Going back to the roots of Rooibos

Praised as healthy and wholesome, popular and versatile Rooibos only grows in South Africa and only in the Cederberg Mountains. Today, you can even get vodka flavoured with Rooibos. This evening, guests will bathe in tea. Melissa runs the bath and adds a sweet-smelling brew of Rooibos extract and delicate macadamia nut oil. Candles shine on rose petals. Outside, in the twilight of early evening, thorn trees reach as far as the setting sun. A zebra trots through the nature reserve in which the prestigious Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Resort and Wellness Retreat is situated. Perfect relaxation.

The venue: A landscape of rugged mountains, crystal-clear rivers and hundreds of square kilometres of fynbos – the famous bush vegetation of South Africa – some 250 km to the north of Cape Town.

The ingredients: Air as pure as if it had just been created and a wealth of plants – over 755 indigenous trees and flowers. This includes the knee-high grass bushes that are green when they grow in the fields and turn red after fermentation: These bushes are called Rooibos in South Africa and Rotbosch in German.

Hundreds of farmers have turned Rooibos into wealth. Some have even become millionaires.  This is because the entire world today drinks healthy, delicious Rooibos tea, the new export success in South Africa. The Cederberg region – stretching over a hundred kilometres – is a Unesco World Heritage Site and a protected mountain range in the Cape. It is the only region in the world where Rooibos grows.

Rooibos for beauty
Tea plantations, tea factory, Rooibos spas, Rooibos cookbooks, yes, and even soaps and jams made from Rooibos. Those who go on holiday in the Cederberg Mountains, do so in Rooibos country. There are also antelope, klipspringers, grysbok, foxes, honey badgers and even some leopard, which are protected by a conservation project.

However, the real star of the area is the tea. Founded in 1732, Clanwilliam with its 17 000 inhabitants are one of the oldest towns in South Africa. Rooibos grows and thrives in the sandy soil of over 500 farms around Clanwilliam.

Excursions are made to experience tea and beauty treatments as part of holidays as the amber red elixir is said to rejuvenate. Staying on a Rooibos farm is similar to staying in a German farmhouse. Rooibos farmer Willie Nel, 46, whose employees share in the profits, produces pesticide-free harvests of around 300 tons of tea per year while his wife takes care of their Ysterfontein farm with its quaint wooden guest cottages. Here, fresh croissants with Rooibos jam are served for breakfast.

Sea of flowers in the Cape
In spring, this African tea region explodes with colours when millions of yellow, orange and purple daisies, blue lilies and red King Proteas cover the Cape landscape in a precious floral carpet. This is the best time to visit this region.

In Clanwilliam, known for its mild winters and extremely hot summers, spring already begins in July. Every year in late August, Clanwilliam hosts a Flower Festival – the most beautiful wild flowers are exhibited in the town’s church hall. Amid all the splendour of colours, you can see the Rooibos bushes blossom like yellow gorse.

This ancient landscape in the Western Cape offers many attractions ranging from bizarre sandstone rock formations and huge dams to the delight of backpackers and water sports enthusiasts.

Here, you will find 6000-year-old caves in which the indigenous San people lived. They immortalised elephants, clubs and fire in their red rock paintings. Hiking and climbing tours take you through bold sandstone formations like Sneeuberg, which is 2027 meters high – 58 meters higher than the world-famous flat-topped Table Mountain in Cape Town.

Luxury lodge with wild zebras
The multi-award winning Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Resort and Wellness Retreat is considered to be one of the finest five-star lodges in Africa. It has 16 rooms and suites and a 170-year-old manor house exquisitely furnished – all set in a primeval landscape which is 500 million years old.

Zebras graze near lily ponds; the setting sun colours the striking rock formations of the Cederberg Mountains in a red glow.

Most tourists combine their visit to the Cederberg region with a stay in Cape Town. It takes about two hours to drive from Cape Town to Clanwilliam. Here, you will see South Africa as it once was: rural, secluded, with time standing still.

The menu of the gourmet restaurant Reinhold includes dishes such as Cordon Bleu and mushrooms in cream sauce. Housewives are chatting in front of the one-storey colonial shops in the main street of the town. Teatime is never far away.

Rooibos wealth is produced in a nondescript, but spotlessly clean collection of warehouses, silos and laboratories on the outskirts of Clanwilliam. Rooibos Ltd, public company with farmers as shareholders, produces 80 percent of the world's supply of Rooibos. Rooibos Ltd recorded in 400 percent sales growth during the past decade.

Countries such as Germany, Japan, The Netherlands, Scandinavia and even tea-loving Britain love the reddish brew with its sweet aroma. It also has a sweet taste due to its low tannin content.

The secret of Rooibos
Why does Rooibos only grow in South Africa? “Our soil is sandy like a beach and it has just the right pH-level,” explains Johan Brand, Rooibos Ltd’s Technical Manager, as he guides visitors to the farms on the slopes of the Cederberg Mountains.

Tea lovers looking for the Rooibos secret can observe how Mumbu, an African shift-worker, cuts the Rooibos bushes with a sickle at lightning speed. He is paid for every kilogram he harvests, making about 200 Rand (20 Euro) a day – which is at least three times more than the local minimum wage. About half of the large-scale commercial farmers have tea plantations, the rest are mostly small upcoming farmers.

In 1772, Dutch settlers in South Africa discovered this wild-growing panacea. In 1930, Russian immigrant Benjamin Ginsberg started to produce Rooibos on a commercial scale.

In the meantime, Rooibos became a medical cure-all that helped with ailments ranging from insomnia to eczema. Rooibos also became known for its detoxifying and antispasmodic properties and the ability of its cell-protecting antioxidants to help prevent heart problems. In South Africa, mothers soothe colicky babies with diluted Rooibos tea.

For herb lovers and vodka fans
The production of this miracle herb is simple: On the farms, the bush stalks are shredded (and not the leaves as with other teas), watered and spread open to ferment in the sun. During this process, the leaves turn red, making the drying yard look like a huge tennis court. In the factory, the dried herbs are cleaned, sorted and packed in bags. “An attempt was made to grow Rooibos tea in greenhouses. However, this was too expensive and the Rooibos did not grow very well,” explained Technical Manager Brand.

Brand’s colleague, Gerda de Wet, guides ecological tea shop founders from around the world, corporate customers, journalists and tea lovers through Rooibos Ltd’s factory. This tour has indeed become a popular highlight of the Rooibos Route.

The tea fans are curious and inspect the huge warehouses where forklifts move Rooibos bags with address labels ranging from Japan to the USA. Next, the tea fans get to experience a taste test in the laboratory. This is one of the challenges – getting each batch of Rooibos, which grows relatively wild, to taste the same. “It all depends on the blend,” is all that Brand is prepared to share.

Brand giants such as Messmer, Pickwick and Teekanne obtain the raw material for their products from South Africa. Visitors will be pleased to hear that Rooibos is now largely grown without pesticides. A few farms have been awarded Fair Trade Certificates.

What’s more, you can enjoy the wonders of Rooibos in many ways, says Gerda de Wet, referring to Rooibos Ltd’s award-winning and popular cookbook with hundreds of recipes ranging from Rooibos jam to Rooibos-smoked steak. “The basic principle is simple”, explains the South African. “Simply exchange water for Rooibos in recipes.”

The latest craze among Rooibos-loving South Africans is vodka with a hint of Rooibos. Singapore Airlines are now serving Rooibos on its flights – but in its natural form.

Participation in this trip was supported by South African Tourism. See below for more information about our transparency standards and journalistic independence.