Maverick Life


Magic season in Cederberg’s high valleys

Magic season in Cederberg’s high valleys
The floral riot of spring. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

If you know where to look and when to go, these mountains will fill you with awe and wonder.

We were staying in a cottage called Hoek Sonder Koffee in the Cederberg with some friends who’d arrived a few days earlier. It was the spring side of winter, so there’d been enough warmth in the days for the plants to declare summer to be on its way. 

The previous day the weather had been raw and wet, today it was sunny, the following day it would rain, displaying the area’s interseasonal mountain character.

We often stay in that cottage and have explored the mountain trails and streams for years, examining many caves with /Xam rock art. It’s isolated, rustic and perfect if you’re not fussy about the small stuff.


They don’t last long, but the trip to see them is worth it. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Where hope was lost. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

After breakfast we carried a basket of bananas and apples – padkos – to the trusty Nissan X-Trail and set off down the track past the dam, now overflowing after years of drought, past the resident herd of eland and through two farm gates to the gravel road. 

The gravel took us to the tar which runs past Traveller’s Rest and The Englishman’s Grave in Agter Pakhuis, then on to more gravel and down a long pass on the lesser-travelled R364. 

Behind us were the peaks of the high Cederberg and, beyond the valley, the Karoo’s purple flat-topped mesas stepping away to the horizon. That’s where the flowers began, carpets of startling colour, each tiny bloom throwing its petals open to the sun.

The Cape floristic region includes more than 8,700 species of plants, most of which are native nowhere else in the world and many of which flower.

Water buttons (Cotula coronopifolia). (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Someone long ago once had this view. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Roadside Cederberg magic. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Pelargonium magenteum. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

What happens in good years, with just the right amount of winter rain and sufficient sun, is a floral explosion of unbelievable abundance that lasts perhaps a few weeks then is gone. You have to know when and you need to know where. 

We were heading into the valleys of the Doring River which in high summer are a featureless burned brown with dust devils, brooded over by Karookop. But right then they would make a silk Persian carpet look like a dull doormat. 

From a distance the mountains and valleys were a cauldron of colour in yellow, blue, indigo, orange, red and white. Closer, the finer fabric of the mixed mountain fynbos and renosterveld showed itself in bewildering variety. 

We stopped – we had to. The exuberance and fantastic patterning of hundreds of species painted in iridescent colours drew us into their embrace, gasping, mesmerised like the moggy insects sipping the proffered nectar. The strange thing is that there was nobody else there. It was like an orchestra playing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to a massive concert hall full of empty seats. 

Ox-eye daisy (Dimorphotheca pluvialis). (Photo: Don Pinnock)

No longer in service. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

At our feet were some of the richest floras in the world, greater than many tropical forest regions in its diversity. Daisies, buchus, vygies, gazanias, tick berries, felicias, marigolds, one-eyed monsters, forget-me-nots, stinkweed, irises, lilies, orchids, bulbs and much more opening their petals and bracts to the sky. All were part of the complex rhythms of what life does, what life is, of where it begins and goes. 

Time has been called an arrow, but here in these wild valleys, time’s direction assumes the circularity of the sky and the butterfly, winter storms and summer heat. The pulse of seasons.

Life, Earth’s trademark enterprise, starts with plants capturing gold bars of sunlight to power other lives, including our own, and gives us the oxygen we breathe.

Memories on the rocks of a lost people. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

A scene from Hunter’s Cave. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

/Xam polychrome art still vibrant after hundreds of years. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

The ecologist Carl Safina calls it “a pinwheel in which each petal creates the kind behind it, goes once around then falls, as all petals eventually do”. But is there a reason plants are so utterly beautiful? Do bees gasp in wonder?

The Cederberg mountains are old – formed about 700 million years ago – rusted orange and eroded into fantastic shapes. They loom like cities blown apart by a gigantic explosion. From their ramparts gargoyles, manticore and dragons frozen in time glower down at you. 

The names on maps are mostly Afrikaans and Dutch from a time when this was the frontier to the Great Unknown: Papkuilsfontein, Anysberg, Salmanslaagte. Other names, like Tra Tra, speak of older /Xam inhabitants.

Flowers regain an ancient ruined dwelling. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Early-morning dew on waking flowers. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Dew on a Hilton daisy (Gorteria aurantiaca). (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Cape hyacinth (Lachenalia orthopetala). (Photo: Don Pinnock)

For thousands of years the area was home to nomadic /Xam hunter gatherers who left galleries of finely wrought art in caves everywhere. 

Tramping these mountains over the years, binoculars round our necks and steadying staves in hand, we have come to recognise, with considerable success, where /Xam paintings are likely to be found. Some are famous, others are logged on few maps, if any, and it is better that way.

An icon of the Karoo – a rusty gate to nowhere. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

Hoek Sonder Koffee cottage all alone in foreverland. (Photo: Don Pinnock)

We turned back at the Doring River and a sign to Moedverloor (Lose Hope – there’s a story there for sure), sated with flower watching. With the low sun at our backs and the light-following blooms facing it, the display was even more spectacular.

That evening we would find leopard tracks behind our cottage. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options