We set out from balmy Cape Town for the familiar drive North into rooibos country, and slowly watched the landscape change as we rolled along the long straight road that stretches through the Swartland, an astonishingly vast plain rimmed with huge rugged mountains. Imagining our Grandfather Benjamin Ginsberg, founder of rooibos, travelling by ox and wagon for hundreds of miles under the scorching sun at the turn of the last century, we were very grateful for the air-conditioning!
Eventually the road started snaking up the rocky mountain passes, as the vista turned increasingly majestic and imposing. A troop of baboons watched us lazily as we climbed the pass and the massive sky slowly started turning pink. Finally we descended into the valley, passed a blue dam and arrived in the town of Clanwilliam, centre of the rooibos universe.
The next morning, after a hearty South African style breakfast, we were up early to visit the Clanwilliam Museum, where there was a new display honouring Benjamin Ginsberg’s pioneering contributions to rooibos – a proud moment for any family!
Then, we were off to inspect the rooibos harvest. This generally starts in February and continues for the next couple of months. We drove along the red dusty road and looked out at the mountain slopes covered with rooibos plants. Temperatures here can regularly reach up to 45 degrees in summer and rainfall has been particularly scarce this year - the resulting dryness was evident. Finally we found the area where the rooibos bushes were being harvested by hand using sickles as has been done for generations. The harvested leaves are then wrapped in large sacks ready for collection, before being taken back to the farm.
Back at the farm, we watched as the leaves were chopped finely, laid outside and dampened in order to oxidise slightly, and finally spread and dried out under the hot sun – a totally natural and artisan tea making process that has hardly changed since Benjamin perfected it over 100 years ago.
It was especially striking to observe how the leaf changes colour from green to darker green to orange to dark red as the oxidation takes place - all the colours of the Cederberg themselves.
Afterwards we returned to Clanwilliam town and were able to do a quick tea tasting – some red rooibos, green rooibos (the dampening process is left out to make this tea; it is simply harvested, cut and dried without oxidation) and some honeybush, to see how this harvest compared to past years.
Alas, this time our visit was too short, and we had to leave soon after. We’re already looking forward to the next trip and are planning on spending some extra time to hike in those magnificent mountains. The Cederberg are a special place; it is great to see the tea up close and personal, and even greater to visit the area where our family are from and where Benjamin and the following generations played such a huge role in popularising a drink which is now known all over the world.