A few weeks back a troop of baboons spent the day on my farm feasting on grapes and sliding down my thatched roof. The result was an awful mess, dirty paw prints all over the walls, gutters hanging from their brackets, grape skins and roof thatch scattered all over the place. the rogues seem to really enjoy sliding down the thatch as well as digging around under the thatch for bugs to eat. It got me thinking about restios and thatching – one of the most well known fynbos-based industries.
In days before zinc and other roofing materials, thatch was the major roofing material in the Cape and must have been widely harvested from landscapes that were managed exclusively for maximizing thatch production. However, the introduction of zinc roofing at the end of the 1800s, coupled with the terrible fires associated with thatch roofs, led to the steady demise of thatching. By the mid 1900s, the thatch industry was almost dead, as was the skill of thatching. However, a resurgence in thatch – driven almost entirely by a demand in the luxury home sector, has occurred in the past 30 years.
Today, Albertinia dekriet, also known as winterriet or mannetjiesriet (Thamnochortus insignis), supports an estimated R25 million industry in the Southern Cape, providing work for between 250 and 300 people in the primary production sector and countless more on construction sites. The species’ long, hardwearing culms found in fynbos veld are the preferred thatching material and considered superior to the thatching grasses of the summer-rainfall region. Consequently, about half of the Southern Cape production is sold in the northern and eastern parts of the country where a lively demand for game lodges has caused the price to rise considerably. Related species like Thamnochortus erectus (somerriet, wyfieriet) and Chondropetalum tectorum are also used as thatch, but commercial thatchers pay a premium for T. insignis.
Very little value is added locally on ninety per cent of the crop; the rest is manufactured into thatching tiles which can be installed by relatively unskilled thatchers. These tiles are exported into the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, where demand is reported to be strong.
Thamnochortus insignis occurs naturally on sandy neutral to alkaline soils of the coastal plain between Cape Agulhas and the Gouritz River. Where it occurs naturally, it is a dominant part of the landscape, mostly in uneven stands, although dense stands also occur. In some areas, reed veld is heavily invaded by rooikrans (Acacia cyclops).
Fortunately for me the art of thatching is still alive and thriving in nearby Elim – where virtually all the houses are still thatched in traditional style. A local Elim thatching team spent the weekend repairing my roof and now its as good as new – so long as the baboons stay away!