Born on a farm near Bela-Bela, Kelly Gottschalk’s family moved to the sleepy picturesque village of Sabie when she was 13, and it was there that the seed of what was to become a lifelong passion was planted.

It was in Sabie that Kelly befriended an old hippie dude who introduced her to fungi. “I was fascinated. There was just so much to learn and Sabie was the perfect place. The climate, the forests … an ideal place for mushrooms,” she smiles. At the age of 18, Kelly started her travels abroad and soon forgot all about them.

Kelly Gottschalk

Years later, she returned to the misty mountainous region and her obsession with mushies started in earnest. “My little boy, Slade, and I left Sabie and moved to Cape Town. One day, while we were swimming in the river, I noticed a few mushrooms growing under a tree,” she says. “A closer look revealed Boletus, the same ones my hippie friend had introduced me to. I picked what I could and they became that night’s dinner.”

Kelly returned to the area the following day and noticed a host of other mushrooms as well. “There were small ones, big ones, colourful ones and oddly shaped ones. That is where it
all started. I absolutely had to know their names and what they could be used for, if at all.” Kelly snapped a few pics and posted her finds on a local mushroom identification group,
laughing as she says that she really isn’t very good at remembering names. “Actually, I’m not good at remembering anything, and yet I was remembering these Latin binomials as though my life depended on it.’’

Kelly moved back to Sabie seven years ago. Her day job consisted of managing a guest house, and she spent every lunch hour racing to the forest to hunt for mushrooms. “After
what felt like 10 minutes, I would get a phone call saying that my one-hour lunch break was up over an hour ago. I had emails to attend to, guests to welcome in and issues to resolve, and I’d been gone for over two hours.” After five years of living a double life, Kelly finally cracked. She couldn’t be kept away from her dream any longer, so she ditched her job and committed herself full-time to mushies.

Kelly’s time was taken up with constant mushroom hunting, taking pics of them and  identifying and researching the fungi, and after a while she came across like-minded folk, people who loved mushrooms as much as she did. They started up the Mycological Societies, born from four people in four different provinces who wanted to share their passion, as well as learn, teach, explore and document their finds.

“We got in touch with a professor at the University of the Orange Free State, to whom we send all our weird and wonderful specimens. She then gets her students to sequence each
individual mushroom, and in so doing South Africa now has an official species list for fungi! It’s an ever-growing project, but I’m so proud to have been a part of something so important.” Kelly adds that they also supplied many of the photos of the new SA Mushroom
Field Guide.

After having spent time collecting various species for sequencing, she decided to turn her attention to edible mushrooms. She found that on many occasions she had picked too many to consume at one sitting, so began drying them. “I had drying mushrooms everywhere,” Kelly laughs. “At one stage my kitchen was so overcrowded with preserve jars that my mum commented on it becoming a health risk. This is how Foraged – Gourmet Forest began.” She explains that she is a forest witch, not a corporate queen, and as such has found it extremely difficult to get her business off the ground at times. She decided to add tours to her itinerary, along with the foraged goods, which involves tagging along with her through the forest undergrowth on one of her daily escapades, searching for mushrooms.

Kelly’s boys, Slade (seven), and Kaleb (five), love these adventures. This proud mum describes her eldest as a barefooted, wild-haired, unafraid little boy who catches snakes  and loves to show anyone who’s around what he’s found. She smiles as she recalls one particular incident. “We once had a bunch of German tourists yelling and sprinting off in all directions after Slade had shown them a dead green snake he was holding by the tail. This really bugged him as he couldn’t figure out why such a fiasco was being made about his cool little find. He likes to think we are all brave and that we all have a good heart.”

Brave young Slade

Kaleb, Kelly explains, is feisty and temperamental. He questions everything, and needs answers now. “One of his first words was ‘Termitomyces’, although he said it more like  ‘pitomyceeees’,” she laughs, “and he’s corrected a few people with their Latin pronunciations, sometimes even correcting their IDs. And he is not interested in learning a mushroom’s common name. He rolls his eyes at me and then insists I tell him the name I use. Witches Butter or Glistening Ink Cap just doesn’t cut it for him.”

Feisty little Kaleb

There are so many fascinating and remarkable traits about mushrooms that Kelly could write several books on the topic. She covers what she can on her tours, but by the end of the day feels as if she hasn’t even scratched the surface. “There are bioluminescent mushrooms, the mushrooms they found in a Chernobyl nuclear reactor eating the radiation, and those they’ve found that can break down plastics. There are cordyceps that zombify their host insect, and fungi that strangle trees while others hollow them out. There are ink caps that deliquesce into ink with which our forefathers wrote with a quill. Others that are toxic when consumed with alcohol, but harmless if not. Not to mention the symbiotic relations they form with various plants and animals, such as the termites that farm with Termitomyces mushroom spores. Neither can live without the other. There is also the stoned ape theory of monkeys in the savannah eating magic mushrooms that eventually was the cause of a cognitive revolution.”

Kelly’s passion is quite contagious, and the idea of grabbing a basket and rushing off into the forests to forage for mushrooms is ever so appealing. We are fortunate to live in an area prolific with these wonderful marvels of nature, and what better time to go outside, get some fresh mountain air, and find out more about Mother Earth and her incredible mushrooms.

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