In Search of the Stories

In search of the stories:

Those that know me know that for the past few years I’ve been seeking: seeking to understand the secret living truths that are held by the plants growing wild within the Cederberg landscape. So many people that come to this wild and ancient place have experienced the way in which this land is alive; still capable of bringing us back to the truth of who we are. In this place, there are many secret keepers – the rocks, the water, the paintings, the animals – but to me, the greatest secret keepers of them all are the plants. I believe that every plant harbours its own secret story; a story that is even greater than the infinitesimal intelligence of its component parts. For every plant, its growth habits, appearance, history, traditional uses and phytochemistry are layers of story; a multidimensional tale that reaches back in time to bygone peoples and eras way before them. I believe these stories are fundamental truths and that they not only hold keys and clues to our history, but also to our healing and future survival.

So far, I have published two:


Rooibos and co-creation

Rooibos and the bonds that bless:

Rooibos is one of South Africa’s best-researched plants, having been the subject of many academic studies across the world. But did you know that power of rooibos can best be ascribed to its capacity for forming connections? Let me explain what I mean.Rooibos is quite a mineral-rich plant, containing Iron, Potassium, Calcium, Copper (and Vitamin C), but it is best known for its richness in flavonoids, specifically Aspalathin, Nothofagin, Quercitin, Rutin and Chrysoeriol. Described simply, these flavonoids are highly stable, sugar-based aromatic molecules which are – by virtue of their stability – able to interact chemically with other substances, and in the case of rooibos, perform the vital anti-oxidant activity that allows the plant to deliver such a wide range of health-giving benefits.

But what is anti-oxidant activity, anyway? In brief, it is the process of forming a bond that neutralises destructive free radicals. Free radicals are reactive molecules, generated by our body through various internal processes, as well as external stresses. Think of them as particles bearing a dangerous loose end: an unpaired electron looking for a purpose. Inside the body, this electron can be donated to another molecule (oxidation), or it can borrow from another (reduction or degeneration). Either of these processes causes wide-ranging damage in the body (to fats, proteins and DNA), broadly known as oxidative stress. There is a theory that all ageing in the body ultimately relates to oxidative stress. It has been linked to many disease conditions, including anthersclerosis, inflammation and inflammatory diseases of various organs, some cancers, diabetes, gastric ulcers, hypertension and neurological disorders.

An antioxidant is a molecule stable enough to donate an electron to a free radical on the rampage and neutralize it, thus reducing its capacity to damage, either by scavenging it, or by promoting its decomposition. Nothofagin and Aspalathin, the two most important antioxidants in rooibos, have been found to have particularly high free radical scavenging activity, also helping to prevent mutation of DNA. Their effectivity, it is thought, may be due to the particular stability of their molecular structure.

The anti-oxidant effect in rooibos has been linked to some far-reaching benefits, all relating to preventing degeneration and mutation by neutralising the body’s own destructive internal by-products. A bond that makes positive change from the inside. Or the outside: this anti-oxidant effect also makes rooibos useful on the skin (as a poultice, in the form of wet tea bags, or in an ointment), to treat rashes, burns, insect bites, aching teeth and bleeding gums. It also makes a wonderful base for any moisturiser, gradually helping to slow down ageing and even provide some UV protection.

But free radicals are not the only substances to which rooibos can make a happy connection. As an aromatic, it has also been found to bond or combine well, and this is certainly true of its practical usage. Many medicinal plants prefer to work on their own, or in specific synergistic combinations, but rooibos seems to work well with anything. In its traditional use, it is often used as a carrier to assist in consuming various herbal preparations. In contemporary commercial use, it has spawned massive creativity through all the combinations it supports - there are over a hundred rooibos-based herbal tea blends, just for starters. I find it very practical to combine rooibos with other fynbos, thereby incorporating the very powerful medicinal properties of some of its wilderness companions. In addition, it sometimes makes working with rooibos easier. For example, while rooibos has a resin, not an essential oil, it can be distilled with an oil-bearing plant, such as buchu, to create a buchu oil that infused with pure, concrentrated rooibos resin. The result: something softer, rounder and more balanced that pure buchu on its own.   

It has recently been found that rooibos prefers companion planting. It is the trend, in modern agriculture, to remove any plant besides the intended crop. However, recent science reveals that the increased microbial health of a space in which rooibos is left co-planted with up to eight companions natural to its wild state, will result in far greater longevity for the crop – plus the future survival of our fynbos biome! Rooibos doesn’t want to be left on its own…

Of course, the very existence of rooibos as a commercial crop has been a co-creative process. From the most recent and comprehensive study on the origins of knowledge about rooibos, it is not 100% clear whether rooibos was consumed as a beverage by ancient San and Khoi people, but it is clear that by the nineteenth century, it was very popular with colonialists and local people alike. The knowledge of harvesting and processing the wild tea, however, certainly originated with the brown communities in the Cederberg region. In the mountains around Wupperthal and Eselbank, people would collect the wild rooibos plants and carry them to the village on the backs of donkeys. Back at the village, it would be processed by chopping the tea on a wooden block, sprinkling it with water and leaving it covered by sticks overnight. The following morning, the tea would be spread out to dry and then used as a tea, which would be consumed all day. The modern process remains largely similar.

The process of obtaining seed was similarly co-creative. In the 1930’s, Lefras Nortier was attempting to cultivate the tea at Klein Kliphuis farm. One of his challenges was collecting the seeds - they are truly hard to find, as they fall at different times. Nortier would purchase the seeds from neighbouring Khoi people, one of whom discovered a secret that is still used by many farmers to source seeds today: following ants to their nests, where they keep granaries of ready-scarified rooibos seeds. Transplanting seedlings proved equally challenging, and it was eventually discovered that one must work strictly in sync with the weather, planting just after heavy rain, when more rain is due (once established, rooibos does not require watering). Even in the 1950’s, it was said that a farmer would count himself lucky with a 50% hit rate. An incredible story, then, of interdependence, between plants, animals, the weather - and people working from different types of knowledge systems.

To me, this last story summarises the real truth of rooibos; the genius it wants us to find: The Art of Successful Co-Creation. We are inescapably interconnected yet still individualised. It is safe to dissolve our perceived “boundaries” when we have the inner strength to maintain our own core essence, and thus, our purpose in this world. In the words of the great Lao Tzu, “The wise cultivate inner strength and tranquility. That is why they are not seduced by addictive temptations”.

Bearing in mind all this co-creation, I am publishing, for rooibos day, a recipe for making moisturiser with rooibos and one of its favourite companions – Dodonaea Angustifolia, the Sand Olive (a potent anti-microbial and anti-mutagenic plant).

Anti-ageing moisturiser with Rooibos and Sand Olive

-    30g beeswax
-    250ml quality base oil - I use a combination of organic baobab oil, marula oil, cold-pressed organic castor oil and grapeseed oil
-    130ml rooibos and sand olive hydrosol - a hydrosol is produced steam distillation through plant material. The slightly milky, condensed result contains all the water-soluble compounds in the plant. Because many of the compounds in rooibos are water soluble, this ingredient is essential - do not substitute with plain water. If you do not have access to a hydrosol, you can make a strong tea, using freshly cut rooibos and sand olive leaves. If you use processed rooibos, at least ensure it is green rooibos!
-    5ml borax
-    About 400ml of rooibos and sand olive leaves - try to get hold of unpasteurised rooibos, as the anti-oxidant content is far higher. Straight off the plant if you can!
-    25 drops of essential oil (I use a double-distillate of rooibos and lemongrass for this recipe)

-    - Fill a saucepan with water. Keep a jug of water handy and keep checking to make sure it never boils dry.
-    Place a heat-proof glass dish on top of your saucepan and add the beeswax, oil and dry plant material. Heat gently for three hours. Regularly bruise the leaves using a wooden spoon.
-    Once the oils are nearly done, place your distillate into a saucepan and throw in the borax. Heat until the borax is dissolved completely, and then immediately remove from heat. Do not allow this mixture to boil.
-    Remove the oil from heat, and strain out all the herbs, using a sieve or preferably muslin cloth.
-    Pour both mixtures into a heat-proof glass jug and mix thoroughly with an immersion blender.  Add the essential oil and stir and keep mixing until your mixture has an even, creamy consistency.
-    Pour out into clean glass jars and seal immediately. Allow to set overnight. Label neatly.
-    The resultant moisturiser can be used on the face and body, is safe for babies and for sensitive skin. Keep away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures. Keep it sealed.

Receptivity to change, and Buchu:

Agathosma Betulina: Receptivity to change

The sacred aromatic

The sense of smell is said to belong to the most ancient part of our consciousness, evoking memory, emotion and different levels of awareness. The First People of this land must have known this and worked accordingly: integral to the Bushman way of life was the practice of anointing the body with aromatic plants for medicinal, magical and everyday uses.  It has been said that the name of the San/Bushman people comes from this deep association with aromatic shrubs (“bossies”). The Khoi and Nama people named them the Sanqua - translating to “Bosjesman” in Dutch or Bushman in English. Collectively, the aromatic plants were known as Sȃb, San, Son – or buchu. In later years, buchu came to refer to the Agathosma genus (which includes some 150 species) and to Agathosma Betulina particular. Its leaves are covered, on the underside, in oil glands which release a completely distinctive, sweet-smelling, if rather sharp, camphor-like oil which contains over one hundred compounds. Many of these have been individually and collectively studied in order to try to account for the extensive medical uses of the plant.

The transport of lifeforce

The raising of lifeforce energy through ecstatic dance was an essential part of San, Khoi and Nama culture (and continues to be, where tradition is still practiced). In my view, the best modern description of this may be found in Bradford and Hillary Keeney’s The Way of the Bushman. In this wonderful account of the spiritual practices of the Kalahari Ju|hoansi, we learn how /Nom, or lifeforce energy, is raised and brought to direct experience through music and spontaneous dance movement. As the /Nom heats up, the individual is able to extend “ropes” of connection to God, and healing is able to be channelled through this direct experience of God. At the end of this experience, buchu is rubbed onto the body – either as leaves, in powdered form or cooked in fat – in order to cool down the /Nom and return the person to everyday consciousness.

The interdimensional aspects of water

In many systems of understanding, water is said to represent a gateway to other levels of consciousness. As we break the surface meniscus, we cross the invisible barrier. Certainly, to be underwater, whether in a natural or manmade structure, can feel like being in a different realm. Many people in our northern Cederberg valley can, even today, tell one about die Waterbas (the Water Spirit) and possibly even their experiences with him. The story is highly evocative of the idea that bodies of water represent the place in which the veil between life and death – or different realities – is at its thinnest.

According to local legend, the Waterbas inhabits all bodies of water, but his main home in this area is the sacred Maiden’s Pool at Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve. He, and the Waternoointjies (water nymphs), are the guardians of all water. The Waterbas may often take a silvery, snake-like form, most often seen or felt as an unusual ripple or current in the water, and is also said to be able to climb out of the water pools and walk across to the next body of water, in the form of an old man with a silvery beard. If, whilst you are swimming, the Waterbas decides to take you, he will drag you under the water to his kingdom, which is dry and looks exactly like the land, and there you might stay forever, unless he chooses to release you.

The interdimensional property of water might also be interpreted as forming a key aspect of the traditional rainmaking practice, for which buchu was used as guardian and facilitator. If a shaman had to go and request the rain (e.g. in time of drought), they would go to seek the Rain Bull. To appease the Rain Bull, and ensure a gentle, female soaking rain (as opposed to violent male rain) the body would be rubbed in buchu. In a beautiful story found in Bleek and Lloyd, a young maiden uses buchu to put the rain to sleep and escape, after He has captured her. Even today, some people believe that buchu seed which refuses to germinate can warn of an approaching drought. 

Practical, everyday use

Buchu was also used to help blend one’s scent with the bush, when out on a hunting trip. The body would be rubbed with aromatic oil, either from fresh leaves, or dried, powdered and cooked in fat. This helps to ensure that prey cannot smell the hunter. On a more everyday level, the same aromatic oil could be rubbed on the body to keep the skin soft, to keep insects away, to disinfect, to relieve pain, and to promote good health.

When European settlers arrived in the Cape, buchu quickly became a popular remedy used for urinary and gastrointestinal complaints. It was most often used as a tincture. Soaked in vinegar, it was also used as a dressing for wounds.

Healing the waters, a modern context

Today, buchu remains a popular remedy for urinary and gynaecological complaints including water retention, cystitis, urethritis, prostatitis, yeast infections and leukorrhea. It is also recommended for gout and stomach complaints. Due to its ability to reduce uric acid, buchu is effective in treating rheumatism and gout. It has gained widespread repute for its anti-inflammatory action and its ability to act as an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-microbial agent. It may be consumed as a tea (an infusion of leaves on their own or combined with rooibos), in the form of buchu water (a by-product of essential oil production), in a tincture or even in tablet form. For inflammation and topical complaints, the essential oil can be diluted in a base oil, or one could make a leaf infusion.

More powerful than we understand

In Chinese medicine, balance in the body must follow a cycle through the elements of Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood, in that order. If the wood (which is represented by the Liver, the Gallbladder and material processes of creativity and growth) becomes overgrown, it may become clogged – like a garden beset by weeds, or the roots of a tree obstructing the plumbing. If this happens, water (the source of Wisdom, represented by the Bladder and Kidneys) cannot flow, and we may feel stuck, fearful and paranoid. Buchu’s efficacy as a diuretic, a “mover of the waters”, has been linked to buchu camphor’s action as an irritant to the gall bladder. Buchu camphor is a terpene known as diosphenol. In this context, it could be said to be treating the obstruction in the water by cutting through the excess wood; an essential function indeed, in today’s growth-obsessed world, but one which cannot be continued indefinitely: if we simply keep on cutting away wood, the water may flow away altogether! 

To explore this a bit more, Terpenes, of which there are many in buchu, are compounds which innately increase the permeability of the cellular membrane – the membrane being the boundary of the body’s reality, determining what gets in or out and thus playing an important epigenetic role. Many of these (such as limonene) are commonly used to treat rheumatism, infections, stress and digestive ailments. Another terpene, pulegone, is damaging to the liver but is less present in agathosma betulina than other species.

Buchu also has anti-oxidant properties, which are generally ascribed to the presence of flavonoids, which include diosmin (a blood vessel tonic), quercetin and rutin.

The importance of balance

It has been demonstrated that the molecular structure of water holds an imprint of everything it has experienced and perhaps it is so in our bodies. By modulating the membrane and moving (possibly changing) the water, buchu potentially delivers far-reaching transformation for body and mind. A potent medicine indeed - but yet sold and used very casually. In my opinion, buchu is a plant that should be used mindfully and when it is needed. With long term use, the liver must also be protected (which is also why buchu blends well with rooibos, the creator and protector). Buchu on its own should definitely not be used internally when pregnant or breastfeeding.

Perhaps, for everyday ongoing use, it is perhaps best to follow the example of the ancestors and let the skin, the nose and the consciousness of smell absorb the benefits and make the changes we need. And with this in mind, here is my modernised take on the ancient San remedy of fat infused with buchu

Anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial ointment with Buchu

- 100g beeswax
- 250ml good quality base oil
- 375ml of Buchu leaves - you can use dried leaves, as long as the smell is still potent
- 5ml buchu essential oil

- Fill a saucepan with water. Keep a jug of water handy and keep checking to make sure it never boils dry.
- Place a heat-proof glass dish on top of your saucepan and add all ingredients except the essential oil)
- Heat gently for at least three hours. Regularly bruise the leaves using a wooden spoon.
- Remove from heat, cover with a lid and place in direct sunlight for another 6-8 hours.
- Bring inside, and reheat, using the double boiler method. Again, bruise your leaves.
- Strain out all the herbs, using a sieve or preferably muslin cloth.
- Add the essential oil and stir.
- Pour out into your containers and seal immediately.
- Allow to set for a few hours, preferably overnight. Label neatly.
- The ointment can be used as a lip balm, as a balm for infections, or as an anti-inflammatory.

"On-grid" essentials

We do not offer wi-fi within our accommodation - in fact, we don't even make use of wi-fi technology in our own home, preferring old-fashioned LAN cabling, for both performance and health reasons. Most of our guests love the sense of switching off and reconnecting to nature and each other. However, we do understand that when going away, there are times when one needs some form of connectivity, whether for work or personal reasons. 

It is for this reason that we do provide a space for all those on-grid essentials. Situated next to our home, less than five minutes' walk from either of the units, it is a room in which you can:

  1. Plug your laptop into the internet via a LAN point (Apple Macs will need an adaptor);
  2. Charge all your electronics (camera, phones, computers, spotlights for night-time climbing, etc); and
  3. Freeze items that you are unable to fit into the refridgerator in your unit (e.g. extra ice or meat, etc).

NOTE: The Agter Pakhuis Valley also has full mobile connectivity, including data connectivity, but ONLY on the MTN network. Thus, an additional option for connectivity is simply to obtain an MTN SIM card before you arrive, and load some airtime and data onto it.


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