• Sophie Smith

The Smiths do the Namaqualand Flower Festival

Winding through the magnificent pass to get to the festival, the excitement was growing. The orange cliffs and the deep valleys dropping away beneath us made us feel like we were really disappearing from civilisation. We eagerly awaited the fields of colourful flowers we had told the kids about. We were just starting to think we had taken a wrong turn and were really in the middle of nowehere, when we saw the signs to let us know we had arrived and point us towards the family camping.

“Arrive early to make sure you get a good spot” they said, which implies that there was a good spot to get. There were two signs placed in ironic juxtaposition - “Family camping” and “BEWARE the thorns”. The camp site was a very bare and thorny field next to a lovely little dam, and a small grove of guava trees. There was only one spot that seemed decent, a corner next to the dam, and under some trees, but it did mean pulling up a lot of stinging nettles, relocating a flock of chickens and one very grumpy pig and all of his shit. It also meant that we would have to cross the entire field of giant devil thorns every time we needed to use the bathroom.

The kids loved setting up camp and undoing all the poles just as soon as we had put them all together. We opted for a giant six sleeper tent this time rather than two smaller tents, with a new gazebo out the front, and it felt like a mansion. We have upgraded our camp set up a bit since the Wild Coast and now have some comfy camping chairs and a table. We were camping with friends who also had a little girl, and so they pulled in next to us and we had a lovely communal living area with nice shade, camp chairs and lots of snacks at all times.

Once we were set up, I was desperate to head down to the main festival area and check out the action. It was quite a trek for little people, around the dam, through the gate, over the bridge, over the rocks and down the path. The set up at the festival was rustic and chilled, lots of wooden pallets and bunting flags and grassy fields. There was a stage, a bar, an activities tent, some food vendors and a tent with low tables for eating at. Right next to this was the general campsite which was a bit of a chaotic mish-mash of tents of all sizes and shapes and colours, some flying frisbees and an average age of about 22 years old.

Lex and I wandered up river a bit, past Filla & Saartjie the horses, and then through the most beautiful reeds and rocks and wild flowers and found the an incredible little water fall which flows through a big hole in the roof of a cave and so we splashed and cooled down there before reluctantly heading back to see how Cam was doing with a supper time braai. The sun was setting, and the dust glowing golden and the magic of the Cederberg was thick and strong.

We had been told that there would be allocated communal fire pits, which there weren’t really. We returned from our walk to a delighted Finn shrieking “Make fire, make fire” as he helped pile sticks onto a large fire in a rusty half gas canister which I’m pretty sure had been the poor pig’s trough just hours before.

We hadn’t been back for long when we were sent back to the main festival ground in search of beer for Cam, who told us to be quick. But alas, the girls got totally sidetracked by the start of the secret sunset. (For those who don’t know what that is, like my mum, all the participants wear wireless headphones and different people lead the session with a microphone and amazing music and general fun all around). After some lovely meditation and intention setting (most of which was spent convincing my sound-sensitive three year old that the headphones were not a torture mechanism but are in fact fun), the games really began as we were all encouraged to become jalapeno poppers, working our way out of our packets and then popping around the field to the most amazing salsa music. Lexi started to get into it and enjoyed dancing around with everyone. To take your headphones off and watch 250 people dancing like wild liberated chilli poppers in absolute silence, is an amazing thing to witness. By this point I was having a blast but Lexi was getting over it (“Too loud!”) and I could just imagine Cam cussing me in his head that we were late for supper and had failed to forage for booze. I quickly found the beer vendor (only craft beers of course), grabbed an ale, and Lexi and I hot-footed it back over the rock, down the path, over the bridge, around the dam and into our camp site - ale extended in front of me as a peace offering.

We had a lovely supper of wors and sweet potato, and from across the dam we could hear the festivities really getting going as Petrus Vaalboy and Isaac Kruiper, two Northern Cape bushmen, welcomed us all by calling on the ancestors. Although my FOMO was real and I longed to get in on the fun and the action, it was time to try and get the kids clean and in their PJs. We each launched a child over our shoulder so that they avoided the sea of devil thorns, and lugged them over to the quaint tin shanty under another guava tree. Unfortunately it was impossible to balance the hot and the cold water with out the gas geyser shutting off so we just ended up with two screeching cold wet toddlers in the dark. We lugged them back to the tents, and then Finn went to bed while Lex went off for a bit of an explore with her dad, before I took her to the star gazing event.

We all gathered around Jaques, the star guy, lying on the rocks, looking up at the stars and listening as he reminded us that we are all just made of star dust. Lexi had been so looking forward to it, and I think she was super impressed by not one, but two laser pointers, and the shooting star we all saw. Sadly the moon was pretty bright so the stars weren’t so clear, Lexi insisted on lying on me which wedged a spiky bush into my back, and there was a pretty thick haze of the type of smoke which I was quite enjoying but didn’t really think my 3 year should be inhaling. And so when she announced at the top of her voice that she was tired and wanted to go to bed, I wasn’t too upset, although I would have liked to have heard more.

We all sat around the campfire, drinking tea and feeling like real old timers compared to the partiers at the main camp site but decided to get some sleep before a big day the next day.

Little did we know that the big day would be starting at about 4am. I am not exaggerating when I say that the chicken coop was 10m from our tent, and there wasn’t just one rooster letting off every now and then in the distance. There were two roosters, have some kind of top volume ego contest, right next to our tent, on repeat, for two hours. TOO LOUD! Just before 6am I lost the plot, threw open the tent, and marched into that chicken coop. Let’s just say the sound of crowing was replaced with mad squawking and then silence. I climbed back into bed as Cam was getting up for the day and whispered violently: “If they start again, you know what you have to do!”.

Luckily my kids slept through the din and woke at a decent hour for breakfast and an epic hike. The main event of the weekend is a trail run - a tough 20km, a 9km and a family 4km run, or hike our case. Although the longer distances are taken quite seriously, the family route is very chilled, although my kids took the Rush snack bars very seriously. So the seven of us plodded off into the mountains at the tail end of the shortest route. Although my kids immediately complained about being tired and hungry, pretty soon the beauty of the trail captured their attention. Although we were yet to see a field full of daisies, there were hundreds of little flowers along the trail, as well as stones to throw, empty anthills to explore, rocks to jump off, and we even spotted a trail of ants all frantically transporting little white wild flowers in their jaws. Seeing bushman paintings for the first time was a highlight for the kids, although Lexi couldn't quite fathom why people would live in a cave. Just as the wheels were really starting to fall off, we reached the most beautiful pool, complete with a white sandy beach. If you know my kids, you’ll know that the clothes came off immediately and we all had a good splash.

Thankfully I kept my costume on, because the pools just got better and more beautiful the higher we got, and with the heat rising, I was so glad of the water to jump into. By this point Finn was in the backpack and although there were some pretty epic rock scrambling moments, Lex was still going strong (if somewhat jealous about her brother in the pack). Past more pools and waterfalls until we were up on the hill and joined an easy road back to camp, passing through beautiful rooibos fields on the way. Lexi was fascinated and determined to harvest some to make tea immediately.

I would be lying if I said she walked the whole 4km without complaining, but she certainly did walk every step of the way and we were super proud of her and excited for the imminent nap the kids would have. Unfortunately by this point the temperature was hitting the 40s, the tent was a sauna and we eventually had to put Finn is his car seat with the air con on to wrangle some sleep out of him and give up on Lexi’s nap.

The program had promised flower crowns and wreaths, something else Lexi was really keen for, but in true hippy festival style, this had been cancelled without any notice so we wondered around, sweaty and tired until we found a pineapple and banana smoothie and lay on the grass in the shade of a tent to drink it. The poi and hoola hooping was still happening and Lexi gave that a try and really enjoyed it, but man alive, that kind of heat sucks away at your soul.

We decided that the best plan for the afternoon was to find water and get in it. Unfortunately all the good watering holes had turned into endorphin and alcohol fuelled party spots but we found a little spot along the with river, shaded by reeds and enough water to get wet and we set up there until it began to cool down. Unfortunately this meant missing the medicinal plant walk with the bushmen which I had been really keen to attend. To be honest, other than the hike, there wasn’t much we didn’t miss while trying to balance two small kids and a schedule that changed all the time.

That afternoon the stage was opened for a lovely open-mic session where people nominated their friends to perform. It was super chilled, a bit like a mini-kirbstenbosch concert, and there was some serious talent which I was loving but Lexi, having had no nap, got over pretty soon (“Too loud”) and dragged me back to camp, but not before I had picked up a local kombucha and tequila mixer and another craft beer for the braai master. We had supper and another cold failed shower under the guava tree, and then tried to get the kids off to bed. Eventually they fell asleep and our friends agreed to watch the kids because they had brought walkie talkies (genius, since there’s no cell signal). Sadly we missed the main band performance, but enjoyed the DJ and some more drinks and good chats under the stars with friends. It was the first time out without our kids in a long time but we headed to bed pretty soon, in preparation for the inevitable 4am cock competition wake up.

The next morning there was a yoga session which Lexi was keen to join me for. I’m fairly certain it was out of respect for the multiple hangovers in our midst, but the bearded yoga instructor with his vest and his man bun kept us lying on our tummies for a very long time before getting going and Lexi found this super frustrating, announcing loudly“I want to do the aeroplane pose and the crocodile pose”. My response: “Too loud!”.

Luckily my amazing husband hung around long enough to take her back to the campsite when she got over it, and I got to enjoy a lovely relaxing hour of sunrise yoga in the mountains which was a huge treat, and about the only item on the itinerary I really got to experience in full. I had been keen for the breathing workshop too but at the last minute that changed to a piano recital.

We set down our camp before the heat picked up, and slowly made our way down to the famous prize giving. It was amazing to hear the story of how the festival began. A few years ago, a group of friends hiked up a mountain and decided to make it a tradition, especially when one of the group passed away, and so the race trophy is named after him, and the tradition has grown bigger and better each year, with over 500 participants here this year. The prize giving was full of fun and jokes and laughter and handstand competitions but pretty soon I was told it was “too loud”. Need I say more? So we cut that short and got on the road, out of the mountains and headed for our next stop.

Would I go again? YES. It is the most amazing festival - the perfect mix of a sporting event, time in nature, and laid back, fun, partying and I wish I could turn back the clock and head for the festival as a twenty something year old with no kids or cares in the world and no injuries to stop me running. But even injured and with kids, and quite honestly feeling pretty old, there were plenty of highlights - the beautiful venue, the secret sunset, the incredible 4km trail, the camping and the few events that we did get to do like the poi and the star gazing and the yoga.

If we had Cam's parents there to help us with the kids so we could experience it all a little more, or if our kids were older or a little more chilled, or if a whole lot of families of young kids did it together and we could all take turns with the kids, I would definitely do it again. First prize would actually be to leave the kiddos in Cape Town for a fun weekend with their grandparents while we headed for the mountains. But I am so glad we went and did it, and I love having family adventures and exposing my kids to these kinds of people and places.

And no, in case you were still wondering, we never did see that field of Namaqualand flowers.

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© 2019 Sophie Smith