Explore the small towns of Clanwilliam and Citrusdal to discover one of South Africa’s hidden treasures, buchu, endemic to a very small area in South Africa.
The distinctive, sweet smell of buchu fills the air at Skimmelberg farm just outside of Citrusdal. I take a deep, indulgent breath and imagine myself feeling healthier immediately. It’s a heady feeling.
While I had a vague notion that this fynbos plant is good for you, I had no idea just what a treasure it is medicinally.
It was South Africa’s earliest inhabitants, the San and the Khoi, who discovered buchu, and used it to manage many ailments. Just recently, scientific research confirmed this knowledge.
The research, done through Stellenbosch University and Synexa Life Sciences, identified that it lowers blood pressure, and that it regulates blood-sugar levels – big news for those dealing with hypertension and diabetes.
Previous studies also confirmed its potent anti-inflammatory properties, and its diuretic effect.
Karin McCann from Cape Kingdom Nutraceuticals explains that buchu only grows in very specific circumstances with regards to elevation above sea level, the ground type (rocky soil), and the climate (hot summers, wet winters). Many have tried to grow it elsewhere, without success.
“Picky,” I say. “Elusive,” Karin insists.
There is also big business potential in these plants, which is why Karin looks forward to buchu hopefully one day receiving a geographical indication protected status.
“It is very important that we initiate that protected status – something the rooibos industry managed to achieve after we almost lost it to France.
“It is like saying, champagne is only from Champagne, and Pinotage can’t be cultivated elsewhere in the world. So, these are what they call geographical indication status for things that are endemic to a region. It is a process that has to be done at a governmental level.”
The South African government already has legislation in place to ensure the sustainable use of indigenous genetic and biological resources, as well as the fair and equitable sharing of benefits with the people that own the traditional knowledge. In the case of buchu, this knowledge comes from the San and the Khoi.
Cultivating and Exporting
Karin explains the process. “In order to cultivate and export buchu for commercial purposes, companies must have a bio-prospecting permit. South Africa is one of the first countries that actually legislated this.
“Part of getting this permit is acknowledging the traditional knowledge of holders of the genetic resource and entering into a benefit-sharing agreement with their representational councils like the San Council and the National Khoisan Council in the case of buchu.”
The profits are then paid to the Bioprospecting Trust Fund, managed by the Department of Environmental Affairs, who is responsible for sharing the benefits equally between the beneficiaries.
Farming with this medicinal plant also has great business potential, with the distilled buchu oil being the most valuable.
“The oil extract is our biggest export for the flavour and fragrance industries and the health and wellness industry. It is also a very expensive commodity. One kilogram of buchu oil extract currently costs between R9 000 and R12 000,” Karin says.
With only a handful of distillers of buchu oil, it is a growing industry. “Many farmers grow a lappie of buchu and they know that there will always be a buyer for their buchu.”
Ria Slabbert, the director at Skimmelberg, agrees. “Buchu has not been cultivated for hundreds of years, so everything is trial and error. The cultivating processes are still in an experimental phase. There is no one way that is the way. You find new ways. You can’t really go and Google ‘I want to plant buchu’ to find the right way – because there isn’t, really.”
A delicious buchu-tea tasting is the perfect ending to the farm tour. En route to the next stop, I reflect on how many times I have driven this very road.
Rooibos and Rock Art
It is 800km from Cape Town to Keimoes, my hometown in the Northern Cape, so it is no wonder we’d never stop off just two hours into the journey to sightsee. Now I know there is much exploring to be done.
Tucked away behind the small town of Clanwilliam, you will find the Cederberg Ridge Wilderness Lodge. Clanwilliam, previously known as Jan Disselsvlei, is the heart of rooibos country, and one of the oldest towns in South Africa.
The lodge overlooks the raw, rugged beauty of the Cederberg mountains and the minimalistic architecture of the lodges makes the outside the hero.
While anyone would be forgiven for wanting to lounge around the pool, we are much more intrepid. We head off on a leisurely hike with our guide, David van der Westhuizen, as two black eagles circle above.
According to the book Cederberg Rock Painting: Follow the San by John Parkington, the Cederberg is one of the richest areas of rock art in Southern Africa – and the world – as measured by the number of painted images per square kilometre.
As a rock-art tour guide, David regularly takes tourists on the Sevilla Rock Art Trail and the Warmhoek Rock Art Trail.
He shares his knowledge about the rock art and the San and Khoi societies: from the materials used for painting; the shamanic trances depicted in the group scenes, to the pre- and post-colonial rock art, and the differences between the San (hunter-gatherers) and the Khoi (herders & farmers) people.
“Eland had great significance to the San, which is why they are depicted in rock art so often. The animals were used in initiation ceremonies,” he shares.
To become a man, a boy must kill an eland with a poisoned arrow – a difficult task because of the thick layer of fat under the eland’s skin.
While any big game would do, the eland being the biggest would bring the hunter more prestige. “It is a sign that you can and will provide for an extended family,” David explains.
To become a woman, a girl would be taken away to a secluded area at the onset of her first menstruation.
A woman elder of the tribe would ceremonially perform the eland bull dance, and at the end of her period, she would be rubbed with whatever is available, such as honey and buchu.
“But the best thing would be eland fat so that she can become fat like an eland. When this period ends, she becomes a woman,” he says.
Concluding our hike, David shares the folklore of how the eland was created – one of the stories taken from the Bleek and Lloyd Archive, and dramatised by the Sederberg Primary School in Clanwilliam every year on Heritage Day.
“One day, /Kaggen (the praying mantis) dipped his shoe in the Xa river, and an eland emerged. He hid the eland in the reeds, visited it every day and rubbed it with honey. /Kaggen admired it as it grew bigger, but the dassie, /Kaggen’s wife, got suspicious and asked him why he didn’t bring honey home anymore.
“He lied and the dassie sent her grandson, the mongoose, to find out the truth. Eventually, they had the eland killed and brought the meat to the dassie.
“That evening, when the praying mantis came back from hunting and found his wife serving eland meat to the guests, he was very mad, as no one asked his permission to kill the animal that he created.”
They say it was from that day that men started hunting the eland.
“It was also the day that the praying mantis started protecting the eland by sitting on the white patch between the eland’s horns, fighting off any enemies that the eland came across.”
SAA flies to Cape Town several times each day from Johannesburg (O.R. Tambo International Airport). Rent a car and take the N7 to explore the many small towns along the way. Book your tickets today!
Words by Leanne Feris