South Africa in Bloom: On the Flower Trail in Cape Town and Beyond

South Africa had long been on my travel wish list. Since childhood, I dreamed of watching zebras, lions, giraffes and, most of all, elephants hanging out in their natural habitat, far away from any zoos. But the wildlife that eventually got me to click “go” on a South African safari was just as photo-worthy, though quite a bit smaller. More delicate, too.

I heard about South Africa’s wildflowers and how, during the country’s springtime (August and September), they color the landscape. Plus, my maternal grandmother was an artist and gardener. When I think of flowers, I think of her. That is always a good reason to travel.

wildflowers cape town
Plan a relaxing afternoon in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. (Photo: Jenna Schnuer)

I decided to start my trip in Cape Town. Since I would be heading up the country’s west coast by van with a small group of other travelers, I wanted to take a few days to explore the region on foot after the long plane trip. I also wanted to see one of the world’s most stunning planned gardens: Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

The gardens, which bloom just east of Table Mountain, are a 20-minute taxi ride from downtown hotels, including the Protea Hotel by Marriott Cape Town North Wharf.

wildflowers cape town
Wildlife sightings abound. (Photo: Jenna Schnuer)

The gardens are astonishing. With otherworldly succulents and floral colors that would make artists weep with envy, there’s so much to see. One of my favorite blooms: the pincushion protea, which looks very much like what its name conjures up in the mind (though with spiky red or yellow “pins” that curve far more than any sewing pin).

Kirstenbosch’s pathways kept me busy for hours and hours. The plants and trees were rarely familiar, as they had so little in common with the beauties my grandmother grew back in New York.

wildflowers cape town
Details matter when snapping the white rain daisy. (Photo: Jenna Schnuer)

After resting up in Cape Town, it was time to head up the coast to photograph the wildlife I’d flown over to see. First stop was West Coast National Park, where I saw my new favorite daisy, the white rain daisy. The petals are all in the namesake color, but the center? The center explodes into purple.

The park’s other temporary residents were all bright pinks and yellows. There was just one blue flower, and it was a gentle dazzler, reminding me ever so slightly of the forget-me-nots I saw in Alaska. My brain on overload after seeing all that color (nature, you so crazy), I was happy to get to the night’s stop in Clanwilliam.

But before settling down with some local wine, we traveled to the Cederberg Wilderness Area, where my brain went into overdrive while looking at the simple, elegant rock art of the San Bushmen.

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Ancient rock art adds to the intrigue. (Photo: Jenna Schnuer)

The next day, all flowers all the time. OK, a few tiny wildlife critters, too. (South Africa’s little five include some delightfully odd critters, though I loved seeing elephant shrew, with their long trunks, skitter on by.)

We headed up Highway 7 to the outback of South Africa, Namaqualand, a usually arid area that takes a turn for the brighter throughout wildflower season. Fields of flowers reached toward the sun.

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Be sure to stop for a spell in Nababeep. (Photo: Jenna Schnuer)

But the highlight of the trip was in the town that will forever remain my favorite name, Nababeep. Home to a mining museum, Nababeep is not particularly colorful, save one thing: the brilliant orange flowers that cover every possible inch during the spring. For that time, there’s no brighter spot in the world.

Animal safari? Not for me, thanks.