MOUNTAIN CLAN - MEET THE MACMAHONS
Updated: Feb 17
‘Magoebaskloof is a home of wanderers... people who have been searching for home and have found it in the heart of the mountains,” says Tamla McMahon of Thomac Essential Oils, a family business in the heart of Limpopo’s eco-destination of choice, hidden in the misty mountains of Magoebaskloof on Cheerio Road. The minute your tyres hit dirt, you will feel the freedom of country roads and the promise of an adventure. Glimpses of homesteads almost hidden from view are intriguing and enticing… speaking of years gone by and the pioneers, hardy woodcutters, traders and adventurers who made these wild places their home.
This is indeed a magical world… Driving off the main Route-71 and onto the meandering gravel road just opposite the old Bluegum tree with intriguing Celtic-inspired carvings made by Toban Kahn McMahon, you will find the distillery and home of Thomac Essential Oils, the heartspace of Julie McMahon who has been passionate, since she was a child, about the indigenous medicinal plants from which her father, Clifford Thompson extracted essential oils. Thomac are the only producer world-wide to sustainably harvest Helichrysum splendidum from the hillsides surrounding the farm and press the plants into essential oils.
Julie’s husband, Mark says, ‘The process of harvesting and extracting Helichrysum splendidum essential oil, more commonly known as Southern Immortelle, is a very low-footprint operation, with the bulk of the plant being wild harvested using sustainable methods and the only by-products are distilled water, plant humus and a little wood smoke. What started out as a business idea turned into a journey towards health and wellbeing led by the plant itself.’ This inspiring family with roots deep in the very soil of Magoebaskloof believes in living in harmony with nature and with people, which shows in everything they do.
Julie is a natural storyteller and reflects on her astonishing life with a wry smile and a few tears. ‘It all began when my mother, Eva, was in labour and arrived at the hospital wearing my grandfather’s gown - the sisters were told a mom is going to have a baby,’ says Julie McMahon (then Thompson) of the start of her eventful life. ‘I grew up at Wegraakbosch Farm, a haven of constant activity with two extremely eccentric parents who were always hanging off some cliff by a whole string of jerseys tied together.’ After all, they met when Eva brought her Harley Davidson motorbike in for repairs at the local mechanic.
Their adventures did not conveniently include a small child so Julie ‘migrated’ to the ‘patient, loving folk’ working on the farm who always made time for her. Julie and her friend Matagah would spend all day in the wild discovering the wild edibles and medicinal plants which grew abundantly there. Both of her parents were naturalists so latin terminology was the norm at home but the seed was first sown by Matagah for Julie’s lifelong and passionate love of wild plants.
On her father, Clifford’s side of the family, many were doctors and Julie’s mother, Eva was a trained Nursing Sister, so it should have come as no surprise that at the age of seven, Julie was discovered dissecting a field mouse with her mother’s nail scissors. Her mother gave her a good hiding but later conceded that she might make a good doctor. Another incident involved a domestic boar which turned on her father and got him by the throat, ripping it open. The ten-year-old Julie raced to call her mother for help and phoned the doctor, reporting that his throat was cut and he couldn’t breathe but it had missed the ‘big vein’. Eva cut a piece of hosepipe to keep Clifford’s windpipe open and rushed him to hospital.
Life on the farm should have provided enough excitement especially with a mother who thought her husband was a Bushpig and fired at him with buckshot but Julie’s father Clifford, whose greatest delight was to camp in wildest Africa, considered the mountains of Magoebaskloof tame so they headed off to post-war Angola in 1996, driving 14,000 kilometres in a F250 at 60km per hour, often with no water. Julie relates a time when they were held at gunpoint by insurgents, and a friend said that Julie should have taken off her pearls, to which she replied, ‘I die with them on.’ She also explored Chobe and Moremi in a Bedford Truck when Clifford started taking Safaris later in his life.
It would obviously be an understatement to say that Julie had an adventurous childhood but it set the tone for the rest of her life. In 1975, just before her final matric exams, she got it into her head to streak from the classrooms to the hostels. Principal, John Harman threatened to expel her but, after looking at her for a long time, said that he would excuse her ‘on the grounds that her parents were lunatics.’ Julie did two years of nursing training where she learnt a lot but hated the military-style discipline because, she says, ‘I am after all, an Anarchist.’ She did a Secretarial course and ended up at a Hotel School in Hazyview where she met her first husband, John David Creech. Tragically, he was killed in a terrible accident six months after they married and some years later her mom’s house burnt down. Homeless, she was given an opportunity by Mike Gardner to relocate to Nwanedi Resort, which she says ‘saved her life.’
Four years later, after working in the movie industry, she met Mark McMahon in a snake pit at Swadini Reptile Park doing a demonstration to visitors. Tall, dark and handsome, he had instant appeal to Julie who claims she thought ‘he looks brave. I think I’ll marry him.’ She enticed him up the Blouberg Mountains to look for snakes and he never left. Mark was born in Chester and has linked heritage with King Boru of Ireland, but was brought up in an ordinary suburban home in Pretoria when the family relocated to South Africa. Julie describes Mark as a rebel but also a gentle, extremely intelligent ‘rocker’. Five days before their wedding, Mark was bitten by a puff adder but having discharged himself from hospital and narrowly avoided the amputation of his finger, he made it to the wedding in one piece.
Living on the farm where Thomac is based, Mark decided to follow Clifford’s example and explore the opportunity to try to extract the oil from some of the medicinal plants on the farm. Asking Julie which one they should distell, she replied, ‘aah that humble grey bush, Helichrysum splendidum’ the very plant she would lie in as a child, basking in the sun and inhaling its unique aroma. And so, in 1992 Thomac was born, combining the Thompson and McMahon heritage into one entity, dedicated themselves to wild harvesting and steam-distilling this medicinal plant into an essential oil sold around the world.
Sustainability is absolutely fundamental to the team, so they only harvest the plant wild which means that it is organic and ‘remains a functioning part of the natural ecosystem. The water used in the distillation process comes from a natural spring on the farm and the remote rural farm is pollution-free which means that the end result is of superior quality. Thomac also prioritises empowering employment and passing on their knowledge to the next generations through tours and educational talks.
Of course, wellness is also an important focus because Helichrysum splendidum or Southern Immortelle ‘has a powerful effect on the nervous system as well as the cardiovascular system.’ It has countless benefits including headaches, nerve regeneration, heart support, wound healing, pain control, bruising, rashes, allergies or burns. ‘Emotionally, this is the oil for emotional pain or emotional bruising as well. This oil can help animals that have suffered loss or have a history of abuse and anger or resentment.’ Thomac now offers Wellness Retreats which combine a medicinal plant walk with introspective healing.
Twenty-eight year-old Tamla McMahon returned to the family farm in 2019 and says, ‘looking back on my journey so far it seems I was definitely destined to come back home. Every time I left, I always yearned to return because the area has a certain magnetism to it... if you ask anyone who has visited this beautiful place, they will tell you that they will never forget Magoebaskloof and its people. This is especially strong for us locals who have been here our whole lives because there is an amazing sense of community and unprecedented natural beauty along with a sense of freedom.’
Because Thomac is a family-owned business, Tamla is involved in every aspect of the day to day management which she shares with her brother, Toban. Being part of the Thomac journey has been incredibly rewarding for her and she is passionate about the ethos of Biodiversity which they espouse saying, ‘I think the moment we separate ourselves from nature is the moment we lose a piece of ourselves. We were never meant to be apart from Nature, but to be A Part of her.’ Tamla, like her brother, is multi-talented and plays many roles, not only at Thomac and as a teacher at the local Haenertsburg Primary School but also as a horticulturist, musician and artist. Her love for music was passed on to her at an early age by her father and it has made her the person she is today. A highlight for her was being one of the main acts at the Catumbela festival in Angola. She says,’stepping on stage and seeing 25 000 people waiting for me to perform will always be a pivotal moment in my life even though it sometimes feels like a dream.’
Equally life-changing is her journey as a watercolour artist. Tamla says, ‘Art in whatever form is the soul's language and passing on the love and appreciation for nature is such an important role.’ Tamla’s ethereal watercolour illustration of a Ghost Orchid (Bonatea polypodantha) on black graphite paper and her depiction of the vibrant yellow Hypericum revolutum received such positive feedback that she was motivated to start a compilation of her ‘watercolour journey’ documented in Little Bear illustrations.
Tamla was also asked if she could assist with the Grade 2’s at the same Primary School in Haenertsburg that she and Toban went to. She says that this is one of the most rewarding elements of her life... ‘seeing these beautiful little faces every day and sharing the unconditional love they give is so precious. They have taught me so much about myself.’ Tamla teaches in English but she speaks Sepedi fluently, which helps to motivate their appreciation of the natural world around them. Tamla says, ‘many young people have simply never had the opportunity to be exposed to nature... the interest is there but I think we just lose touch when we aren't sticking our hands into the soil, so it is important to give kids the opportunity to re-connect.’
Tamla’s greatest wish for the young people in the area is ‘to grasp every beautiful moment you can experience on this mountain as it holds so many gifts.’ She wants to spread the love of nature, art, music, learning and the joy of being alive. In this way, she hopes people will be able to stop ‘the chase’ and find peace in every moment.
Tamla’s brother, Toban McMahon never really left ‘The Mountain’. He made the significant decision when he left high school that he would rather remain on the farm and focus all of his time and energy in fulfilling his dream to become self-sufficient through his role as Thomac’s field manager, building his own cob-house, blacksmithing and bee-keeping. He is a passionate nature-lover as his family have been for generations and says, ‘being in a community that is surrounded by nature and has so many like-minded people is probably what appeals to me the most. It is the best environment to show how things can be done differently and that living like our ancestors did in wattle & daub houses and farming off the land is not a crazy idea.’ He adds that, ‘the wonderful thing is that many more people from all walks of life are coming to Magoebaskloof and having the same realisation that this kind of lifestyle is preferable to the crazy consumerism out there.’
For him, what makes ‘The Mountain’ so unique is that it is a little paradise between the mountain landscapes and the lowveld and is at the heart of many relatively unexplored, untouched and awe-inspiring places like the Woodbush Granite Grassland and Wolkberg mountains with the highest peak in Limpopo, the Iron Crown. Toban has explored the area far and wide and always keeps an eye open for the small creatures. His ‘Little Talks’ about spiders, bees and snakes are popular with adults and kids alike. The other key element is that ‘the community is very diverse and proactive - it is a place full of industry and forward-thinking people, a true hub of activity!’
Toban himself is perhaps the best example of this activity in his multitude of interests and skills. He is passionate about Blacksmithing and spends countless hours at the forge, feeling the hot metal move under his hammer. His first forge was an old truck brake-drum with an antique hand-crank blower. He says, ‘it was my grandfather’s and was gifted to me by my uncle Nipper, who also gave me my first anvil which I still use to this day.’ Toban has been blacksmithing for about nine years now, learning mainly by trial and error and a knife-making course with Rudi Viljoen from Warriors which helped him hone his skills and opened his eyes to the way other craftsmen go about the business of making knives. Recently he has become increasingly interested in making jewellery from recycled materials such as stainless steel, copper and repurposed silver cutlery. He currently works on commission but hopes to forge an opportunity for a small retail outlet in Magoebaskloof.
‘Work with what the earth gives you is my motto’, says Toban and this applies to the cob house he has just completed. He explains that ‘the low carbon footprint of this building method is something that feels right in the face of the environmental impact that humans have had on the planet.’ but another key factor for him was the aesthetics - ‘it is extremely pleasing to the eye and feels like a natural earthly structure, like a mushroom, that grew from the earth.’ But it is also a lot cheaper than conventional building because it is literally built from the earth that it stands on and all the timber was harvested in a 5km radius. Toban explains that it was his mother’s idea to start building a house for him when he left school. She favoured the Wattle & Daub method which is used locally to build houses so all that was needed was to tap into the knowledge of the local women who have been building houses like this for generations along with the wealth of information out there on natural building methods. His philosophy was to keep everything as simple as possible so he knows exactly what he owns and where to find it. He designed the house with a small footprint so that it is easy to heat and clean and kept all the plumbing electrics to a minimum so that he could do almost all the maintenance and repairs himself.
Toban feels that building his home proves the viability of the cob-building method and would encourage everyone to try their hand at natural building with whatever materials are readily available in the vicinity. He is of the opinion that the best way to learn is just to do it and he has plans to build a cob Farm Shop at the Thomac property on the popular Cheerio road. He explains that, ‘the aim is to get as many people as possible from the community involved in the building of this structure, sharing what I learned from building my own house, so that they might leave thinking differently about natural building. We will host Cob-build days where we invite everyone to pitch in and help, and, in return, we will give them a hearty meal cooked from local organic produce. My hope is that this could be the first of many events to demonstrate how viable and rewarding it is to be involved in helping each other create buildings with the utmost respect to the earth.’
Toban feels that ‘it has been too long that humans have convinced themselves that they need more than they actually do.’ His ultimate dream, and that of the whole McMahon family is for Magoebaskloof to be a living example of a community that is self-sufficient and a place rich in every thing that a human being needs.
For Distillery Tours and Wellness Retreats, contact Julie on 076 418 1238, For Little Talks, contact Toban on 079 195 9368