Ancient craft beer, a witchdoctor and a trek to the highest mountain in South Africa.
I’ve been drunk for days, relentlessly rinsing my brain in Umqombothi (traditional Zulu Beer). Good luck trying to say that out loud. The distinctive clicking sound seems to get easier after your umpteenth sip. Through the misty haze of my Umqombothi stupor, I try to ponder how many millions of brain cells are being nuked, but the thought drains from my mind and I return to admiring the incredible scenery of the central Drakensberg.
Beer before hike? That is the question
We are on a morning trek with some of the local people who live in the Injasuthi valley of the central Drakensberg region. Ahead and behind me are the guides from South Africa Adventures and a few of the local brewing experts. Under my feet, a well-worn shepherds trail that hugs the ridge of an ancient basalt cliff. All around us, the towering bulk of the Drakensberg looms into the African sky. The most prominent feature being the mighty Trojan Wall and Injasuthi Triplets. Our destination is a village at the edge of the mountains, the source of the village beer.
In South Africa, Umqombothi is a traditional Zulu beer made with maize, sorghum and yeast. If you look at Google translate, Umqombothi means ‘The bomber’. Although it could have that affect on your brain cells, it literally means ‘Zulu Beer’. Its roots have been found in both the Zulu and Xhosa traditions for centuries. This original craft beer of Africa remains an essential part of rituals, important events, and daily drinking from the Drakensberg in the North to the wild coast of the Eastern Cape. And get this……These traditional sorghum beers are brewed by the woman of the tribe-brewed by the matriarchs of the extended families to celebrate the homecoming of young men after initiation. Although I have been on the receiving side of a few of these traditional beers, my journey into the Drakensberg had nothing to do with beer. My immersion into the beer, meeting the local people and the drunken developments of the past week began with the innocent intention of trekking to the highest mountain in South Africa known as Mafadi.
I miss the rains down in Africa
My friend and I arrived in South Africa after contacting the guys from South Africa Adventures.our goal was to hiking trail central drakensberg We arrived in Johannesburg, met the crew, piled into the Landrover took the 6 hour drive down to the Drakensberg. As fate would have it, we arrived in the pouring rain. Our guides decided that trekking was not a good idea and best we wait for the torrential downpour to ease up. No worries. It gave us more time to soak in the beauty of this remote part of South Africa. On the way to camp our guide turned off the main road onto a maze of dirt tracks. We pulled the Land Rover up at a cluster of Rondavals built in the traditional Zulu way with straw roofing and mud encased walls. Beneath, cows, children and random corn fields coiled along the lower slopes of the rolling hills–the signature landscape of the Zulu Kingdom.. Everything was quiet and mystical as the light faded.
Through a crowd of children, an ancient figure approached, bent over his knobkerrie (a traditional Zulu fighting and walking stick). His head reached only a little higher than the children he passed, yet he arrived in front of me with a precision and speed that defied his form. Ignoring my greeting, he brought his lined face as close to mine as it could reach and squinted at me out of eyes lost behind milky cataracts. Then, without a word, he turned and disappeared into the nearest hut.
Not sure what had just taken place, I glanced at my South African Adventures guide for a clue. He gave me an enlightened shrug, a huge knowing smile and returned to leaning on his Land Rover. A few seconds later, the figure re-emerged bearing a tin cup, a plastic bottle, and the broadest, most infectious smile I have ever seen.The old man poured a healthy measure of the bottle’s liquid into the tin cup and, screwing up his eyes, tipped the liquid down his throat. A healthy measure then followed for me and another for my friend, watched intently by the beaming old man and our audience of children.
Only when my friend finished the mug of Umqombothi did the old man break the silence: “Umbingelelo” (welcome). I thanked him for his welcome and his hospitality then introduced my more linguistically capable friend who began to explain our intention of trekking in the mountains for a few days.
The old man’s shaking head interrupted the explanation. “No. No trekking in this rain,” he said, “unless someone’s being circumcised, that is.” Then clarified with a chuckle, “but of course, no one is circumcised in the rain so there will be no trekking.” Maybe sensing my disappointment, the old man paused, then clapped his hands together and declared that he would send word to find out if any fools were circumcising their sons in the rain. And that we could spend the night in his village while we waited for news. Smiling still and shaking his head at the ridiculousness of trekking in the rain, the old man began pouring out another round of drinks.
The following day we woke up to pouring rain and predictions of it easing up was not looking good. It looked like destiny had other plans for us before we made the summit of Mafadi, the highest mountain in South Africa. Facing the prospect of cancelling our trek or alternatively sitting on our hands for the next few days, a timely interjection changed the course of our quest. The two gentlemen on the next-door table, who had obviously been discussing our presence since we arrived, finally bettered their inhibitions and called over to me. ‘Sawubona. zama lokhu’ (hello. Try this).
Raising a half carton of what I confidently assumed to be the local brew, the men got to their feet and, ignoring our protestations, parked themselves at our table. Two more glasses arrived and were filled. Accepting that the day was lost, I turned the beer in the glass unenthusiastically, but just as I brought it to my mouth, I caught a fragrance I had never before noticed. The less inebriated of our two new friends read my expression and announced seriously, “Okuncono. The best sorghum beer in KwaZulu-Natal. “Leaning in, he explained that the fragrance comes from corn grown near the edge of the Drakensberg mountains. It sounded fanciful but, intrigued, I asked if he knew how to make it? “No,” he replied but assured me that he could introduce us to someone who did.
I had a new goal before our hiking trail in the central Drakensberg began. We were invited to spend the next few nights in village. In the morning our hosts took us through village where we got to see where the beer was made. To my astonishment it was not a wisely old greying man that held the secrets to this ancient brew.
An encounter with the village witchdoctor
We were met by 4 of the village women. They were the village brew masters. They stood as the mighty sentinels, brewing and protecting the magic of their legendary Umqombothi.But before we entered the world of their brewing excellence, we had another appointment set up for us. The village Sangoma (witchdoctor) had got wind that a few pasty-faced Europeans had found our way into the village and had requested our presence. I must admit, it was with a bit of apprehension that I took a rather shaky step into the dark interior of her hut. I sat on a grass mat in front of her for what seemed liked hours. She was unmoving and staring. With the ever-present fear of suddenly being turning into a frog I tried not to make eye contact. The silence was eventually broken with an almighty smile and laughter. She was just messing with me. After a few incoherent words, she proceeded to throw some bones on the floor and chant with the ancestors. My only guess was that she was looking for clarity from the ancestors for rite of passage through her people. As luck would have it, I passed the test. We landed up smoking a peace pipe type thing with her and chatted about life for hours. What an interesting person for sure.
We spent the next day or so observing and learning from these incredible ladies who were responsible for the brewing. The traditional beer has around in Zulu culture for over 500 years. We learnt that it was served at major events. Like most nations it is associated with success and celebration. Men coming back from war will lose themselves in the beer. The beer flows at weddings, births, chats with the ancestors and of course……circumcision ceremonies. What was that? Did we mention circumcision ceremonies? Well yes, did indeed. In Zulu and Xhosa culture, a boy of 18 will disappear into the mountains with the village elders. It is here they undergo a stringent series of tests to become a man. The final ceremony is being circumcised by the village elder. Once he has been pronounced a man……it’s a massive celebration with the Umqombothi beer. We had found the source of the first Craft beer in South Africa!!!
A few days later and the rain eased up. Not sure if that was a good thing for us or the young lads waiting to get the snip. Anyway, we bid our incredible hosts a fond farewell and continued our original journey following the Injasuthi valley to the summit of the highest mountain in South Africa. Unfortunately, there was no traditional beer waiting for us on the summit but we sure made up for it on the way back. The trek was more than what we had hoped for. We covered 65km over 4 days through some of the most incredible mountain scenery I have ever seen.
What an incredible journey!! We spent time with the most amazing people and are forever grateful for their warm hospitality and open minded approach to us.