NIEUWOUDTVILLE, South Africa — Spring has arrived on the remote desert plains of South Africa’s Northern Cape, bringing a spectacular display of wildflowers and a vital boost to one of the country’s poorest areas.
The arid Karoo is capitalizing on its unique landscape, luring nature lovers who are seeking out more than the country’s famed lions, elephants and rhinos.
As fears over climate change grow, the region has also seen an influx of tourists who want to witness the spectacle for fear that changing rainfall patterns could one day kill off the flowers in this delicate environment.
“We are talking about trillions and trillions and trillions of flowers. We are not sitting on a national treasure but an international treasure,” says local flower expert Hendrik Van Zijl.
A slight wind sees fields of wildflowers dance in unison, an array of colour which, come spring, turns the usually barren landscape into a carpet of what Van Zijl terms the world’s “finest area for flowers.”
Tourism is becoming the lifeblood of the country’s largest and most sparsely populated province, dominated by the semi-desert Karoo, where five distinct ecological zones lie within striking distance of one another.
A drive here goes from hot to cold, from lush to dusty, over just a few kilometres (miles).
The region is seen as a “significant and threatened global centre of plant diversity,” according to a provincial environmental report.
That’s partly because the region is so remote. The Northern Cape’s coast is around 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) from the province’s capital Kimberley, almost as far from the country’s economic hub Johannesburg.
Van Zijl says growing awareness of conservation and climate change have brought in new kinds of tourists.
“Tourists that come here now ask more sophisticated questions. You have no idea what climate change and conservation have done to turn this into an international destination,” he says.
Nearby farm Matjiesfontein claims to have gathered the most varieties of indigenous bulbs, and markets species from this area and their many hybrids around the globe.
This area was once populated by wild game and the San Bushmen, followed by some of the first European settlers in the country. Now the Namaqualand’s unspoilt vistas are providing vital employment for locals with few other options.
“I was born here on a farm, I never thought flowers could make such a difference,” said 57-year-old Ann Basson, who works at a local guesthouse, and remembers being sent to pick flowers for the dinner table, never dreaming they would one day support her.
The growing tourism industry has also made locals more aware of the changes in their environment, as the shifting rains affect the flower season.
With a decrease in game, sheep farmers have begun to play a vital role by using their animals to graze on invasive grasses which would otherwise overtake the flowers.
“With intelligent farm managing and grazing we have been able to create this spectacle,” says Van Zijl.
As the only province without a stadium to draw visitors to the 2010 football World Cup, locals hope the unique flower extravaganza will attract foreigners keen to venture off the beaten track.
“You need to understand that we are the largest province, but we do get the smallest part of any budget,” provincial tourism general manager Peter McKuchane told AFP.
Once dependent on mines that are now falling out of service, tourism is the biggest contributor to the province’s economy, he said.
“So because of the fact we have such vast distances between our cities and mining has been downscaled, tourism becomes a very important part of our lives,” McKuchane said.
“Green tourism is becoming bandied around wherever you go.”