South Africa is a vast and beautiful country and there are lots of interesting places to go and things to see here. Being large and beautiful, the country also lends itself nicely to general aviation. I belong to a family of aviators and so I have often had the privilege to view this beautiful land from the vantage point of a Cessna 210 high in the sky.
A week ago I was lucky enough to visit one of the many game reserves in this part of the world. The Amakhala Game Reserve is close to Port Elizabeth some 700km due east from Cape Town. That’s a long drive by car but by Cessna it’s less than two hours. The prospect of spending a couple of nights in a tented camp in the bush with lots of wild animals was nice, but equally nice – and very exciting – was the prospect of making a pitstop in Knysna (500 km from Cape Town) on our way home.
Knysna is where my soapmaker-friend Stefanie Seydack lives and many months ago she had kindly invited me to come and soap a special soap with her. Finally, I would have the opportunity to pay her a visit and we could make some soap together.
We took off from Stellenbosch early in the morning. False Bay is always beautiful but seen from high above it’s pretty spectacular!
A smooth flight and a couple of hours later we were at the gates of the Amakhala game reserve
Our lodgings for the next two nights was a 1920’s style, tented camp. The tent was small but very comfortable with a beautiful al fresco bathroom. Few things are as nice as taking your showers outdoors.
Needless to say, the plastic bottle with the blue stuff was soon replaced with a travel size chunk of gentle, well-cured, myrtle-infused olive oil soap. Since olive oil soaps like to dry as much as possible between uses, the ones I travel with always get issued with a ‘rope’.
Life at a safari camp has its own pace. Activities are centered around game drives in the early morning and early evening when the animals are active. In between visitors are expected to do like the animals: sleep. For those of us who are used to being active and entertained 24/7 this may seem a little awkward at first. But once you manage to let go and embrace the thought of doing nothing at all for a while it’s fantastic. There is rare beauty in taking long naps at midday, listening to birds and insects going about their business and feeling a slight breeze flowing through your open tent. When I decided to get up I took a shower – some 6 meters from the antelope that was grazing right outside the tent.
Meals were had by the campfire in the boma. Rustic but very delicious. Here early morning tea and rusks before the morning game drive.
We saw some beautiful game. No crocodiles because the winters in the Amakhala area are too cold. The rangers told us that they’ve measured temperatures of -8C at the camp in mid-winter. That’s very cold if your home is a tent and definitely if your home is a river. But we saw many other magnificent animals.
The vegetation in that part of the country is dominated by the thorny Acacia Karoo which was full of yellow pompom blossoms this time of the year. In that specific area you can also find Cochineal beetles which were introduced to keep the invasive prickly pear population in check. Cochineal is used as a natural red dye – for textiles, foodstuff as well as cosmetics.
After two nights and days in the bush it was time to say good-bye to Amakhala and continue the safari. We got back onto the Cessna in Port Elizabeth and continued from there to the beautiful beach resort town of Plettenberg Bay. From there we continued by car to Knysna and caught up with old friends over a braai (barbecue) as is the custom in South Africa.
Early the next morning Stefanie and I had our soaping date. Stephanie and I have been sharing soapy stories over the past couple of years. Earlier this year we were joking about odd oils to make soap from when somebody mentioned crocodile. We joked quite a bit about the crocodile soap until one day Stefanie decided that she was actually going to make it. For real. And yes, if anybody was game for that kind of fun, I was.
To get hold of crocodile oil would be a challenge in many parts of the world, but we were lucky to be in South Africa where African Nile crocodiles are farmed. The main product of crocodile farming is the skin which is predominantly exported, and some of the meat is sold to the restaurant trade. But all of the fat is a by-product and if soapmakers can make use of it – so much the better. Stefanie managed to locate and get hold of a friendly crocodile farmer who couldn’t resist her persistent sweet-talking, caved in and surrendered some of his crocodile fat to her. Now, this farm is located in Mpumalanga which is at the very other end of the country. As I said earlier South Africa is vast and so the question of how to ship unrendered crocodile fat across the country became a hot topic. Courier was the obvious way to go and the fat was despatched. But, since every good story needs a bit of drama the croc went missing in transit. For a good 24h nobody knew where it was and my visions of our precious crocodile fat decaying in some obscure postal warehouse were not attractive. Eventually it did reach Stefanie and because it had been very well packaged for its journey and because it was in the middle of winter and chilly, the croc was absolutely fine. Great sigh of relief!
Then, Stefanie kindly did all the hard work of rendering the fat and now we had fat to make soap with. The next question then was what saponification value to use. We searched high and low on the internet to try to find a SAP value for croc or alligator but found nothing conclusive. Finally, I approached another South African soapmaker, Riaan van Heerden, who created the handy and user-friendly Soap Lye Calculator app, and with his kind help I got some values for crocodile:
KOH SAP 198.1
NaOH SAP 141.2
Lauric 0-4 Myristic 2-9 Palmitic 26-6 Stearic 4-8 Arachidic 0-6 Dodecenoic 0-2 Tetradecenoic 1-1 Hexadecenoic 6-2 Hexadecadienoic 0-3 Octadecenoic 33-5 Octadecadienoic 17-0 Octadecatrienoic 2-6 eicosenoict 3-8
Good enough. Close to lard and beef tallow and an NaOH value very close to palm oil. With a 5% superfat we would probably have enough of a cushion or safety margin to create a safe soap.
And here we are face to face with the croc
In case anybody missed that, the croc fat had a really interesting colour as it was there on display in the ‘croc pot’. It was…golden. Just thought I should mention that…one more time
In the end we had just under a kilo of croc oil. We wanted to make a crocodile soap but we also wanted to make a soap that would be more than just a novelty, ie a soap that would be nice to use. This is practical seeing that we might end up using the soap all by ourselves. So we decided to go with 50% crocodile oil in our formula. For the other half we used coconut and castor for a bit of bubbles and plenty of beef tallow and lard for hardness and also because we felt that it was only natural for a croc to contain a bit of cow and pig too We also added a little bit of green clay as a memento of the river banks and mud pools that our African Nile Crocodile would have loved. And to go with the green we added lemongrass, eucalyptus, spearmint and geranium essential oils for fragrance. During the planning stages before the trip we had taken into consideration that we might not have electricity for our soaping session (South Africa has been experiencing some country-wide power shortages lately) and so I brought along some ylang-ylang essential oil that tends to accelerate trace very nicely if you have to hand stir the soap. But we did have electricity and so the ylang-ylang stayed in its bottle.
As for the design we chose a conservative approach: this was our only croc oil and we didn’t want to jeopardize the soap or the process in any way. Stefanie felt that a few zebra stripes in the belly of the beast would have been highly appropriate; for the record she has now booked that idea and is keeping it for next time.
While our lye was cooling down – in a bird-cage to protect the lye and the cat from each other – I took a stroll in Stefanie’s beautiful rose garden. In addition to being a soap enthusiast, Stefanie is a passionate rose fundi. My shaky video doesn’t do her lush garden any justice, but it’s my first ever YouTube video so I’m proud of it irrespective
The croc soaped beautifully to the extent that the making of the soap was a breeze. Half of the batch was poured into my mould and the other half went into Stefanie’s moulds. Stefanie had made special little wire tools and so the tops of our logs were given little inverted stamp crocodile tracks. Very cute!
Taking that picture was hazardous though. In my ignorance I had put down the soap-filled moulds on an outside table where some little birds were accustomed to having their lunch served and they clearly though that the freshly poured croc soap was tiffin. Almost came to fistycuffs with this bird over my croc soap:
But the drama didn’t end there. While Stefanie and I were busy with the soap a security technician was working on the alarm system on the roof of Stefanie’s house. Suddenly he gave out a shriek as if attacked by zombies and almost toppled over his ladder. It turned out that a box he had been working on had been taken over by frogs and he was big time frog-o-phobic. Stefanie quickly saved the little froggies from being catapulted into the rose bushes – or into the freshly poured soap. This is how cute they were:
Once the soap was in the mould it was time for me to say good-bye to Stefanie and continue my journey – with the soap that I hoped would gel nicely. I normally soap with a steep water discount, but knowing that the soap would be in transit while saponification was under way I had chosen to go with a higher water concentration (1:2 lye:water) than I normally would in order to ensure that the soap in my 1 kg mould would reach gel phase at a relatively low temp. For the trip the mould with the fresh soap was packed into a styrofoam box and secured with plenty of newspaper.
When everything else had been loaded onto the Cessna the box with the soap went on top and we were off on the last leg of our safari.
As we passed over beautiful Knysna we waved in the direction of Stefanie’s house
A couple of hours later, back home in Somerset West, I took a peek at the soap which was indeed gelling nicely. I took it out of the box and placed it in a 30C oven where it spent the night. The next morning I put it in the freezer for a while since I had lined my mould with a texture mat and wanted to make sure that the mat would release nicely. Here’s my top, still wet with condensation:
The texture mat I used was a clear plastic mat from a baking supply shop. While it worked for this project it did so only because it was pinned in place by the weight of the soap and the lid of the mould. As soon as I put it in the oven on its own, even at very low heat, it curled up completely. Next time: silicone.
Stefanie had made an awesome stamp specially for our croc soap project. This is how cool her freshly cut bars looked:
For mine I used a stamp with an adinkra symbol for humility and strength: strength for the mighty animal who lives on in the soap, humility for those who are privileged to have a small part in the soapmaking magic.
To sum it up we had lots of fun with this project. Many firsts for me: first time soaping crocodile, first time soaping together with Stefanie, first time soaping together with any other soaper, first time shooting video of a soaping session (learnt a few good lessons there such as don’t turn the camera to portrait mode mid shoot ) and first time travelling with saponifying soap at an altitude of 8000 feet. Lots of fun ins and outs in the process of planning and sourcing that lead up to the actual soaping of the croc. Even if we never soap croc again we certainly made this one time count! Thanks Stefanie for letting me be part of this adventure!
And what about crocodile soap as a general concept? Our initial approach was one of “We’ll do it because we can” (which is a fairly common approach among soapmakers in general) without any expectations whatever. But having made closer acquaintance with the croc oil, I now think it lends itself rather nicely to soapmaking. We used crocodile oil at 50% so based on this soap we will not be able to tell what crocodile is like as a soap oil on its own. However, few oils make perfect soap on their own and so good soaps are almost always made with a combination of oils. Judging from the numbers above crocodile oil on its own probably doesn’t lather very much, and it certainly isn’t as hard as suet but clearly harder than your average plant oil. The soap was only made a week ago so it’s still curing but the little sliver that I washed my hands with less than 24h after pouring felt wonderful. Both Stefanie and I were also quite impressed with how the unsaponified crocodile oil felt on our skin. Despite being quite viscous it was very readily absorbed without greasy after-feel. Caveat shea butter!
Disgusting? Whether the idea of reptilian or any other animal oil in soap is disgusting will always be a matter of personal preference. I for one can think of quite a few things that I would find more off-putting than clean crocodile oil. I was expecting a much stronger smell and while I probably wouldn’t use crocodile oil for cooking I can’t smell it in the soap at all – and I have a fairly sensitive nose.
So, with Christmas just around the corner I will sit back and lie in wait for my crocodile. Looking forward to some rather exclusive shower sessions in about a month or so
Happy Holidays to everybody!