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The Olifant’s River Valley and beyond

A story about cultivating passion from the earth

The Olifants River Valley in South Africa.

By Ivan Oosthuizen

(10 Minute Read)

I remember when, as a child being granted the rare privilege of sitting in adult conversation, one was to remain quiet as a mouse and only be seen not heard. I would listen to family members and friends tell mesmerising stories about distinct parts of our country they visited; long walks on empty stretched out beaches, lion’s roaring across the plains in some remote camp in the Bushveld, peering into the voids of dark green potholes in Bourke’s Luck, or laughing at baboons acting up on Chapmans’ Peak lookouts at unsuspecting tourists. Besides fantasising about visiting these exotic locations one day, I was always perplexed at how these adults were genuinely moved by nature, as if Mother Nature had cast a spell over their emotions. It never made much sense to me. How could anyone simply skim their eyes over a landscape and be overcome with emotion?

Many years later we get invited by a close friend to join her one of her family trips to their family farm in the Karoo close to Leeu Gamka. This was over a long weekend and in the middle of July. We spent the entire weekend in the company of people we hardly knew, yet they treated us like long lost family. The days were sunny but short, and as soon as the sun disappeared behind the first ridge, the night air would turn into an icy chill. Showers had to be taken with your feet firmly tucket into a small bucket of warm water to keep them from aching from the cold tile floor.

Our days were spent driving around on the back of her father’s bakkie as he ran his day-to-day farm errands. We stopped at regular intervals at different camps (we were mainly tasked to open the large swinging gates) and explored everything while he was dishing out work and checking on previously issued tasks. What struck me most was that this was a harsh landscape; the rocks were jagged, the local shrubbery dry and harsh on your skin if you happened to bump into it, there was practically no water, and it appeared that every piece of fauna and flora had to fight for its right to exist – yet I found it to be unmatched in its beauty and simplicity, moved by its uncomplicatedness, as if it welcomed you into its silent theatre. No technological interruptions and none of our typical modern noises existed in those moments. There was something about this close encounter that resonated with my spirit, something deep inside my genetic code responded to what I could only described as wanting to be there, as if it were part of me and I part of it.

The Karoo in South Africa.

As the days slowly ticked by, the day of our (unfortunate) departure arrived and as we were heading back to the city life, I found myself disorientated, slow of mind, as if I had somehow been time-travelled to a different place. Inside me was an emotion which was unfamiliar to me at first, my initial thoughts were that I was simply disheartened by the prospect of having to return to work the next day, but as I explored my inner feelings a bit more, I realised that what I was feeling was really sadness, that I had been overcome by sense of longing for this magical place called the Karoo. As if it had captured my soul and it didn’t want to let me go, and for the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like when nature spoke to one’s heart. Finally, as an adult, I understood why the grownups used to be so overcome with emotions; how can one not?

MORE THAN JUST A VALLEY

Besides the Karoo, we are fortunate to have several special regions of profound beauty in our country and there is a scene that suits all tastes and preferences. One such place, which moves the soul as they say, is the Olifant’s River Valley, wedged between the majestic Cederberg and the unpredictable Atlantic, the Olifant’s River Valley offers an overabundance of microclimates. Nourished with naturally pure water cascading down the Cederberg Mountains, winding its way through changing landscapes and climates, fertilising the surrounding agricultural soils, to where it spills into Atlantic near Koekenaap, it finds its final resting place at the harsh and arid southern border of Namaqualand and the rich Knersvlakte. A true masterpiece of changing landscapes.

The Olifants River Valley as seen from above.

The Olifant’s River is a river in the north-western area of the Western Cape of South Africa. The main catchment area is around Ceres and the Cederberg mountains. The Clanwilliam and Bulshoek dams are located on the river and provide water for the towns and farms along the watercourse. The river is approximately 285 km long with a catchment area of 46 220 km2 and flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

This important river rises in the Winterhoek mountains north of Ceres and its main stem is approximately 265 km long. The river flows to the north-west through a deep, narrow valley that widens and flattens into a broad floodplain below Clanwilliam. The major towns in the lower Olifant’s river catchment area include Lutzville, Vredendal and Vanrhynsdorp and situated in the middle catchment area Clanwilliam and Citrusdal.

It is here, in this magnificent region, with its special people, fertile soils and homegrown products, that the 1stPrinciples Distilleries story begins.

1st PRINCIPLES DISTILLERIES – A LOCAL LEGEND IS BORN

I met owner and founder of 1st Principles Distilleries, Joubert Roux, on a hot Tuesday afternoon at a local shopping mall in Durbanville while he was in Cape Town for business. We greeted each other without the customary handshake due to the ongoing pandemic and we sit down for coffee. He is a short and stocky man and his accent true to his hometown of Vredendal. He speaks with enthusiasm and insight, and his mind is a labyrinth of creative ideas. His eyes light up as he takes me through their range of interesting craft spirit products and educates me about their unique range of cocktails, bitters, cordials and botanicals, and the rich history of his hometown and surrounding areas. We talk and laugh like old friends; I find it hard to imagine that I had just met him a few minutes ago. I enjoy the discussion and the stories, and it becomes apparent that Joubert is a man of great passion for the distilling of craft spirits, which seems to course through every fibre of his being.

 

The 1st Principles story began in 1969, he tells me, when his father bought the farm Groenhoek more than half a century ago. Since then, they have been involved in all aspects of farming, viticulture, and secondary agricultural activities. They were one of the first of two farms to explore and experiment with drip-irrigation from the Olifant’s river. The family’s keen interest in in the distilling process and products has been a long time coming, and in one of their offices is a complete plan of a Charentais Still which his brother brought from the town of Cognac in in the 1980’s. This was a time where it was close to near impossible to obtain a small-scale production licence and it took continuous pressure from earlier pioneers such as Sidney Back from famous brand Backsberg, who wanted to produce his own Estate Brandy, before applications of smaller distilleries would even be considered.

1st Principles owner, founder and distiller Joubert Roux demonstrating how to use his copper distiller with the assistance of a colleague.

1st Principles took several avenues to get to where they are today, from humble beginnings of producing local cultivars, to involving themselves at all levels of the industry, to eventually creating their own brand of craft spirits. Their love and passion for exotic tastes, creative flavours, and the use of a wide range of natural products (the majority farmed and produced in the Olifant’s river valley) and botanicals is what led them down a continuous path of exploration and discovery.

After being actively involved in the production of Rooibos and Honeybush tea for many years, 1stPrinciples Distilleries continues to experiment with fynbos as an important base ingredient and have created their own unique range of craft spirits, effectively exposing these industries to new potential areas of development, while simultaneously exploring new applications, aromas, flavours, and tastes for craft spirit connoisseurs (sounders) all over the world to enjoy.

To be approved for a craft spirits production license is no easy feat, one for which every successful applicant needs to be awarded with an honorary medal in impudence! The range of challenges includes local council zone applications, SARS excise duty requests, and applications to the National Liquor Authority, all makes for an incumbent application process with lots of red tape and bureaucracy to overcome. Further complicating the process is having to build a complete facility (with photographic proof) before one can apply for a storage facility. Finally, in 2018, in spite of the challenges, 1st Principles received its production license – a great cause for celebration and a memorable day indeed!

The copper still at 1st Principles, dates back to a time when, more or less, every farm had one. Since its decommissioning, many years ago, it served as a planter for Joubert’s mother’s Daisies, but it piqued his interest, and he was determined to figure out how it all worked. It was masterfully restored by coppersmith Errol Jafta, one of only a handful of active coppersmiths remaining, who added a vapour infuser, which, besides being beautifully restored, also makes the still unique and one of a kind. It’s not exactly known when the copper stills started disappearing, but historians date it to being around the 1920’s.

The disappearance of these marvellous engineering feats were due to the stringent excise duties and tax collections on spirits, which not only led to their gradual disappearance but also the overall decay of the industry, had this not happened we would have had a vibrant and diverse craft spirit industry today according to Roux. He believes that the latest boom in craft spirits and cocktails is a prime example of just how necessary the innovation and creativity of the small-scale distilleries are to keep the industry relevant. There is an important case to be made in support of less control, for the easing of regulations, and the implementation of a more reasonable application processes says Roux.

1st Principles Distilleries expanded its operations by investing in recycled products and by supporting local industry. Cement was ordered from Piketberg, bricks came from Klawer and white aggregate from Cape Lime. What makes their production process so unique is the use of natural heat and solar panels, to drive the distillation processes. While not yet a complete operation, things are certainly getting there, and improvements are continuously being investigated.

1st Principles also boasts that the only water leaving their premises is what is bottled in their products; cooling is done with irrigation water, toilets are flushed with brown water and black water is used to irrigate bamboo, ensuring that the entire operation’s carbon footprint is kept to a minimum.

The outside area at 1st Principles Distilleries where the gin tasting takes place.

The distillery offers unique tasting experiences and have developed a range of crafts spirits (Gin, Vodka, Brandy), al uniquely created and bottled as a product of the Olifant’s River valley, in all shapes and sizes. While paging through the gallery of images and listening to Roux’s contagious enthusiasm, one can’t help but get a sense that 1st Principles is a special place which offers a special experience, a story in every bottle so to speak. 

CULTIVATING PASSION

Our one and half hour meeting ends in what feels like a few minutes, and we say our farewells. As quickly as Joubert appeared, he vanishes into the parking lot, already marching onto his next appointment. I stay to finish my coffee and I can’t help but experience a burning desire to visit this unique valley and to meets its people. Perhaps there is something to say about these small agricultural towns and their stories, their histories, but most of all their hospitality (which comes so naturally to them) and how we, as town folk, seem to have become disconnected from our own abilities to care and love our neighbours.

In Grapes of Wrath, considered by many scholars as being the great American novel, author John Steinbeck asks a thought-provoking question when he writes “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” When you study the Olifant’s River valley’s history and consider all its inherent beauty you realise that those who live there, who work the land, who spend generations understanding the landscape, who cultivate precious crops, who live their lives far away from bustling towns, do so out of their personal passion for being one with the land.

A winding river coming down from a lush green mountain range.

They breathe the air, they depend on natures ability to bring forth rain, sun, wind, and the changing seasons. They cultivate products made from pure passion and delight, and we are fortunate to be able to enjoy them with all its undefined nuances, with its wonderfully crafted stories, and characters, and to be introduced to the region’s unique agricultural heritage and traditions.

The past history of many of these families and farms are intertwined with their products, their local industries and their communities and this something worth supporting, for these are the people who cultivate passion from the earth.

1st Principles Distilleries Logo on transparent background

1st Principles Distillery are the creators of some of the world’s finest hand-crafted spirits and are located in the picturesque and fertile Olifant’s River Valley in the town of Vredendal.

Owner and founder Joubert Roux is well-known for producing authentic products with a longstanding heritage, full of personality and founded on 1st Principles.

Keeping within the crafting traditions, 1st Principles produces ingredients on-site, and where possible, use locally sourced botanicals.
With an extensive online range of handcrafted spirits, cocktail mixers, natural ingredients and paraphernalia, 1stPrinciples Distilleries are the specialists for all your handcrafted cocktail supplies.
For more information, to book a tasting experience call us on +27 (0)27 213 2431 or send a WhatsApp to +27 (0)76 132 5614 or send us an email to [email protected]

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