On the trail of South Africa’s miracle tea

Prized for its medicinal qualities, rooibos tea is connected to the country’s history and Indigenous heritage.

To the Indigenous Khoi and San people of South Africa, rooibos tea is like mother’s milk, says Barend Salomo. Managing director of the Wupperthal Original Rooibos Cooperative (WORC), Salomo says he grew up drinking the caffeine-free beverage.

“I had six sisters and five brothers. All of us were breast fed. When my mother was busy feeding one baby, she would substitute her breast with a baby bottle of rooibos for another of her kids,” says Salomo.

“South African children get black rooibos tea with honey before they get soft drinks,” says Johannesburger Antje Mouton. “It tastes great and it’s comforting. It also helps for all manner of ailments. Dehydrated? Rooibos tea. Fever? Rooibos tea. Inflammation? Again, rooibos.”

Mouton, the operations manager at Martin Meyer Safaris, trains dogs for use in K9 anti-poaching units. She even gives cold rooibos to her two Belgian Malinois after a long day out. “If it’s been very hot, we give them a bowlful with ice.”

In recent years, the antioxidant-rich rooibos (from the Dutch for “red bush” and pronounced ROY-boss) has garnered a cult following outside South Africa among proponents of natural medicine. Within the country, a modest tea-tourism industry has developed, aiming to draw travelers beyond South Africa’s vineyards and wildlife safaris.

In 2021, rooibos was granted “protected designation of origin” (PDO) status by the European Union. The designation ensures quality and safeguards the name of a food or wine product that comes from a specific region and follows a particular traditional process. Rooibos is the only African product to have been added to the register, which includes specialty foods like Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and champagne.

But in South Africa, rooibos is more than a drink; it’s a way of life. Travelers will find the tea is inextricably linked to the country’s culture and history, fraught as it is with the struggles of Indigenous people for equity and inclusion. The Khoi and San peoples (who are sometimes collectively identified as Khoisan) were the first to ascertain the plant’s innumerable medicinal properties, make it into a tea, and introduce it to the Dutch colonists. Yet, until recently, they had not been recognized for their traditional knowledge nor reaped any of the benefits of the modern multimillion-dollar rooibos industry.

In 2018, after almost a decade of negotiations, the Indigenous people were formally acknowledged as the traditional knowledge holders of rooibos and were promised compensation for their seminal role in the industry. In July 2022, after four years of government delays, the communities finally received their first payment from the Rooibos Council.

History and health benefits of rooibos tea

Rooibos, or Aspalathus linearis, is a shrub whose young branches are often reddish. The bush bears green needles rather than leaves, and in spring, blooms with yellow flowers. 

There is only one place in the world where rooibos grows wild or can be cultivated—the Cederberg region, a rugged, mountainous area two hours northeast of Cape Town, which has the climate, soil, and conditions conducive to the healthy growth of the red bush. Many an entrepreneurial farmer has tried to cultivate rooibos elsewhere, but none has succeeded to date.

To process rooibos for tea, the needles and stems must be cut and “bruised” (crushed or squeezed to get the juice out), fermented in piles, and left to dry in the sun. The process turns the leaves their distinctive red-brown shade. The tea is sifted into different grades, then sterilized/pasteurized for human consumption.

While few scientific studies have been conducted, it has been found that rooibos tea may boost heart health, reduce the risk of cancer, and benefit people suffering from diabetes. There is also anecdotal evidence that rooibos relieves colic in infants and helps alleviate headaches, rashes, eczema, minor burns, and disturbed sleeping patterns, among other benefits. Historically, the Khoi and San peoples would pick the needles off the red bush, mix them with animal fat, and rub the ointment onto their skin as an antiaging or anti-inflammatory agent.

(Learn how ancient remedies are changing modern medicine.)

The settlers called the tea a “poor man’s drink,” as it was much cheaper than the black tea imported from Europe and Asia. Yet, in the 1930s, after having appropriated the traditional knowledge of the very people who shared it with them, the European colonists began exporting rooibos when it became possible to cultivate it as a commercial crop.

Today South Africa produces about 20,000 tons of the aromatic infusion annually—more than triple the amount it yielded in the 1990s. At least 8,000 tons are exported to more than 50 countries each year. Rooibos extract is also added to hundreds of products, such as cosmetics, baked goods, and alcoholic beverages.

(Where to find the perfect cup of tea? At its source.)

Wupperthal, home of rooibos

“Rooibos is part of the culture here,” Barend Salomo says. “You can’t separate rooibos from the people.”

Salomo was born and raised in Wupperthal, a village in the Cederberg. From his father, he learned how to collect rooibos in the wild; from his mother, how to prepare it for consumption. Now his son is following in his footsteps.

At WORC, Salomo helps manage a cooperative of 66 rooibos producers farming 89,000 acres of land, using biodynamic agricultural methods. When, in 2018, the Khoisan learned that they were finally being recognized for their knowledge and contributions, Salomo cried tears of joy.

(Africans are saving their soil with these ancient natural techniques.)

The agreement with the Rooibos Council, which represents the industry, is meant to provide about 15 million rand (about $962,000) annually in perpetuity for the thousands of Khoi and San people in South Africa. A percentage of the funds will remain in a trust earmarked for education, youth development, and skills development—and may include health care and land.

“These monies bring some kind of dignity back to our people,” Salomo says. “Still, it’s just the beginning.”

Following the rooibos trail

Curious travelers can learn more about the home of rooibos by driving north up the N7 from Cape Town to the quaint town of Clanwilliam in the Cederberg. Billing itself as the “Capital of Rooibos Tea,” Clanwilliam offers opportunities for tea tastings at Rooibos Tea House and the new House of Rooibos. Visitors can tour Skimmelberg, an organic rooibos farm 18 miles south of Clanwilliam.

Those wanting to delve deeper into the story of rooibos and the Indigenous connection to the plant should head farther down the road to the remote village—or in South African English, dorpie—of Wupperthal. Located 46 miles east of Clanwilliam, Wupperthal is a historic Moravian mission village of Cape Dutch-style buildings, characterized by thatched roofs, central gables, and whitewashed exteriors.

Here it is possible to meet the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Cederberg. Salomo says the town is planning for tourist accommodations to open within the next six months. The community hopes to develop more opportunities for eco-tourism, such as the four-day hiking and camping experience offered by Live the Journey.

Tea tastings can be enjoyed by joining guided hikes along a designated trail that takes in 13 outposts. Visitors can also sample teas at WORC’s rooibos processing facility in town.

(Here are the world’s best destinations for tea lovers.)

Reaching Wupperthal’s location at the end of a bumpy, winding gravel road, travelers discover a land of extraordinary botanical diversity. Indigenous rock art is scattered around the area, and the stony, mountainous terrain is studded with caves, rock formations, and endemic trees, bushes, and flowers, notably the snow proteas and the critically endangered Clanwilliam cedar. The Cederberg is also a birder’s paradise, and in early spring (August and September) carpets of wildflowers transform this mostly arid region into a riot of color.

Most of all, Wupperthal is about rooibos. Indeed the town depends on the “miracle” tea for its very survival. This is a huge weight on Salomo, who feels responsible for the welfare of his people. To lighten the mood, I ask if he himself drinks rooibos, if he likes its distinct taste—a sweet, nutty flavor that is often compared to hibiscus tea.

“I drink it right through the day,” he says with a smile. “Both hot and cold. And when I get home, I’m going to have a cup before I go to bed. It relaxes me.”

Based in Canada, Elizabeth Warkentin is a freelance travel writer and photographer covering culture, history, nature, and wildlife for outlets such as Smithsonian, the Guardian, BBC, and the Toronto Star.

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