Brew Ha Ha: a trans-Africa tea tour

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to ride a motorcycle “Cape to Cairo”.

I am sure the desire to do the journey has been with me forever; or at least since my earliest childhood in London when my imagination, fuelled by reading comics in the late ’60s and early ’70s, began to dream of far-off lands and exotic people from the time before mobile phones, GPS and the internet, when adventure meant one man pitted against the elements.

The impulse for a long distance trip also fed into the enduring idea of escape, and as I get older there seems more to escape from.

More exotic than Ealing

I got married in Johannesburg in the 1980s, which was the first time I set foot on African soil and was thrilled to see I had arrived in the comic book scenes of my childhood: of Zulus and witch doctors, of lions and elephants, of stifling heat and tropical storms.

It certainly seemed more exotic than the London Borough of Ealing, where I was brought up.

But it was not until a couple of years ago when I bought a home in Cape Town and started dividing my time between Britain and South Africa that I started taking the whole idea of riding through Africa seriously – Cairo to Cape.

Nobody else did of course but that’s the thing with hare-brained schemes, they wouldn’t be hare-brained if everybody wanted to do them.

The journey was taking shape in my mind, I just needed a little push to get started, and I got it from a most unexpected place.

Tea; not only as a thirst-quencher

Like the African overland journey, I have always loved tea, not only as a thirst-quencher but also because of the cerebral effects it has on the drinker – I’ve used the amber liquid to commemorate, commiserate and celebrate, so I’m used to turning to the teapot to help me through every occasion.

The tea ritual also has long fascinated me. I am sure world summits, peace negotiations and civil wars could be resolved more quickly over a nice pot of tea.

But of course someone would have to make the tea; that is an important part of the ritual, the idea that somebody has gone to the trouble of boiling the kettle, setting a tray, enquired “Milk or lemon?”, and then poured the precious liquid into your waiting cup breaks down perceived barriers and is the perfect starting point for conversation.

After you’ve shared a pot of tea you feel closer to your guest (or host) in a way that sharing a pint in a pub can never do. The ritual is in your own hands, you create the encounter, you make it what it is, and every one is different.

Mandela, PW take tea

On July 5 1989, before Nelson Mandela was officially released from prison, he was taken to a meeting with President Botha to negotiate reforms that were to change the face of South Africa. The remarkable meeting prompted a surprised Mandela to later recall: “The thing that impressed me was that he poured the tea.”

Why was Mandela impressed? Because tea is a great leveller, and the politics of pouring the tea says more than a year of diplomatic negotiations ever can.

The meeting proved that even at statesman level there is something human-scale and undeniably intimate to the ritual of sharing a pot of tea. It cements long-held friendships, turns strangers into new friends and, apparently, helps politicians create the New South Africa.

My thoughts on tea got me wondering, what do Africans think about the tea ritual? Do they even drink tea? Do they serve milky tea or tea without, tea in a mug or a china cup, served on a tray, with or without sugar? What time of the day is it served? Does it matter? Is it served with the same formality as it is on occasion in Britain? Does the phrase “I’ll put the kettle on” at times of crisis have the same connotations? Is it used as a soother or a pick-me-up, a consolation or a celebration?

The used tea bag transformed

These were some of the questions I needed answering. So it was fortuitous that my embryonic thoughts on tea were given a shot of inspiration after a visit to Original Tea Bag Designs in Hout Bay, Cape Town.

The project, whose products are sold around the world, creates superb gifts based on the humble tea bag. The used tea bag is dried, emptied of its leaves and then painted on. The resulting artworks are applied to a huge number of products from coasters to trays, from bookmarks to jewellery, from wooden boxes to candle holders.

I found it inspiring that someone had found a way of extending the life of the modest tea bag – the very epitome of the throwaway society.

My plans for the trans-Africa trip and my love of tea coalesced into one brilliant idea: wouldn’t it be great if on the Cairo to Cape trip I stopped for tea with people I met along the way.

Tea stops across Africa

Now it began to get exciting as I planned a five-month trip across two continents, stopping for tea at every opportunity and collecting the teabags for Original Tea Bag Designs to make more amazing products.

The project would be the final destination of the journey (not least because they promised me a “welcome home” tea party on February 22 2008), which I had now christened the African Brew Ha Ha – The Search for the Ultimate Cuppa.

The solo trip through Africa proved to be the most physically challenging five months of my life but also, in many ways, the most poignant.

I had no idea what the trip would involve before I left, but with the help of everybody I met along the way I succeeded.

And the tea was terrific – I had tea as a consoler, tea as a celebration, tea as a thirst-quencher, tea as a greeting, and finally a tea party as a great welcome home when I arrived in Hout Bay (15 minutes late!).


© Alan Whelan 2008

Story submitted to SAinfo on 1 May 2008