YOUTH, one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, is essentially a mediation on old age and what really matters in the end. Much of the action – or inaction – is set at a Swiss spa where aged bodies, wrapped in fluffy white dressing gowns, shuffle towards hot springs where they float, momentarily relived from decrepitude. Stars that once shone bright – revered movie directors, celebrity football players and ancient tycoons all congregate to find temporary relief in the healing waters.
Youth was a perfect prelude to my annual pilgrimage to the natural hot springs in Citrusdal, where, nestled beneath the Koue Bokkeveld Mountains, rests Capetonians answer to the Swiss spa, known laconically as The Baths. It might not have doctors in white coats administering vitamin injections, nor the once famous, but the waters are just as healing and can be enjoyed at a mere fraction of the price.
As far as I’m concerned, no Cape Town winter would be complete without a trip to the Baths.
Just when the cold has reached its zenith, especially if you see snow on the mountains, it’s time to pack your swimsuit and head to the baths. It’s also a great trip to make when it’s raining. The sensation of cool raindrops falling on your head as your body luxuriates in hot water is an inexplicably pleasing experience.
The baths consists of two pools – one 43 degrees – the other a chilly 18 degrees Celsius in winter. There is some scientific notion about the benefits of alternately pleasing and shocking your body, but whatever the theory, like most people I usually skip the cool pool and bob about blissfully in the hot pool.
In case the pool does not ease your knotty muscles sufficiently, the spa room provides five Jacuzzis, unlike Jacuzzis I have encountered anywhere else. Elsewhere, a Jacuzzi summons up an image of a tub of water bubbling gently like champagne. But at the Baths it’s as though invisible and determined firefighters are aiming fire hydrant hoses at your muscles which get pummeled into happy submission.
Each of the five spa rooms are named, rather strangely, after the oxen that were present when the springs were discovered in the 1700s. It is rumoured that one unfortunate oxen, Kolberg, stumbled into a hole, which on closer inspection, proved to be a hot water spring.
The baths went through a bloody period when they were used as a military post where white stock farmers fought off the indigenous Khoi San. The VOC (Dutch Indian Company) took over the baths which were frequented by many prominent Cape families and other notables, such as Carl Thunberg, the father of South African Botany, and Francis Masson, Kew’s esteemed English gardener. But because the the Baths were far from Cape Town they fell into disrepair.
It was James McGregor, described as a “short, stocky Scot” by Hazel Hall in Taking the Waters – The History of the Olifants River Warm Baths, who bought The Baths in 1903, and with the help of his three sons, built the infrastructure of the resort as it is today. The resort remained in the McGregor family for over a century until July 15 last year when the new owner, Etienne Strydom, took ownership.
Resort manager, Manie Gordon, who has worked at the Baths for 22 years, shows me the main eye that feeds the spa. This together with a few arterial spas deliver over 105 000 litres of water per hour. All the water from the spa is recycled and used on the farms nearby, which is perhaps why the locally grown oranges have such a distinctive glow.
In the surrounding area, other spas mimicking the baths, heat the water and pump it into guests baths, But the Baths, with a capital B, is the real McCoy. The spring is an artisanal well: Water that gathers in the Koue Bokkeveld Mountains sinks through sandstone until it reaches a depth where the earth is scorching hot. Pressure builds up forcing the water beneath the Oliphant’s river and forcing it upwards until it emerges in the Kloof at 43°C.
“Taking the waters” is an ancient practice, first recorded in Babylonian and Greek times and an annual ritual espoused by the wealthy aristocratic classes until the 1940s when, with the rise of antibiotics and pharmaceutical medicine, natural cures became less fashionable. Citrusdal might be less resplendent than the world’s great spa cities, such as Bath in England and Baden-Baden in Germany, but the naturally occurring healing properties attributed to the water are just the same. The water, rich in minerals and trace elements such as calcium and potassium, indubitably soothes muscles, improves blood circulation and detoxifies the body’s lymphatic system.
It also banishes insomnia. You will need to factor in several additional hours to spend sleeping during your visit. Twenty minutes in the hot pool is a fail-safe soporific.
Writing in his diary in 1840, William Man recorded in that “the water looked so tempting that none of us could resist, so our horses were turned to graze, our packs were opened, and we each of us had a glorious dip.” One and a half centuries later the water is still giving just as much pleasure. Mrs Braak, who is on a week long holiday with her extended family, sighs, “Oh its lovely” as she slips into the water for the very first time.