Study Abroad to South Africa

Tea Tour and Traveling Trials

Saturday we toured Groenkol Rooibos Tea Estate. At Groenkol the tea is grown, harvested, processed, and packaged making it the only rooibos estate in the world! (The other rooibos farms just grow and ship the tea away for processing.) Our tour turned out to be just as unique as the estate.

After yet another trek over a combination of paved, gravel, dirt and sand roads, we were greeted by our charming hosts Annette and Chris du Plessis, who invited us in out of the scorching late spring heat (35⁰C or 95⁰F) to enjoy a glass of iced rooibos tea.

As we sipped the delicious beverage, Annette began to tell us the history of the estate. In the 1950s her father became one of the first rooibos farmers. Although rooibos had been used for years it had previously been harvested from the wild instead of cultivated for production. Groenkol is still in the family and although Annette lived most of her life in other areas of South Africa, she and her husband Chris came back to this beautiful mountainous wilderness near the quaint town of Darling to retire and start their tour business sharing the wonders of rooibos production.

As some of the brilliant sun rays began to fade we piled into Chris’s old retrofitted safari jeep/truck. At one of our many stops along the sandy trail we discovered the fields of scrubby shrubs we had seen before were actually rooibos fields. Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) is only endemic to this small region of South Africa including the area of Clanwilliam. This is due to the specialized symbiotic interaction rooibos has formed with the microorganisms in its native soil allowing  it to thrive in harsh growing conditions. These perennial shrubs only grow during the early and mid-summer. For the best quality tea, two-thirds of the plant is cut when the new shoots have turned from light green to red. A six year cycle including planting successional crops of rooibos, cover cropping and fallowing the fields insures a continuous healthy harvest.

Along the way to the processing facility, Chris shared with us his wealth of knowledge about the local geology and fynbos, highlighting various fascinating adaptations of the endemic plants to bloom and thrive without rain and temperatures above 100°F for months.

Once the freshly harvested rooibos plants are brought to the processing buildings they are sent through various machines that shred and sieve them to remove unwanted materials. Some of the waste is utilized in natural cosmetics, skin care products and medicines (Rooibos has also been found to have many health benefits). The shredded rooibos is clumped into long heaps, bruised and then soaked in water to start an oxidation process. This takes place overnight and the tea is spread out to dry in the sun the following morning. Large bags of dried rooibos are allowed to age for two to three years to improve quality. Ninety percent of the tea produced at the estate is exported to countries such as Germany, Japan etc. (but not the United States!).

As the temperature dropped with the sun we arrived at our dinner destination, a large rock formation aptly named The Owl Kitchen (its shape resembles the face of an owl). The delicious home cooked meal, eaten in candle light under the overhand of the cliff, fittingly began with Annette’s special rooibos bread and concluded with a rich soothing cup of hot rooibos tea in the cool, clear night air….

Sunday was a travel day. There is no other way to describe it than to say, “If you’ve ever traveled you know that things never go perfectly.”  I had the task of navigating us from Citrusdal to Montague over 230 km of mountain passes, through gorges  and  valleys, on small ribbon roads and straight paved roads. The scenery was breathtaking, the task daunting considering:

  1. I am directionally challenged!
  2. The GPS, printed directions, and map all showed different routes.
  3. Most roads are unmarked.

As we wound our way south through the wilderness we saw two broken down vehicles and two running cars so we figured our chance of survival was about 50%, which turned out to be true. One of our cars gave us trouble the entire day and finally broke down 3 km from our destination. Thankfully it was downhill into town and we were able to coast to the hotel! We even received a replacement car for the second half of the trip. We are most thankful!

Well, that concludes my section of our saga of surprises….


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4 responses

  1. Grace

    I wonder if their tea is available here in England? I’ll have to look for it!

    October 10, 2011 at 7:02 pm

  2. Doug Needham

    You all certainly have been challenged to show your resiliency and resourcefulness with transportation! The tea production and processing is fascinating. I’m curious to hear how it tasted compared to black tea. Best wishes for continued great adventures and new friendships. Doug

    October 11, 2011 at 12:23 am

  3. Nate Reuther

    Fascinating to read about Rooibos production and how it thrives in that region- sounds like the trip so far has been a very rich learning experience for you guys! Wish you all good health, minimal car troubles and a blessed time during the remainder of your travels.

    October 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm

  4. Kelsey

    Emily – was that your hand next to the spider?! I nearly jumped out of my skin seeing it here on the screen… Thanks for writing this bit! I am greatly enjoying reading about all your adventures… – Kelsey F.

    October 11, 2011 at 1:49 pm

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