Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Incredible Beauty Of South Africa's Cedar Mountains

November 18, 2011 11:34 pm

Tea and wilderness

rock painting
Ancient art: the Cederberg region has many rock painting sites, which are best explored with a guide
More than a century ago a young Russian émigré, Benjamin Ginsberg came to the Western Cape in search of a better life, and perhaps gold. But, much as he loved the wonderful wilderness of the Cederberg (Cedar Mountains), he found he sorely missed the black teas of his homeland.
Riding out one morning in early 1903, Ginsberg found a group of San tribesmen brewing a wild local herb which looked and smelled remarkably similar to tea. Rooibos (“red bush”) tasted like tea, but with a special natural sweetness.



Ginsberg experimented, and then started producing rooibos as you would a fine Chinese tea; he gave his life to the brew – and in popularising it, his fortune was made.
Bruce Ginsberg, Benjamin’s grandson, now runs Dragonfly Tea. The company’s Tick Tock and other brands of tea (of which rooibos is just one variety) are widely available.
Unlike Ginsberg, I have not travelled here by ox cart: historical accuracy is important, but so is air conditioning. The Cederberg is an easy three-hour drive north from Cape Town – and a spectacular one too.
I glided past the burnt stubble of the wheat fields of the Swartland on good straight roads, with the mountains looming bigger all the time.
At the Algeria campsite, the metalled road petered out. “We bid you welcome” said the first dusty sign. “Beware: wilderness” announced the second.
Not that I needed reminding. The Western Cape offers all the comforts a traveller could hope for, and many more pleasures beyond.
But this is Africa. Out in the mountains lurk leopards, and many slithery reptiles. Over and above the scariness of the local fauna, it is the scale of this wilderness that inspires awe.
Here is nature in all its glory. The Cederberg conservancy is part of one of 34 internationally recognised biodiversity hot spots.
It is one of the richest botanical kingdoms in the world, home to at least 8,000 species of wild flowers and herbs.
In spring, the valleys transform into a magic carpet of millions of nodding daisies growing all the way up to Namaqualand in the north, and the broad Karoo in the east.
Sphinx-shaped mountains show striated, fissured faces a thousand metres tall; endless cliffs appear to have been tiled in cork; rocks as big as mansions are clustered in town-like communities, where shale terraces overlooked by sandstone skyscrapers lead to boulevards of fallen boulders.
Humans are few. With the silvery sound of birdsong filling the air, the mountain wilderness feels like the promised land.
Against this backdrop, it may seem inevitable that a number of biblical literalists set up communities here in the past. Those that did not prophesy the end of the world, believed that they had found paradise.
If not the land of milk and honey, Bushmans Kloof resort, my base of operations, is at least a Relais et Châteaux.
The rooibos farm at Elandsberg is half an hour away down pebble tracks. My tyres throw up great clouds of rust-coloured dust.
At the farm, I participate in an eco-safari, where I learn about the area’s fynbos, the small heather-like vegetation found only on the southern tip of Africa, and it is here that I see rooibos being cultivated.
On a vast sandy hillside, grow metre-high clumps of tall, thin, feathered grass (Aspalathus linearis). It looks like a giant beige nailbrush, or Gary Numan between hair transplants.
Each clump is hand cut with a sickle, then taken to the farm where, just like black tea (Camellia sinensis) it is chopped very fine, then moistened and allowed to ferment gently before being dried in the sun.
The tea is ready when swarms of honeybees are attracted by the sweet smell. I leave to view cave paintings after a nice cup of tea.
The Cederberg area has much such art, most of it produced thousands of years ago. The Bleeding Nose shelter is located in a rocky alcove. Early man and scary beast are depicted in detail undimmed by the years. The scene shows a man with blood pouring from his nose, and it is known that shamans sometimes experienced nosebleeds during deep trances.
A mustachioed San man in a trilby appears out of nowhere to explain that the dyes used were based on animal blood and snake venom. You don’t get that at your local DIY centre.
Later, I go “bouldering”. This entails climbing unfeasible rock overhangs emboldened by the knowledge that you are anchored by ropes, and that there is a big soft crash mat below you. I turn out to be a rubbish climber, but a fine faller.
The pretty town of Clanwilliam was founded in 1725. Its main street is wide enough to turn your ox cart round, and it boasts two gorgeous churches, a charming museum (including a section on rooibos), and four tea rooms, each serving the best cheese and tomato toasties I have ever eaten.
Bouldering makes a man hungry, is my excuse.
A nice sit-down in a local winery’s tasting room is my exercise for the rest of the day. Cederberg Wines is the endeavour of David Nieuwoudt, who has, unusually, planted his Chenin Blanc, Bukettraube and Chardonnay high above the snow line. I drink them gladly, right up to my Plimsoll line.
The Atlantic coast at Lambert’s Bay is only 40 miles away. I end up at Muisbosskerm, an open-air, but not open all year, restaurant, which has mussel shells for spoons, spanking fresh fish on the braai (barbecue) and sunset views to die for.
Muisbosskerm also has a simple beachside hut over to which you waddle, after having eaten prodigious quantities of seafood (, reservations essential).
At sunrise the next morning, the mountains are alight with a rooibos glow.
Benjamin Ginsberg was right: there’s gold in them there hills.
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