A room with a brew

Rooibos is definitely Sam Vincent's cup of tea as he settles into a tea farm turned hotel at Bushmans Kloof.

When it comes to the humble cuppa, red is the new black - or the new white with two sugars, if that's how you take yours. Rooibos tea - delicious, healthy and seemingly impossible for my mum to pronounce - is an increasingly popular beverage.

While it tends to be a caffeine-free alternative for the latte set in Australia, in its homeland of South Africa the blood-red brew transcends racial, class and geographic boundaries. From Soweto labourers telling jokes during smoko to office workers in a Durban high-rise bitching about their boss, chances are they'll be doing it over a steaming cup of rooibos.

After one too many bad South African coffees, I switch to rooibos and I'm immediately hooked. The more cups of the nutty, earthy brew I sip, the more intrigued I become about its origins.

After a week exploring Cape Town, I take the road out of the city pioneered by the Voortrekkers, the Afrikaner settlers who left the Cape in the 1830s to pursue a life unencumbered by such British colonial nuisances as taxes and abolitionism. The Boers took their ox wagons north-east to the Transvaal but I'm heading due north to the Cederberg, a biltong-dry chain of mountains halfway between Cape Town and the Namibian border.

This is the only place in the world where rooibos grows wild. It was while visiting the Cederberg in 1772 that Swedish naturalist Carl Peter Thunberg wrote about the local Khoisan people making "tea" from a "red bush" that cloaked the region's parched slopes.

The Khoisan, in fact, didn't use rooibos for culinary purposes - for them it was a medicine to heal ailments as diverse as colds and cuts - but Thunberg's misnomer caught on. By the 19th century, the red drink had replaced black tea - an expensive, exotic commodity - in the cafes and homes of the nascent Cape Colony. And even though the plant turns red only once it dies or is treated, Thunberg's initial description stuck, too: rooibos (that's "roy boss", Mum) means "red bush" in Afrikaans.

Though it is now grown on commercial plantations, the Cederberg area remains the industry's hub and after three hours' drive I reach Bushmans Kloof, a rooibos farm turned luxury hotel at the foot of a steep pass (kloof is "gorge" in Afrikaans). Billing itself as a "wilderness reserve and wellness retreat", Bushmans Kloof occupies 7500 hectares of rooibos-red Cederberg peaks, gorges and salt flats sparsely covered with a tough carpet of endemic flora known as fynbos, of which rooibos is a member. The combination of isolation, safari luxury and unique cultural heritage - the site contains 139 San Bushman rock art paintings - contributed to Bushmans Kloof being named the world's best hotel by website Travel + Leisure in 2009.

On arrival at reception, I'm given a chilled glass of delicious rooibos blended with camomile and apple juice. The theme continues in a massage. For 90 minutes, I lie in a thatched gazebo while Marilie the masseuse liberally applies rooibos oil to my legs and back, doing her best to rectify a childhood of terrible posture and sports injuries. Rooibos, which has unusually high levels of zinc and vitamin D, is said to treat stress, asthma and depression and, when rubbed on the skin, fights wrinkles.

For this reason, rooibos - in both tea and oil form - is a hit in Hollywood; Angelina Jolie, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones and Cindy Crawford are said to be fans of the plant.

By the end of the massage I can't say whether my skin is as supple as Cindy's but rooibos's famous relaxant powers are apparent. My dream-like state is interrupted only by a waiter bearing good news: I've finished my massage in time for high tea.

When I arrive at the hotel's massive thatched dining gazebo, the low winter sun has turned the nearby Cederberg peaks as orange as the embers in a smithy's forge. Taking advantage of the day's last rays is a colony of weaver birds noisily constructing their bell-shaped nests in a willow overhanging the hotel lawn.

As I tuck in to fresh scones with jam and cream, the head chef at Bushmans Kloof, Floris Smith, gives me a crash course in drinking rooibos in the republic.

"First rule," he says, "never add milk." South Africans, Smith explains, always take their rooibos black - or rather, red. If anything is added, it is a slice of lemon and/or a dollop of honey. I add both, to Smith's satisfaction.

"Lekker, huh?" he says as I take my first sip. Lekker, indeed - distinct, invigorating and sweet without being cloying. It seems we're not the only ones who think so either: Smith points out a pair of bushbuck in the distance grazing on the shoots of a young rooibos bush. "Green tea," he quips.

The next day I drive higher into the Cederberg to Clanwilliam, a country town of dusty streets, immaculately dressed schoolchildren and clapped-out utes. Ever since the botanist Pieter le Fras Nortier developed a way of cultivating the plant here in the 1930s, Clanwilliam's surrounding hills have been covered with rows of rooibos. The seeds are notoriously hard to germinate and, previously, rooibos had been collected in the wild.

The factory that processes rooibos is the tallest building in the town below.

Harvest is in March, when the plant's whip-like branches are cut 30 centimetres above the ground, bound into sheaves and left in moistened heaps to oxidise, a process in which the previously odourless, green crop turns a rich, aromatic red. The needle-like leaves are separated from the stalks and dried in the sun, then delivered to the factory for grading, packing and distribution.

In the factory's shop there's a small exhibition illustrating this transition from crop to cup. All kinds of rooibos products are for sale: loose-leaf tea, bag and powdered form (the latter for making "red espresso" run through a coffee machine) and also sauce, shampoo, soap and massage oil.

After buying three bags of loose-leaf tea, I politely ask the shop assistant if I might take a look inside the factory to see the production process in action. "Most certainly not," the woman replies tersely, smiling with satisfaction at her unhelpfulness.

I'm a little taken aback but I shouldn't be: South Africans take their rooibos seriously. After all, when asked what his first official duty would be when elected president in 2009, Jacob Zuma replied to a packed press conference: "Drink a cup of rooibos tea with honey and lemon."

Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines and South African Tourism. He drank 13 cups of rooibos while writing this story.


Getting there

Singapore Airlines has a fare to Cape Town for about $2125 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax. You fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Cape Town via Johannesburg (16hr including transit time).

Staying there

Bushmans Kloof, a three-hour drive from Cape Town, has 16 colonial-style rooms with antique furniture, walls decorated with original prints depicting the Scramble for Africa and tasteful sculptures and baskets. As well as the spa, the hotel has canoeing, hiking, fly-fishing, game drives, cycling and guided tours of the San rock-art sites. Doubles cost from 2900 rand ($384) a night; phone +27 27 482 8200, see bushmanskloof.co.za.

More information

Clanwilliam's rooibos factory is on Rooibos Avenue; the shop is open 10-11.30am and 1.30-3.30pm Mon-Fri; phone + 27 27 482 2155, see rooibosltd.co.za.