Dagga in the Karoo


Words and Pictures by Chris Marais

Sometime last year, I was in the back yard at home in Cradock, playing ball with TwoPack, our aged German Shepherd. And although I’m a bit of a Gobi Desert when it comes to gardening, I could not help but notice a waist-high newbie in the regular lineup of rosemary, pomegranate, jalapeno chili, lavender and limes.

I held a brief consultation with my wife Jules and a freshly-intrigued TwoPack as we stood in front of a green fellow with serrated leaves and a very familiar shape. This was definitely Marijuana. Ganja. Dope. Mexican Devil Weed. What we generally call Dagga.

“But how?” we asked each other.

It grew taller and taller.

“The builders!” was the conclusion.

Indeed, a gang of contractors had been renovating our old garage the season before. I had noticed that the wall they rebuilt had a wonky aspect to it, but at the time I put it down to another Karoostyle eccentricity. Jules remembered a certain spaciness in their general mien. TwoPack offered us his tennis ball and little more.

So we left it, deciding on a ‘watch and wait’ approach to the matter. Guests didn’t even notice this jolly green giant as it grew and grew over the coming months. If they did, they were just too polite to mention its presence.

TwoPack, meanwhile, was struggling in the mornings with his hereditary arthritis. Local wisdom advised that dagga oil was known to relieve such symptoms.


Hmm. It wasn’t long before we began to harvest from the now-two-metre-tall dagga plant at the back. But I grew concerned, and crossed the road to chat to our lawyer buddy about the matter.

“Well,” he said, “As you know, the Constitutional Court says you can grow it and consume it in the privacy of your home – just don’t sell it or transport it and you’ll be fine. And did you say it was only for TwoPack?”

Our arthritic German Shepherd seems to benefit from the cannabis.

We Googled like crazy, and pretty soon the cuttings were hanging from ties on a long string in the garage, giving off exotic odours. After the dope was dried and cured, we crisped it in the oven, ground it, mixed it up with coconut oil, heated it gently for hours in a slow cooker and bunged it into the fridge. All the while, we felt like weak-tea versions of the principal characters in Breaking Bad, the TV series about two ill-starred meths cookers.

A little teaspoon of the concoction went into the dog’s supper, and so far TwoPack’s had no complaints. Some would say he becomes a downright goofball in the evenings.

Somewhere along this process, a friend from the deep reaches of the Northern Cape Karoo came to visit, offered to grade the stuff, smoked some of the dried dagga and said he’d let us know his findings later. We’ll return to him.


South Africans are getting very trippy about the world of legalised cannabis. As always with such controversial things, there are many questions. Will the Eastern Cape traditional growers soon be able to produce their Lusikisiki Lightning for head shops or pharmacies? Will it only be for medicinal purposes or will we be able to include the stuff in our weekly shopping trolley for recreational use? Will it all just be corporatised or will the little man get his chance?

A random quote from Facebook:

“Perhaps we should release the prisoners for selling pot, before we license the rich to do the same.” Just saying.

Of course, Daggaboer Padstal south of Cradock on the N10 gets endless enquiries…

Down here in the Karoo, where we live, we began to pick up all manner of marijuana signals on the local grapevine. Old tannies from the first settler families had been concocting an interesting brew of dagga and gin for a very long time, giving it to ailing husbands along with their morning coffee and rusks. It was known as boereraad (traditional Afrikaner medicine) and, as far as we could tell, had been cooked up and used for everything from high blood pressure and cholesterol to depression and snake bite since the far-off days of the trekboere.

And if we ever ran out of ‘estate-grown oil’ for TwoPack, we could contact at least three local individuals who were middle-men for the stuff. It suddenly seemed as if half of Cradock’s oldies and crook dogs were grooving around on cannabis oil medication. You learn something new about this dorp every day.


On a farm outing in the Sneeuberg range around Nieu-Bethesda, we discovered that horses love dagga. In the old days when it was legal to grow and use for everything, farmers would feed it to their steeds for extra get-up-and-go.

In fact, dagga was a breeder’s little helper back then. The essential oils gave their horses spirit and a bright gloss to their coats.

Cannabis and horses – apparently a match made in heaven.

Peet van Heerden of Doornberg Farm told us that in times gone by, labourers would often stop at a farm called Towerwater near Murraysburg after their morning shift on Saturdays. There they would pick ears of dagga and wrap them around their horses’ bits.

“And then the horses would come galloping in before the bottle store closed,” he said.

Griqua shaman Oom Johannes Willemse still remembers how horses craved the stuff after it was banned.

Over at Theefontein Farm outside Beaufort West, Griqua shaman Oom Johannes Willemse backed Peet’s story up with his own recollections.

“Everyone used to feed their horses dagga, including the police. After dagga was banned, if you had a zol in your pocket and you walked past a police horse, it would chase after you.”

A veterinarian friend of ours, Dr Mike Lowry, sent us this email on the subject:

“I once had the case of a very nervous race horse that would not go into the starting stall. Her old groom said he would sort it out and in no time he did. When I asked how, he said he blew dagga smoke into her nostrils.”

In fact, most horse riders, handlers and breeders in the Karoo can tell you stories about how perky and prancy their steeds become while under the influence.


I researched the connection between the Bushmen and the herb and discovered, to my amazement, that dagga was but one component of a rather wide-ranging selection of plants they used in trance, in celebration or simply to get high on a quiet day. It also possibly made them quite creative.

The Bushmen, it appears, first encountered marijuana via Indian traders who moved through southern Africa way before the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and then the British showed up. By the 18th Century when the trekboers arrived with their wagons and livestock, liquor and tobacco for trade, the Bushmen they met were already smoking a rather heady mix of Kanna (Sceletium tortuosum) and cannabis for “enhanced perceptual acuity, flashbacks and visions”, according to a paper produced by Peter Mitchell and Andrew Hudson for Oxford University’s School of Archaeology in 2004.

Thelma Gutsche, who wrote The Microcosm, the landmark book on Colesberg, speaks of the Bushman-Settler wars of the late 18th Century:

“Some (white farmers) advocated total extermination (of the Bushmen) but there were others who promoted conciliation, giving the Bushmen tobacco and dagga and, when starvation confronted them, supplies of sheep and goats.”

She goes on to mention that the settlers actually grew fields of dagga in this part of the Northern Cape Karoo especially for the local Bushmen.

And where did all that creativity come from?

George Thompson, an Englishman who travelled through the Karoo in 1823, describes arriving at a hartbeeshuisie (rough-hewn settler home) one night:

“We found a large quantity of the herb called dacha, a species of hemp, hung up on the rafters. The leaves of the plant are eagerly sought-after by the slaves and Hottentots to smoke, either mixed with tobacco or alone. It possesses much more powerfully stimulating qualities than tobacco and speedily intoxicates those who smoke it profusely, sometimes rendering them for a time quite mad.”

Thompson notes that the whites rarely touched the stuff. Instead, one has to presume, they preferred the intoxications of Cape Smoke brandy.


About 50km south of Cradock, there’s an area called Daggaboer’s Nek, and a padstal bearing the same name.

Daggaboer Padstal. What are the origins of the name?

Some locals will tell you it’s short for “Dag, ou boer”, the morning greeting in Afrikaans. We’ve also heard that the first owners of the farm called Daggaboer were actually licensed to grow cannabis in the mid-1800s. Take your pick.

Under the new regulations, one of the first outfits to be awarded a license to grow and export medical dagga by the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority is Leaf Botanicals.

The CEO of Leaf, an award-winning farmer called Johannes van der Colff, told the media the company planned to produce medical dagga strains at affordable prices for the local market as well.

Leaf Botanicals, based in Upington, will be operating along the Orange River, an area which was once an infamous den of cutthroats, thieves and river pirates.

I read up on historical activities around this district known as Gordonia, and the most illuminating bits came from Dagga – A Short History by Hazel Crampton, who also penned the very popular Sunburnt Queen.

“Dagga also thrived on the myriad islands in the Orange/Gariep River above Augrabies Falls,” she writes. “And it packed quite a punch – Hendrik Wikar who visited the islands in the late 1700s says those who smoked it became so ‘drunk’ that some lost consciousness and fell into the fire, before being rescued by their friends.”


We’ve also spent a fair amount of time with the Rastafarians of the Karoo. Look carefully and you’ll see a few dozen of these peaceful, dreadlocked people in most of our little towns. They, of course, speak of dagga as the ‘holy herb’.

There are Rastafarians in almost every town in the Karoo, many of them helping to rehabilitate former prisoners.

Now we can get back to our old buddy from the Northern Cape, the self-appointed taster of our back yard dagga. He phones up late one night, with a sense of urgency in his voice:

“Listen guys, that’s the very, very best dope I’ve ever smoked! I have to have more. I’ll pay you what you want!”

I simply had to refuse, because it was all destined for TwoPack’s medical consumption. Somewhere in the distance at the fireside, I heard a dog sigh deeply, contentedly.

4 thoughts on “Dagga in the Karoo

  1. Philicus Olivier says:

    Great story Chris. Some interesting takes on wordplay come to mind. A Cradock Daggakop’s harvest may be referred to as “Crannabis”, whereas the Graaff- Reinet version may go up (the opposite of “down” and with reference to Cheech & Chong’s well known “Up in Smoke great goofball series) as “Graaff Ganja”. Add to this a “Beaufort Bong” which, as you may know, refers to a “methode” of consumption and (Union)”Daledope.” And of course your very own to be known as “Krisjankoppe”, aka “TwoPack’s Stack. I’m sure there’s more across this new frontier.

  2. Barry Vlok says:

    thank You for a lovely story.Would very much like to know your recipe
    seeing that we have an ill SixPacks at home and also some of your magic tree seeds.

  3. Peter says:

    Hi Chris. Good story, as are the others in your Karoo Rain Party write-up. We just drove through the Karoo in December and experienced a torrential downpour in Middleburg and Cradock. It was fantastic. Before Cradock we crossed the Great Fish River and it was bone dry. After sleeping over at the Ou Pastorie we crossed the river twice just after Cradock and it was flowing like crazy. What a sight to see.
    You’ve got to tell us though where did your dog get the name TwoPack?

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