a rub of my feet soon sorted out my immediate needs, and on reflection, we got to walk in one of the most beautiful natural treasures in the country.