Out of South Africa: Out of his tree

`Forget the fighting cocks, china. This could be big, man. Very big. All we have to do is find the stuff and get it on the market, and, hey, step aside Pablo Escobar'
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Indy Lifestyle Online
So where was I? Ah, yes, giving up smoking. I endured three full days before renting a car and heading for the distant town of Bulwer, where I could smoke unjudged and unseen. Why Bulwer? Because my old mate Eddie had taken up residence nearby, running a boarding house for hippie paragliders who came from all over the world to launch themselves off a certain clifftop and sink or soar on heavenly updrafts peculiar to the region.

Eddie's new dwelling was a rambling farmhouse overrun with wisteria, handsome but dilapidated, like the good old boy himself. When I met him, he was a cub reporter on a Jo'burg daily. After that, he became, by turns, a failed novelist, a professional gambler, a hunting guide and a pitbull breeder. Last time I saw him, he was eking a living of sorts on the Transkei border, running truckloads of sheep down into the bandit-infested badlands with a shotgun between his knees, but his wife Jane put her foot down after their second baby and insisted on a return to civilisation, so here he was, partially bald and totally broke, reduced to scrambling breakfast eggs for spaced-out flyboys. We sat down at the kitchen table and started plotting his financial comeback.

Idea number one was to find a plastic surgeon to darken his skin, thicken his lips and flatten his nose, so that he would get a fat-cat government job and steal enough money to retire. Idea two was to load some Javanese fighting cocks on the back of his pick-up and hit the road, staging demonstration bouts in small-town bars, selling chickens and spurs in the aftermath.

"We could make a buck and do some good at the same time," said Eddie, who passionately believes that urging two birds to kick one another to death brings out the best in a human being. In fact, he maintains that cockfighting will solve all Africa's problems by allowing us to expiate our bloodlust in a relatively harmless fashion. "Look at Bali," he screamed, all red in the face and pounding the table. Bali is apparently the only spot on the planet where almost everyone has a few fighting cocks in the back yard. It is also one of the few places where violent crime is almost entirely unknown.

"Remember khat?," I asked, deftly changing the subject. Khat is, of course, the mild narcotic limned by Khalil Gibran and much favoured in the Horn of Africa and mysterious Yemen. It comes from a tree called Catha Edulis, the leaves of which contain three powerful cholines that cause the human synapse to ululate and dance the fandango.

How do I know this? Because Eddie and I looked it up when we were teenagers, and discovered something amazing: a drug immortalised in mystic Arabian poetry was growing wild and free under our very noses or, rather, was a rare but documented denizen of the forested slopes of South Africa's eastern escarpment. Indeed, this is where it was first described - right here in South Africa, in 1814, by the explorer Burchell, who encountered it in the form of Bushman's Tea, a pleasant infusion popular among the small yellow people.

Bushman's Tea was apparently quite mild, but still strong enough to merit stern warnings about character deterioration and dementia, which naturally caused Ernie and I to slaver. I mean, we were 19, and believed Donovan's "Mellow Yellow" to be an encoded exhortation to smoke banana peel.

So we sallied forth in search of Bushman's Tea, but the nurserymen of greater Johannesburg had never heard of it. Maybe the knowledge had been suppressed by our Calvinist rulers; maybe it had died out with the last Bushmen. We were never able to find it, but then we'd never hunted for it in the wild.

"Eddie," I said, leaning across the table to avoid his wife's disapproving glare, "forget the fighting cocks, china. This could be big, man. Very big. All we have to do is find the stuff and get it on the market, and, hey, step aside Pablo Escobar." Jane snorted indignantly, but Eddie and I knew we were onto something.We rose as one, strode out the back door and down into the ravine behind Eddie's new farmhouse, which just happens to contain one of the very last patches of indigenous forest left in the nation.

Neither of us had ever seen a living Catha Edulis, but I had eaten khat, and I was fairly sure I'd recognise it, if not by its look then certainly by its vile assault on the palate. And lo, in due course, we came upon a sun-dappled dell in the centre of which stood the genuine article, or at least a dead ringer. I could almost swear this was the tree of which I'd often partaken in the lemon-scented courtyards of war-torn Somalia.

So we pulled off a few twigs and started chewing, our mouths flooding with vile juices. Eddie grimaced. "Shut up and eat," I said; "You can't afford to fool around when you've got children to feed." So we stuffed the leaves in and masticated heroically, and when nothing happened, masticated some more, then sat down with our backs against a tree-trunk to await transmogrification.

And that's where Jane found us three hours later - two old hippies, glassy- eyed and sickly green, surrounded by puddles of vile green vomit. "You," she said to me as she helped her ailing husband to his feet, "are very bad company"

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