Flying over the white snowy mountains of the western cape and looking down at one of the 7 new natural wonders of the world – Table Mountain, towering above Cape Town, easily one of the most beautiful cities on earth, you know you are in a special place. I always feel like I have arrived home when touching down in Cape Town, although I live on the opposite and much wilder end of the African continent, but the cape is where my heart lies and always will be, and no, it is not just because of the excellent wine.
The rainbow nation is always friendly here, cracking a joke or two, although most times I have no idea what they were saying. Helping where they can and most of all enjoying life; it’s not called ‘slaapstad’ or the sleeping city for nothing, for the pace of life in the Western Cape is a slow one. It’s something to get used to when arriving from the buzzing and crazy fast pace of Johannesburg.
But I didn’t come to Cape Town to enjoy the slow life, wine and the white beaches. I came down only to leave Cape Town behind me and travel northeast to explore one of South Africa’s isolated natural gems, the Karoo desert. This magical but harsh environment gives life to weird and wonderful creatures and plants. With very little rainfall during the year, this succulent paradise has just received a sprinkling of rain and is lush, green and about to burst into flower.
The small town of Worcester was going to be my starting block for my little adventure from where I will be climbing the mountains, exploring every crack in the rocks and grassy outcrop looking for all that is weird and wonderful.
The mountains were covered in snow and the wind was freezing cold. My hair looked like a old man’s toupee blown to one side, but as soon as I started scrambling through the spiny sticks, I forgot about the obstacles, and the plants I found were nothing less than astounding.
South Africa is well known for its unbelievable aloes, and the king of the aloes must surely be the majestic Aloe dichotoma or locally called quiver tree, rising through the never ending fields of milk bush species (euphorbia) all over the mountain side.
Another funny is Cyphostemma or our local indigenous grape. They didn’t have any leaves on and the pale white fat stems looked like ghostly figures floating through the landscape. This is one grape you don’t want to put in your mouth! I made the very foolish mistake once and and let me tell you, a true peri peri is mild to what fire bomb explodes in your mouth when biting down on that fruit.
I was a bit early for all the flowering bulbs but the African daisies was in full spectacle, and their golden heads followed the sun everywhere it went.
While looking at a sugar bird having a feeding frenzy in amongst a flowering aloe, I realized with horror that I was not crouching down on pebbles but rather a field of Conophytum so perfectly disguised as to look like little stones amongst the larger rocks, but quite the opposite when they are in flower, as they create a carpet of color that can be seen for hundreds of meters.
Another species that is widely spread around South Africa and extensively used in the world plant trade is Haworthia. This family must surely contain some of the worlds weirdest family members, some of which look like horse teeth, some like coral, or even resembling see-through stained glass.
Cotyledons are also everywhere to be seen in the landscape and the varieties are just as bounty full, with beautiful red to yellow or pink flowers rising through the big flat succulent leaves; a must have for any dry garden.
Most of the plants in this wonderland have strong architectural elements to them, like Pachypoduim namaquanum, or the ‘half human’ plant, called that because mature plants on the desert horizon look like human silhouettes in the distance.
‘Spekboom’ or Portulacaria affra is a favorite amongst the wildlife. The leaves are edible to animals and humans, with a distinct sour but attractive taste to it and it is used extensively in landscapes around the world due to the fact that it acts as a carbon sponge. This succulent is able to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than an equal amount of deciduous forest.
When after the weekend I had to (under protest) return back to Cape Town, I drove through some of the small towns along the way and couldn’t help but stop every few kilometres to take photos of the breathtaking aloe collections planted alongside all the streets, yellow, red, orange, pink and bi-colors – too many to count!
The Karoo has friendly people, amazing food, the best scenery and some of the world’s weirdest plants. It’s a peaceful place to unwind and be one with nature.