Thunder rumbled in the distance. The skies were ominously dark, thick with clouds. Our party was mounted on elephants, ambling single file along the dirt path in the Kapama Game Reserve in Limpopo, one of South Africa’s biggest private game reserves. The handlers who were herding the elephants egged them to walk faster. Mine started what passed as a trot and just as we returned to the original starting point, small specks of water fell from the sky, soft at first, then rapidly increasing in size and frequency until finally fat drops splattered down, thoroughly drenching us within minutes. It was the perfect way to experience a lowveld thunderstorm.
For the communities living around Hoedspruit, the summer rains mark an important time in their annual calendar. It’s a season that is highly anticipated, a time of celebration. The rainfall marks the beginning of marula season, when the oval-shaped fruit drops from the ancient trees and turns from green to a pale yellow in the 35ºC sun. As soon as the fruit has ripened on the ground, the harvesting commences.
On our visit to the Amarula Lapa, not far from the mining town of Phalaborwa, we are told of how people from miles around gather the fruit and take it various collection points where they are paid R30 for a sack weighing 45kg. It’s estimated that R1.8 million is injected into the local informal economy each year through the harvesting of marula fruit, benefiting some 60 000 people and their families. And in case you’re wondering whether all the fruit ends up becoming liqueur, no – apparently only 0.1% of the available marula fruit in southern Africa is used in making Amarula.
On a sponsored trip, it was only to be expected that we would get to taste the product in its various forms and guises and we did – Amarula in coffee (very nice), Amarula cake, Amarula Dom Pedro (a firm favourite) and Amarula in rooibos tea (also surprisingly nice). And of course, Amarula as a sundowner on a game drive with plenty of ice (met eish!). I particularly enjoyed eating the fruit for the first time – a piquant burst on the tastebuds, halfway between a litchi and a loquat. No doubt the high vitamin C content is what makes it so tart.
Unfortunately by the time we arrived at the end of February, most of the harvesting was already over. The rains had come early and we missed out on seeing the throngs of people coming to weigh their bags and drop off their fruit at the Amarula processing plant. We did take a look around the production centre, also near Phalaborwa, where the fruit is destoned and reduced to pulp. It is then stored in cooling tanks, where it is kept below 6ºC, and then eventually transported to Distell’s plant in Stellenbosch where fermentation and distillation take place. The liqueur then spends two years ageing in French oak barrels, after which the last, but vital, ingredient is added: fresh cream. “There are other marula liqueurs on the market, but ours is the only one that actually contains the fruit,” Amarula marketing manager Christelle Bester confided.
Enjoying the abundance of wildlife at Kapama River Lodge where we stayed was the most enjoyable part of the trip. On one game drive with our ranger Kevin and tracker Mpho, we saw an enormous herd of buffalo bathing in a dam, frolicking around with their young as if no one was watching. We saw a male lion crowned with a black mane roaring protectively near his female mate, the most majestic sound in God’s creation. I delighted in seeing all the young – baby warthogs (definitely cuter than the adult version), a tiny vervet monkey baby clinging to its mother and trying out its climbing skills on a tree top, a baby elephant nursing from its mother.
And while your tummy was rumbling on the early morning and evening game drives, you always had something to look forward to – food, glorious food. The cuisine at the lodge was top notch, made from fresh seasonal ingredients and herbs grown in the lodge gardens. Dining al fresco in the dry riverbed under the African night sky was also a memorable experience.
There was plenty of opportunity for relaxing, too. Some members of our party were pampered at the lodge’s spa, where the knots and stresses of life were massaged away in the most exquisitely calm setting. I preferred to swim in the rimflow pool as my mother and I speculated about whether it was a log we saw in the distance or a crocodile. (It was in the exact same spot the following day, so my guess is the former.)
And of course the elephant interaction was the highlight. Although Christelle insists that these giant animals do not get drunk on fermented marula (a notion popularised by Jamie Uys in his film Animals are Beautiful People), they are fond of the fruit, so it’s understandable why they were chosen as the official symbol of the liqueur. We met Jabulani, the elephant who started the orphan herd at Camp Jabulani, and how incredibly intelligent and sensitive these creatures are.
Jabulani was barely a year old when he became trapped in mud near Phalaborwa. His herd tried in vain to rescue him and he ended up in the care of Kapama’s Lente Roode. After attempts to reintegrate him into the wild failed, Roode decided to bring in a herd of elephants that had been left homeless by Mugabe’s farm invasions in Zimbabwe. All the adult elephants at Camp Jabulani are orphans, although they have integrated to form a herd and have produced young. The calves tag along on the two-and-a-half-hour elephant-back ride, in which you get to see game up close, unperturbed by the presence of humans.
The climactic lowveld thunderstorm was a fitting end to our trip. We left stocked with Amarula goodies and a greater understanding of how important this fruit is to the surrounding communities. My most abiding memory of our time in Limpopo was a lone giraffe who came wandering into the clearing outside our hotel suite. He was so busy browsing from a tree that he didn’t mind my stepping onto the balcony to photograph him. After taking a few shots, he looked directly at me in a curious, unchallenging way and then loped off. It was experiencing wildlife like this – in such an unguarded, real way – that made the trip worthwhile.