A rooibos tea-tourism industry is brewing in the Cederberg
Aron Hyman finds out what's potting in and around the 'rooibos capital of the world' in the Western Cape
If you lie down in the Cederberg and look at the stars, you could imagine the Earth around you as a reflection of the heavens.
Almost innumerable flower species wait for the sun to rise in pockets of sand scattered amongst boulders that are stacked onto each other at impossible angles. Each crevasse and each koppie contains tiny ecosystems so unique that they may be found only on that spot.
And if you were to light a candle under one of those boulders, you would likely see the paintings of the Khoi-Khoi and the San, the first people to tread this ancient and still relatively unchanged land.
Living here as far back as 8,000 years ago, the Khoi-Khoi and San unlocked the secrets to a vast, natural dispensary of medicines in the local plants, such as the buchu (Agathosma betulina) and kankerbossie (Sutherlandia frutescensthe).
They were also the first to pick the needle-like leaves off the wild, thin rooibos (Aspalathus linearis), which they would wet and grind between two stones before mixing with animal fat and rubbing it onto their bodies as a natural anti-ageing and anti-inflammatory ointment.
They were also the first to drink rooibos as a tea.
Though they have disappeared from this land, their ancient remedies have spread across the world and, boy, does the modern world love an ancient remedy.
The rooibos plant is part of the Cape floral kingdom, commonly known as "fynbos", which grows nowhere else in the world. Yet its farmers for years have had to fight off foreign businessmen trying to make a quick buck by selling "rooibos", "red bush" or "honeybush tea" across the globe, even when there was very little in their product that resembled rooibos.
Thanks to massive efforts by the rooibos industry and the Western Cape government, a long fight for this proudly South African heritage recently finally paid off when the tea was officially given Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom last month.
This means that only leaves cultivated in the southeast Cederberg region can be sold as "rooibos" in EU countries and several others outside the bloc. Rooibos, therefore, now has a similar status to champagne, which can only be labelled as such if it was cultivated in the Champagne region of France.
THE MAGIC OF PLANTS
Rooibos isn't the Cederberg's only plant that grows nowhere else in the world. There is also the extremely rare snow protea (Protea cryophilla), with flowering cones the size of the king protea; and the ancient Clanwilliam cedar (Widdringtonia cederbergensis), which once grew so abundantly here it gave the mountains its name. Today it is listed as critically endangered.
Such rarities make the area a magnet for nature lovers, and it is particularly popular during the wildflower season from August to September. Its surreal mountain landscapes can be enjoyed year-round, of course, and now a tourism industry centred on "nature's nectar" — rooibos — as well as other local plants is brewing in the region too.
Skimmelberg is an organic farm on the slopes of the Skimmelberg mountain that sustainably cultivates both buchu and rooibos. It offers tours so visitors can learn more about these fascinating plants and their properties and how they are farmed. Both buchu and rooibos grow only in SA and attempts to plant crops in Australia, the US and elsewhere have failed.
The farm subscribes to the aims of the Greater Cederberg Biodiversity Corridor, which is all about conservation and the sustainable management of natural resources.
In fact, Skimmelberg has assigned more than 90% of its Waterval farm (the property is two farms joined, Witelskloof and Waterval) to conservation, and a stewardship agreement with CapeNature means farming operations take place on the doorstep of the Skimmelberg Nature Reserve.
Standing in the middle of a buchu plantation here is a sensory delight, where wild bees, beetles and butterflies pollinate the purple and white buchu flowers growing in long rows. Their scent — a heady mix of blackcurrent and mint — hangs in the air, and sheep munch on the wildflowers that sprout between the buchu rows, apparently undeterred by the fact that there are birds of prey, jackals and leopards around here.
Our guide, Carika Fourie, says you can eat buchu off the stem, that it has powerful medicinal properties, is anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and a natural diuretic. It's good for stomach problems and hypertension.
With a culture of natural living taking hold in Europe, this plant is becoming increasingly well known.
As for rooibos, Fourie explains how farmers have to wait until the seeds fall off the plant by themselves — if they don't, they won't germinate. For the farmers, ants are the unlikely heroes here. The natural gatherers, she says, collect the seeds and store them in their nests — even though they can't eat them and the seeds won't germinate there either.
"The easy way to get rooibos seeds is to break open the ant nests and get them all nicely grouped together." She is quick to add, however, that since Skimmelberg is a nature reserve, "we don't touch any animals on the farm, and that includes the ants".
The rooibos we know is actually not the same wild rooibos the Khoi-Khoi and San used and which still grows wild today. It's a plant spliced together from the wild rooibos with another plant by 19th-century Russian immigrant Benjamin Ginsberg to give farmers a bigger bush with more leaves to harvest.
ROOIBOS CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
About 30km north of Skimmelberg lies the charming town of Clanwilliam, also known as "the rooibos capital of the world".
Clanwilliam is surrounded by hills and mountains and the untamed wilderness always feels close.
Here you can sample just about anything grown or made in the region at the Veldskoendraai restaurant and farm stall, including rooibos teas and even some speciality gins, such as 1st Principles Rooibos Gin and Carmién Floral Berry Rooibos Gin.
Aficionados will also love the House of Rooibos, which not only sells a huge variety of products — from teas to lip balms to shampoos — but also offers tastings and presentations about the history and production process.
The rich heritage of this community is very neatly preserved in Clanwilliam's museum, called the Ou Tronk Museum because it's the old jail.
Guide Herschil Pieterse talked us through the town's interesting origins, back to the first people who called this region home.
ART ON THE ROCKS
But to fully immerse oneself in the true wonders of this land, it's best to walk in the footsteps of those who discovered its secrets and who lived in harmony with it.
Traveller's Rest Farm is 34km from Clanwilliam on the Wupperthal road, over the spectacular Pakhuis Pass. It has self-catering accommodation and a restaurant, but it is its Sevilla Rock Art Trail — with paintings estimated to date back between 1,600 and 8,000 years — that will give you a sense of what the Khoi-Khoi and San people's lives were like.
The 5km trail winds along the Brandewyn River and visits nine sites of rock-art paintings. Here you really get a sense that the first people who lived in the area experienced a world where nature took and gave in abundance.
On a wall in a rocky overhang, one particular painting jumps out at me. It's a vision among the elephants, the lions and the eland of a group of mysterious figures that look quite a lot like dinosaurs.
The painting is called "Monsters" but the unlikely cryptids are among the many mysteries of this place now lost to the world, along with its earliest people.
At least some of their heritage lives on in the plants and the teas — especially "the champagne of the Cederberg" — now being enjoyed by the world.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
WHERE IT IS: Clanwilliam is a town in the Olifants River Valley in the Western Cape, about 200km north of Cape Town.
SKIMMELBERG: Tea tasting is R75 per person; the two-hour farm tour plus tea tasting is R220 per person. To book, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org (prior booking essential). For more information see skimmelberg.co.za.
THE SEVILLA ROCK ART TRAIL: Permits from the Traveller's Rest farm stall are R40 per person (free for children under 12). They also have a free pamphlet with information about each of the nine rock-art sites or you can buy Rock Art of the Western Cape Book 1: The Sevilla Trail by Peter Slingsby — with info on the art as well as the plants on the trail — from the stall for R95.
WHERE TO STAY: Ndedema Lodge is a four-star bed-and-breakfast establishment with wonderful staff, and rooms that hark back to a time when things were built with ample space in mind. See ndedemalodge.co.za
WHERE TO EAT: The sheer variety of flavours to be found in the veld are a treasure trove for a brave and creative chef. Enter Christiaan Amon at Cederberg Ridge Wilderness Lodge, who offers a fine-dining experience like no other.
Perched on a foothill, this luxury lodge welcomes guests to enjoy dishes such as grass-fed beef steak and wild mushroom stroganoff along with wines by world-renowned Cederberg Wines vintner David Nieuwoudt, as you watch the mountains fade into darkness and the sky become a tapestry of stars.
• Hyman was a guest of the SA Rooibos Council