Jane from our communications team gives her perspective on the trip to Roushanna Gray’s home in the Southern Cape. Jane and cameraman Carney Turner were there for four days in October, for the making of our wild food innovator film featuring Roushanna and family.
Watch the film here >
We had a middle-of-the-road hotel in Capetown, an alienated Australian on a break from mining jobs occupying the bar. You could see a corner of 2014’s World Cup stadium out of my window, now weirdly quiet. We hired a car (a tiny white Japanese vehicle, soon nicknamed by our cameraman ‘the button mushroom’) and got tinnily out of town.
The road soon climbed, taking us farther round the same ridge of which Table Mountain and Lion Head Rock are a part. A massive area of urban spread became visible below us around the bay. It was Spring, full of pale light and specks of colour from the low-lying roadside flowers – a carpet of nasturtiums, a spurt of wild pink pelargonium. There had been fires, indeed on one journey back to town we followed a column of smoke and arrived to a thick atmosphere of news about its moving location. My overall impression was the vegetation was more black than green. Charred, petrified-looking protea heads were a frequent sight. This was a city of nearly 4 million people going into the windy dry season with its reservoirs already as low as 11%.
Along the coastal road, the surf was breathtaking, big waves and sequences of headlands leading us south. On the way to Simonstown and its military defense installations, we passed massive flat carparks and shopping malls, noticed the Afrikaner profile of the drivers. White roadworkers sauntered around at junctions. Closer to Roushanna’s, in mountainous country again, the hairpin bends contained informal settlements, their lights on strings and people on foot. It turned out that Limbiwe, Roushanna’s housekeeper, and some of the other workers at the nursery stayed there, and we heard stories of how they live through these wildfires without insurance, men prepared to risk their lives to retrieve their car keys.
The nursery itself is several different small gardens, separated by tracks, with an old farmhouse at one side, livestock to the front of it, and footpath to their water source at one side. Out the back, the planting peters out into ‘the mountain’ a single, looming mass, which seemingly stands and takes the weather for them. At the opposite side to the house are the netted gardens for flowers.
We met Roushanna at the kitchen door and went into the darkness for a tea. She offered us the only milk they had which was from their ewes – raw, delicious. The house is a couple of hundred years old, with thick walls, beams, chalky paint. The light falling in at the windows made the bowls of vegetables and found objects on the sills look like still life paintings. There was evidence of children, a watermelon, and a box of other shopping on the table. Apparently, a troop of baboons had once lain siege to that kitchen; there was a three-day stakeout ongoing at a holiday property in nearby Scarborough.
She took us on a quick tour. We met Gayle, her mother-in-law, the softly-spoken plantswoman who had founded the nursery originally in Hoek Bay to specialise in the propagation and supply of indigenous plants. We stopped at the jasmine, not yet in flower, though its loveliness was still a landmark Roushanna brought to life.
There were other notable native species and we held introductions in their Afrikaans, Latin, and English folk names: an aromatic ‘bait bush’ that fishermen used to freshen their hands, the Sersia shurb with astringent peppercorn spice fruits, the pig-faced, ground-hogging wild ‘sour figs’. One of the stars for me was Portulacaria Afra, its widely-spaced, stubby chubby leaves both juicy and extremely drying. This was ‘speck’ ‘wum’ – ‘succulent tree’ – according to Roushanna as high in vitamin C as in those astringent tannins, and a favourite food of elephants.
I was delighted by the tough little mountain plants, the buchus – an extended family with a staggered flowering season which meant only by the scents could we try to identify the variety – citrus, lime, licorice, chocolate, orange blossom, rosemary. The African wormwood Artemesia Afra glowering in a corner of the vegetable garden also caught my eye; familiar but more dreadful because of its Islay relations.
The counterpoint focus for our visit was Roushanna’s classroom, a large cabin on a parallel orientation to the house, with an outdoor stone-built oven brightly painted under a trellis at the gable. She could be doing art classes there, or running a Steiner school, or a lab, there were so many curious objects to touch and little bottles of eat-me-drink-me-smell-me, in tiny orderly cabinets. Things were given their space, whether they had come from an antiques market or been found on the shore, whether a well-used tool or a dried posey. Each equally crystallised out of its time, poised for interaction. This was a vision of the world where stuff is done, made, discovered, re-discovered, valued.
Roushanna’s sandy-haired husband Tom, landscape gardener, joined us for a late afternoon walk to the windmills, now abandoned for electricity generation because of the impractical requirement to manually change the gears in stronger winds. Still, the rusted structures were stable enough for their 9 year old to climb. Tom pointed out a pom pom bush that was a marker of water – key in this period of chronic drought in the cape. The dogs found a tortoise that was just creeping out of hibernation.
Later, we were invited for supper. We ate smoked ham and roasted pork from last year’s pigs, with a flowering salad. Roushanna got the temperature up in the oven by feeding sticks into a hole in the house wall, laughing. It was an enriching meal, like the whole experience had been, full of colour and flavour and good feeling.
It maybe doesn’t change you, a short visit to someone else’s world like this, but I think it does re-sensitise you. As if to underline the point, as we were checking out of our hotel, for about the tenth time, I passed a planter on the steps. There in the inner-city, in the corporate world, is a plump-leafed bush which now I recognise as the favourite food of elephants.