Karoo Aloe Safari

Aloe ferox, Karoo

By Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

From autumn through winter, a slow-blooming colour wave brightens every north-facing hillside spiked with Aloe ferox in the southern reaches of the Karoo.

The stand proud in the early morning mist, like regiments of red-coated foot-soldiers waiting for the call to charge, upright and motionless against winter’s icy winds.

So war-ready do they look that there are records of British soldiers shooting them to pieces where they stood in silhouette on ridges surrounding Grahamstown (now Makhanda) and along the Great Fish River.

Cape aloes in the mist
In the mist, it’s easy to see how aloes could be mistaken for massed warriors, red spears aloft.

They were allegedly mistaken for red-blanketed Xhosa forces, says Basil Mills of Amazwi South African Museum of Literature. He is a font of knowledge on wild things, Eastern Cape Frontier War battles and more.

In fact, the amaXhosa have legends about the Aloe warriors that spring up from the Earth by the thousand. Their spears are the flowers, their leaves are their shields, and the stems are their bodies.”

Adding to the illusion is the fact that Aloe ferox are generally single-stemmed and about the height of a tall human, although the oldest ones (which reach a venerable age of 150 years) can tower well above that. But their only weapons are the hooked spiky thorns edging gracefully along recurved leaves, the very reason they were named Ferox.

There is a compelling photographic magic to be found in the ice-blue winter skies, the red flowers and brown earth.

Bitter Aloe, Sweet Nectar

Bee on Aloe ferox
A bee loaded with the distinctively coloured red aloe pollen in his leg baskets. Bees depend on nectar from flowering aloes to help them through the icy winters. And the aloes in turn depend on their pollination to make seeds.

This instantly recognisable plant can be found almost everywhere in the Eastern Cape, including the province’s coat of arms and EC car registration plates. Winter road trips become photographic aloe safaris. They look particularly splendid on the routes between Cradock, Cookhouse, Makhanda, Graaff-Reinet, Aberdeen, Somerset East, Willowmore, Jansenville and Steytlerville.

Decades ago, the appearance and disappearance of Aloe flowers indicated the start and end of the Eastern Cape hunting season.

Come the cold months, Aloe ferox plants that have been on summertime guard duty send up candelabra-like branches with tightly packed cylinders full of sweetness. These inflorescences turn from green to chilli red in a matter of weeks. Then, from the bottom to the top, the flowery minarets ripen, the stamens spill out, and the nectar bar is open.

Bees and sunbirds fuss over them, greedy for the sweetness.

Monkeys scamper about, picking the flowers. The reddish pollen sometimes leaves telltale lipstick stains on their furtive little faces.

The Company of Aloes

Everywhere, they occur in small and large colonies, silent sentinels clustered together in companionable groups, or red punctuation marks against snow on ragged peaks.

There is a particular magic to standing amidst them, in the company of Aloes.

It’s like being in the middle of a silent military ceremony, maybe the Changing of the Guard outside Kensington Palace in London. Except you’re out in the glorious fresh Karoo air – and there’s not a single tourist with a selfie stick.

For decades, the start and end of the Aloe ferox flowering season signalled the beginning and end of the winter hunting season in the Eastern Cape.

Instead, there is time and space to admire the narrow florets, to listen to the bees, bokmakieries and chanting turtle doves, to hear the crunch of one’s own feet, to see the distant horizon and the shadow of a bird flying overhead.

Sometimes they occur at a stately distance from one another. In other places they cover the earth as thickly as porcupine quills. In winter, the chilli red of their flowers transforms entire hillsides.

A Medical Miracle

Betsie Wani, a tapper who lives near Willowmore, swiftly arranges the leaves cut by her partner into the pattern used for thousands of years to harvest aloe sap.

Beauty and proud mien aside, this is the prince among South Africa’s medicinal plants. It is practically an entire pharmacy on its own.

Like the world-famous Aloe vera (originally native to North Africa and Arabia, now cultivated all over the world), it has extraordinary healing properties. For humans and animals, it is anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-parasitic, and anti-inflammatory.

It is within these fleshy leaves that the plants’ medicinal magic lies. Cut one open and almost immediately a yellow-brown sap starts oozing out – the source of its common name, Bitter Aloe. For thousands of years, this substance, which dries to a dark crystal, has been used as a laxative and detoxifier.

It, along with the fresh white gel in the middle of each leaf is the first and best treatment for burns.

A Healing History

Medicinal plant book author and journalist Heather Dugmore records that the first evidence of Aloe ferox being used commercially was in the mid 1700s.

The story goes that a slave working for a farmer named Johannes Petrus de Wit showed him the age-old art of tapping Aloes to derive the medicinal bitters or ‘lump’ from the plant – which is a most effective laxative. This was then supplied to the Dutch East India Company and exported to Europe.”

It was so important to the San and Khoi that Aloe ferox is the only plant to appear in their rock paintings.

Sunbirds and bees dote on the sweet nectar.

The amaXhosa use it to heal wounds, including those from circumcision. They also burn the dried leaves to repel mosquitoes, or grind it up for snuff, according to Basil Mills.

The amaMpondo use aloe juice and water as a body wash.

Studies have shown that its properties include an ability to boost the immune system, lower cholesterol, fight bacteria and fungus, and even shrink tumours.

Many swear it is effective against rheumatism, arthritis and gout. It is used for conjunctivitis, sinusitis and high blood pressure. It is a key ingredient in health tonics – notably Swedish Bitters.

A Bitter Cure

Snow and bright-flowering aloes.

Every year seems to highlight a new possible medicinal virtue. It’s said the gel and sap can cure everything from dandruff, acne and osteoporosis to hepatitis, herpes, shingles, bites and a dozen or more ailments.

For hundreds of years, Eastern Cape farmers would put a leaf of Aloe ferox into livestock drinking water as a medication against ticks and parasitic worms.

It was probably for its insect-repellent properties that the Egyptians used Aloe sap as part of their embalming rituals.

The same reason led to its use as special kind of floor varnish.

Peach pips used to be embedded to strengthen clay floors across the Karoo, according to the late Helena Marincowitz of Prince Albert. In her book Karoostyle: Folk Architecture of Prince Albert, she writes:

They were placed in rows and beaten down with a wooden board to obtain a smooth surface. After six months, the floor was coated with a layer of Aloe juice; this was to keep the insects away.”

Wild-Growing Trade

By now it will come as no surprise that Cape Aloe is the single most commercially traded indigenous plant in South Africa, and one of the most highly traded botanical species in the world. A report by South Africa’s Department of Fisheries, Forestry and the Environment in 2022 notes that 300 tons of bitter-sap is exported every year from South Africa to Germany, the UK, the USA, Argentina and Japan. In fact, if powdered extracts are included, it’s closer to 400 tons. And there is increasing demand for the fleshy white gel in the leaf.

It is a multimillion rand business, all depending on wild-growing plants. Yet it is (broadly speaking) sustainable. The bitter-sap harvesters (also called tappers) are invested in keeping the plants alive and healthy.

This would not happen if elephants still roamed free.

According to Eastern Cape botanists Professor Richard Cowling and Dr Shirley Pierce:

“Both elephants and black rhinos seek out and destroy tree euphorbias and aloes. The current abundance of these plants in today’s thicket remnants probably results from the eradication of these mega herbivores by hunting in the years between 1750 and the early 1800s.”

Aloe Sap Tappers

As with Aloe vera, the main active ingredient of Aloe ferox is Aloin,” says Andre du Plessis of African Aloe, a company based in Uniondale that specialises in harvesting Aloes for the juicy inner leaf fillets, gel, leaf powder, juice and extracts.

Although it is most plentiful in the Eastern Cape, it turns out that the Aloe ferox in the Western Cape have the highest levels of the sought-after active ingredient Aloin.

We don’t know whether it is just a genetic thing, or whether the levels are highest where there is less rainfall and the sap is more concentrated.”

Linda Plaatjies and Kerneels Stols, carrying a bucket full of precious, freshly-harvested aloe sap, in the hills outside Uniondale.

The Aloe ferox extracts are used for cosmetics, alcoholic bitters, animal and human food including cereals, shakes, juices and energy bars.

Any excuse for an Aloe safari.

This stoic plant supports a surprisingly large number of livelihoods. There are thought to be more than 650 000 aloe sap tappers alone in the Western and Eastern Cape.

So on your next aloe safari, know that you are lifting your lens to celebrate one of South Africa’s most astoundingly beautiful and useful plants. Then stand still as an aloe, and listen to the twitter and buzz of life around them.

  • For more stories on life in the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black in white) by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at julie@karoospace.co.za

3 thoughts on “Karoo Aloe Safari

  1. Jenny Strever says:

    Thanks for an excellent story, and also for lovely pictures, very reminiscent of the beauty of South Africa. I have started to use Aloe Vera gel as a natural hair treatment. It makes an excellent conditioner and I am interested to see if it improves growth and strength. oh, and I put the used bits of leaf into orchid pots and bromeliads! Compost would probably benefit too!

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