First, the First Ladies

Meet Clare and Indigo. They’re custodians of eco-living whose open hearts are carving a path on the South African green grid. Both strive to keep the balance between consumption and creation in their personal lives and are brave enough to bring this to others as a company called Bridging The Gap. When it comes to prompting people to live more consciously and holistically, they are the synapse that connects.

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Clare’s gentleness is rivalled only by her sudden bubbliness. Under her generally calm lake of love and dreams is a deep desire to enable the earth and its residents to live in harmony and health, and she is unstinting in her commitment to encouraging this.

Indigo is cool, calm and connected. She can crack a whip as easily as give a hug and is a mistress of leading by example. Comfortable in herself and keenly aware of what it takes to contribute to the world, she effortlessly rebalances energy with her presence without trying.

Together, their generosity of spirit enabled an incredible winter journey around the Cape Province that I hope is the first of many more.  They know and network with wonderful people who walk the talk, and introduced us to them with open hearts. They worked tirelessly alongside us on site and also behind the scenes. They took great care to make sure that we had as much access to info and insight as possible, sharing their own knowledge, and prompting our mentors for more.

The trip could be seen as a tuning in exercise, and the daily tuning in circle was designed to facilitate this on a personal front. Its effect was to integrate conscious and unconscious experience of others. It was a little awkward at first, but it soon proved its place in the process. When you’re sharing spades, basins, mealtimes and bus time with people you don’t know too well, hearing them say how they feel and what they need creates an awareness that builds cohesion in a collective. This was the first  trip for the tour duo and while it wasn’t without its teething issues, it was well worth it and a wonderful project to be part of.

The biggest surprise for me was the warmth with which our hosts responded to us. I tried to take a similar but solo route like this in summer, and was met with  scepticism, mostly.  The success of the group initiative emphasised the need to bridge the gap between dream and doing, city and country and friend and stranger with good facilitators. Two weeks on a focused road trip under the care of Clare and Indigo and I feel I have a new network of sincere souls to whom I can turn for inspiration and motivation. They’re waiting to meet you…

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Destination : Far From Home

A road trip in deepest winter? You might smile and snuggle closer to the heater, but we left Cape Town curdled in a mother of a storm. No more of that ominous nonsense for us. We are leaving the city of pretty on a journey of discovery. Enter eco-warriors and green queens..

We recycle, I mean, and we want to grow vegetables in our imaginations – er, condominiums. We have visions … of – what are they called? – vertical gardens and, like, solar power. We are going to explore off-grid living and learn natural building.

So just what was it about the open road that inspired us to pass out promptly as the bus pulled away? Perhaps some unconscious anticipation of how very much we were to discover and love on this journey. There are snakes in rafters and ice cold showers waiting for us. There are ancient trees and piglets (not in that order). We will hoe and dig and build and write the green map together. We are pioneers! We are going forth! But actually we are snoring and missing the beautiful back roads. The First Ladies, Clare and Indigo, had more of an inkling of what lay ahead and rewarded our overwhelm with gluten-free brownies to build our stamina. Stylish. And they never once used them to bribe us, though they really could have. I speak for myself, of course.

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Sweet Suurbraak

After said snooze, we awoke fresh for our first stop, a scattering of smallholdings in Suurbraak that aspire to one hundred percent self-reliance. Noble intentions, and not out of sync with the area: here horses still pull ploughs and noobs build muscle before dwellings. “I’ve realised that I sink a hole and plant a pole every day,” Grant pondered, philosophically. You kinda have to be if you’re doing DIY  out in the sticks – no big machines out here; every development takes planning, preparation and adaptation. Things rarely go as intended, he says. But he’s stoked. He’s managed to build his own house, pond, veggie garden and pizza oven using materials from the area and that seems to be the point. A good chickpea salad from Chef Elf sets the tone for the next fourteen days : healthy, welcome, and more than a little bit different. That’s what you get when you sign up for a green living crash-course slash road trip. And lots of kitties to cuddle along the way.

Whaddisay?

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Orientation

The storm was hard on our tail so we left for De Hoop Nature Reserve, looped and spiralled a bit in the wilderness, blew a tyre for dramatic effect and arrived to three-star cottages WITH HEATERS and hot showers. Enjoy it while you can, Warriors; from here on out you’ll be scrabbling in that regard. At least the sun is going to shine most of the time.

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Settling in

DE HOOP NATURE RESERVE broke us in a bit. To three ridiculously delicious organic meals a day, much animated banter about everything from music to the redeeming potential of hemp plantations and, oddly, the perplexing ethical dilemma of whether or not to use your electric blanket on an eco-trip. I don’t have that dilemma – I carry a hot water bottle in winter. Though it’s the same fossil fuels burning to warm the water as the blanket, innit? #conundrum

The untold trip lay quiet before us while we sucked in the surroundings. The area’s serene vlei, icy air, swarming stars and martian sanddunes take one back in time to the cradle of civilisation that it is.

 We didn’t find fossils but we found fairly chilled buck and dassies.

As you can see, it helped us get past the awkward camaraderie that comes with suddenly living alongside near-strangers 24/7.

We loved the dunes, the shore, our beds, the meals, the skies.

We loved less the bus and its cranky tunes. It got us into some neat industrial yoga postures, though, and otherwise impossible tummy twists (mine).

We wandered around with animals and, with a little help from the aforementioned ‘tuning in circle’ that was to become a mainstay along with our breakfasts, we got to talking about ourselves a bit. The topic was ‘why I chose this trip and what I hope to discover through it’. Everyone seemed to be looking for something, whether it was a new personal chapter, a different profession or the matches that were here a minute ago.

This made for a cuddle of very cooperative, compassionate people who are as interesting as they are interested in the world around them. Our daily dinner parties were alive with contemplations of worm wee and how best to pilfer dumpsters, and when we unabashedly discussed the origins of women giving birth lying down over a main course, we realised we had a definite case of table talk. It was to flavour the trip entire and didn’t stay seated, either. As random groups of travellers go, Bridging The Gap drew individuals full of optimism and respect who are more than willing to chip in and chill out with equal fervour.

Speaking of fervour, our vehicle seemed out to kill us. The changing screams and squeals from its axle were like something out of a B-grade horror film. I’ve travelled alone in Africa, India, Madagascar, Israel, Turkey and Europe in all manner of vehicles, and the reason I’ve done so without being raped or having a single accident is not only the grace of the gods but that I know  when to put my foot down or to put foot and run. Sometimes your fears are your best friend and in certain contexts it’s worth risking being (seen as) ridiculous instead of, well, your life.  Fix it or I’m leaving, I said. Turns out I wasn’t alone in my concerns and after a few days’ layover we were downwind of the damned thing, on the road in a much better beast of a bus, full of questions, and keen to put on our green belts and plant some trees. First we had to learn a little Italian.

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La Vida Lello

We were late but Lello was full of love. He welcomed us to his piece of paradise near Plett with open arms and a hearty hello at the close of day. Our dusky arrival was the result of a unique and experimental approach to time management and navigation destined to be our third wheel the entire trip and lose us some stunning opportunities. The lesson here : keep one phone charged and use Maps.Me : a mobile way-finding app that works offline (and if anyone can recommend a good solar powered phone charger, please leave a comment). It reminded me why I usually do things myself and maybe that’s why Lello was not bothered by our tardiness – he does things himself, too.

He and his wife are producing and selling local, organic produce on a commercial scale in the Plettenberg Bay area. It started with a lifestyle change for health and wellness and grew into a mini-empire built on love and hands-on home industries. His homestead encompasses a large industrial kitchen, swanky coffee shop called Bocca Dolce, a huge workshop that houses carpenters and blacksmiths and a herd of happy horses. The workshops are furnishing and decorating a German castle for the next five years; the horses are boosting the garden’s soil with their um processed grass. From that comes a steady stream of seasonal fruits, nuts and vegetables that supply local shops, markets and national supermarkets. The produce is untainted by any of the –ides or sprays used in mainstream farming, and the process itself raises many an eyebrow with Farmer Incendiario’s contemporaries. This is no surprise : the purveyors of holistic farming systems like permaculture and biodynamic farming get a lot of flak from industrialists for the perceived impracticality of their practises. Big farms have big fields; they need big yields. In an age of (increasingly expensive) metal and oil, it makes little sense to the monocultural  mindset to fiddle around with manual labour and manure when a machine or chemicals could do it more quickly, swiftly and cheaply. What Lello is doing is demonstrating that ‘impracticality’ is a point of view.  “I live in an area where every guy around me thinks I’m insane. I had somebody here who said, ‘but look, you’ve got four guys cleaning this garden – how MUCH do you pay them each?” and I said, ‘Ja, so that’s an expensive WAY of gardening, but it’s so sustainable because you’re not looking at the cost of the tractors and you’re not looking at the cost of the wheels and you’re not looking at the cost of the diesel.”

He’s not claiming to practise pure permaculture, but points out “we plant with the moon, we obviously follow some very strict eco practises.” Permaculture is nature intensified; its principles and logic follow nature’s own, and Lello does too, so you could say he’s quietly championing the cause of clean living . Except the man is not quiet! He sings as he walks, talks animatedly with his hands as much as with his voice, and his dialogue includes as many accents as you can challenge him to and a few more of his own making. To borrow a favourite word of our facilitators, Lello is a love bomb. He oozes optimism and ignites the air around him with abundance. It’s great to see positivity personified and responsible farming making a name for itself in the Living Foods brand (THEY EVEN MAKE FROZEN, GLUTEN-FREE WRAPS which are hard to find which is why I’m shouting). His infectious sense of humour left all of us in high spirits as we got back on the road to meet other wild spirits.

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Where the Wild Spirits roam (or loam)

What a view! Nature’s Valley spread out before you, indigenous forest licking the sky, and clean air as created only on the Garden Route. This stop had a buzz about it: some solid exercise, shaggy, beautiful visitors from all around the world, and quality time with one of the loveliest individuals I’ve met in a long time. The trip was filled with such people, actually. Every single site revealed hosts with open minds and warm hearts, thoughtful souls with sensitive sentiments and a strength not often expressed in the urban jungle. It seems that once you’re out there, working with nature, against the grain of a prefab life, a sense of nurturing naturally extends from you, and naturally you appreciate support and attention for the good work that you are learning to do. And sixteen arms and legs to help you with the next bit of your cultivated kingdom are definitely welcome. And welcome is exactly what the manager/madame at Wild Spirit made us feel.

Ola is radiant, focused, gentle, organised. She’s a dreamer who does:  she runs a renowned backpackers-with-a-conscience and actively contributes to and promotes other projects with a crowd-sourced, environmental edge (eg. GreenPop and the Transition Town project in Greyton). We were there to work (a trade exchange of accommodation for labour) and she worked right alongside us, and taught us about everything we touched. Our task was to help clear a very steep slope of veggie patch in an unabashed state of disrepair and prepare it for planting. Winter seems to bring out the honesty in organic veggie gardens and all our hosts after Lello wistfully admitted they wish they had more time for tilling. Or, rather, composting and mulching. It’s a major issue out in the rural areas : working the soil requires toil, and many hands – if you have them – make light work. We preferred to do ours to the tunes of DJ Hope, and on this day it was psy trance and swing all the way. Can you dig it?

Yes we can

It’s this attitude that makes change possible. Ola seemed as inspired by our company of white collar workers as we were by her green cuff ideas and generous input. The community of conscious citizens seems a small and scattered one in the greater Cape Province, but, now that I’m a surfer, I’ll wager that they’re making bigger waves than they realise. Watch this space. Certainly there’s a host of info online – just googling one recommended organisation (SEED) led to a lost afternoon of links. Not that I’m complaining, but there’s a fire going on the main deck, and desserts from two separate chefs!

As an environmentally aware business, Wild Spirit is a beacon and a great case study. It’s constantly improving the design and implementation of its off-grid (non-Eskom) facilities and offers visitors the chance to see change in action. Little notes everywhere remind you that there are many ways to do things more sustainably, if you just lend a lobe or a brain node. Our urban lives are not geared towards leaving no trace; we do need, on some level, to commit to the re-education of our subconscious if we are to change our overarching systems and the subconscious sentiments that support them. We have to get conscious, basically. Government doesn’t seem too bothered (surprise!), so it’s the consumer and voter who have the power in this context. And it’s about more than turning off unused lights and making Highveld Horse Unit a beneficiary on your MySchool Card. It’s about thinking about the end of the line for everything you use and do and want and buy and throw away, and how to do it better.

Here’s an example. The solar shower worked well – hot and wet like a porn star – but that bucket capturing excess runoff was a bit of a bother. A bucket between my legs is not the kind of fantasy I have for a responsible shower, you know? Or any kind of shower, for that matter. Grey water capture systems are complex and should be integrated (not awkward)  if they’re going to be widely adopted and it seems that in this instance, this hadn’t been entirely thought through. Not that this is an issue per se, travellers like novelty and we’re here precisely to try out and find out how things are being done, but a lot of water is not being captured for the loo there because of that bucket, and while their water comes from a natural spring, when you’re low on labour, thinking it out on paper can often save oodles of maintenance and repair time better spent, yup, in the veggie garden!

Now that we know how to turn cuttings into compost, we want to plant something! So it’s off to the Eastern Cape. We’re running high on energy and out of reception.

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Ho ho Honeyville

image (c) jezebel

Honeyville is hardly sweet. It’s ambitious and elemental : an eco-village on paper; in reality an old farm near Jay Bay with restored and restructured houses that are powered naturally, and an idea waiting to be approved by government officials. That could take aeons in SA’s current dispensation and I don’t envy alternative architect John Barrett his goal of developing a legislative code for the movement in South Africa. But I do envy him his decades of experience with contemporary and natural building.

Unsurprsingly, John is an intellectual, a creative one who focuses on blending aesthetic and functionality in planning and construction towards a more integrated living environment. Think Andy Goldsworthy but with buildings and vegetable gardens.

John believes in harnessing the power and fecundity of natural cycles. He also believes in harnessing the power of story and imagination and entertained us with his philosophies and enthralled me with his knowledge of building with re-purposed and found natural (local) materials. “Mainstream education is an indoctrination,” he declared and continued converting a small cottage into a sustainable home using building rubble and brawn.

Actually, the brawn came from Karo(lien Vollaers), queen of the valley, co-owner of Honeyville and life partner to John. She wields a pick axe like a dancer and takes care to bless every new tree that goes into their soil.

Together they turn anecdotes into actions and practise permaculture to honour the swathe of gentle slopes and peaks around them. Most of it is dedicated nature reserve, and all of it believes in swales and intentional community. Their process of ‘unlearning analogue existence’  to unleash wisdoms of old (and new)  leans on tenets like ‘water that is too clean has no fish’ and ‘no cull, no till’.   It’s a reciprocal approach, for nature is cyclical : what you put in, done right , you get out tenfold.

While we were there, it felt natural to sow soil tester crops with them…

and collect cow dung as compost…

for the trees we planted…

and blessed.

We threw a floor which meant learning how to drive a wheelbarrow (Sarah) and moer a stomper (moi).  I felt like a child, discovering I have the skills and strength to build a house, start an orchard, and maybe feed myself off the land. And if ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, is it ironic that it was a child who got the temporary villagers singing?  No, it was natural. On the last night, around a starlight fire,with an orchestra of John’s carefully collected African musical instruments and his two preteens as band members, we succumbed to the influence of our hosts’ embracing energy, and the quietest in our crew threw caution to the wind and opened up her lungs to reveal the voice of an angelic siren.

My memories of Honeyville are its warmth and wonderful way of opening us up.  And that’s probably why it’s going to work, given enough time and the right stakeholders: because its purveyors have knowledge, spirit, enthusiasm and persistence.

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At Home in Hogsback

Image (c) jezebel

I think when it’s time, I’ll skip heaven and settle in Hogsback. It’s such a haven of mystery and delight, this forest village.

Its secrets and surprises give it a magical air that we all felt immediately.

I need a chapter to write about Terra-Khaya eco backpackers, the home(s) that Shane built. What stays with me is the pine trees whispering in the cutting dark. Which are actually wattle trees in the light of day, I discovered.  I remember the outdoor bath under stars like I’m still soaking in it, with laughter and music from the communal lounge wafting above. I loved the freshly baked bread. And the kitchen genies, Willem and Frank.

And Shane and his hounds – insatiable, adorable, inseparable.  I fell for a neatly coiffed blonde who didn’t return my interest with quite the same passion. His mother fell for me but I couldn’t bend daddy Shane’s arm to let me take them and I’m not sure the spotty kitties would ever forgive me, either, but I’ll be back to try again. I mean, to plant more trees.

Our fabulous host is as gentle and dry-humoured as he is driven and able.  He is a  horse whisperer and a reluctant hero, an introvert surrounded by babbling travellers. He took us up impossible slopes in a beautiful, bulky old Land Cruiser and down them in the dark, made us (er, me) scream like a girl in the wind and laugh like pigs. Wait. Pigs don’t laugh. Or, they don’t show it. And they’re not trying to kiss you when they sniff curiously at your fingers, mind you : they’re omnivores! Extremely smart omnivores. But enough about high IQs and stupid city slickers like me. Here’s all what happened in Hogsback.

On our first day we were invited to attend a talent show of local youth in a nearby village. It was a treat to share in the song and dance of young and old, and when we drove back up the mountain we found ourselves lifting the elders, and the show continued, in situ. I’ll let the snapshots paint a picture…

On day two we were taken to the building site. The business is growing, and Shane wants a larger, more integrated eco-entertainment space.

He’s using natural materials (mostly) and building techniques local to the area. What you see here is 3 weeks old, 2 stories high and one huge feat of hands and feet and brainpower. No cranes or elephants…

We learnt the traditional building techniques from Simphiwe, who has such a wicked sense of humour, she had us in stitches when she wasn’t hosing herself laughing at our first attempts at adobe construction.

Who would have thought rocks, sticks, stones and a few hands could build a home?

Building this way is trashy. Building this way is the shit. Literally, on both counts.  Used plastic and glass bottles can be turned into lightweight fillers which are especially useful for the second storey of a building where the walls aren’t necessarily totally straight, by order.

The outer surfaces are made of a mix of cow manure and mud which dry to give walls excellent insulation.

It was a profoundly empowering process, build the walls of a house with my own hands. Just don’t position yourself at the bottom level of the splatty cow patty parade.

What I love about this place is not only that it embodies the principles of clean living, but it proves that you all you need is love for this way of life to lead it, or let it lead you. Shane is like no person I’ve yet met, and yet Shane is every man : he lived urban, he wanted more; he knew very little about rural living and he let the land show him the way. Or, its way.

He’s fond of suggesting that the ground he’s slowly rehabilitating in fact selected him, rather than the other way around.

If it is so, the earth chose well, because the things he’s learning about reforestation through observation and effort are revelatory. For example, clearing alien trees. You can swoop in and raze every non-indigenous plant to the ground, and two seasons later, everything grows back thrice as thick. Or, as Shane discovered, you can part-clear, save the topsoil from washing away in the next rain, give the natural foliage a chance to get started and enrich the soil through a slower, more strategic and more natural restoration of the environment and its evolving ecologies.

To that end, Terra-Khaya runs a variety of self-empowering eco-conscious courses  and events from Rub-A-Dub-Daub (natural building) to permaculture courses to GreenPop’s Reforest Fest 12 September 2014.

Speaking of forests, we saw some big trees…

image (c) jezebel

…and planted some little ones. We went to work and now have the foundations for carving our own dwellings from the soil and stone around us. We went to explore the area and were taken to secret waterfalls. We learnt about coaxing ravines back to life and figuring out who stays in charge when horses charge. We saw how one man is changing the face of the mountain, and felt the sense of community that humility and leadership create.

Here’s a perfect example of how the natural sneaks up on you. Shane practises natural horsemanship, neither breaking his horses in traditionally nor using traditional tack. It was only after riding that I realised my steed had neither bit nor formal bridle on, but a loose array of thin ropes around its face, designed to communicate more gently with the steed rather than yank it around by its sensitive mouth. Far from looking adequate, I got quite a fright when I saw the collection of thin plastic chord and knots. Yet my horse was as receptive as any I’ve ridden (and a fair bit more, ahem, human!).  It made me wonder what it feels like to have your face strapped up in bands of dead cow’s skin whilst having your ass smacked by more dead cow’s skin and your ribs jabbed by, wait-for-it, feet encased in? you guessed it. No wonder race horses are rude. And it was a rude awakening that we actually had to leave Hogsback. It’s the kind of place that changes you.

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Back to the Beginning

Image (c) jezebel

When it comes to fond farewells, I’m torn between Eliot, Nietzche and a neat, unannounced exit. We’ve bridged the gap, we’ve earned our blisters (well, those of us without gloves); we exit the bus, we enter the city. We have come full circle to start again as if for the first time, yet arriving is not the point, and neither is leaving.

Is a “sustainable” bamboo bicycle better than an old steel one you found? Can you really clear the karma of your carbon footprint? If you improve the lot of a whole lot of the industrialized nations, don’t more people in the poorer ones suffer more? We didn’t answer these questions en route; we only just started asking them. Some of us won’t stop. And I doubt any of us will ever have any answers for long.

The contradictions in trying to live more abundantly and sustainably perpetuate because, not only are these essentially paradoxes, but nature is in constant conflict with itself.  Its pivotal power is that it is in flux , that it is responsive and embracing. Its struggle is its liberation.  If I’ve read any wise words anywhere lately, it was that the happiest soul is the one who knows how to change.

2 weeks in the bright, bitter air of an African winter have opened my pores and planted plans in my mind. My heart is sunny. My legs are loose. I want more road, more bush, less traffic roar and I want to do it the right way. Which doesn’t exist. The Dalai Llama is still the coolest to quote in conclusion : adapt or die, green or polluted, if we want to build our world, we have to keep at it, work with it, as it is, towards something that it can be, may have been, or may still become. That means starting from scratch on a spiritual level to discover the things we already know deep inside us and bringing them out into daylight so they can feed us (better).  It means listening to the moon, and your inner child. It means putting “relax” on your To Do list and taking some of the perfectionism out of your piece of pie.

Bottom line is that the hippies knew it before the hipsters : design delivers.  After this trip, I know that nature will show you which seeds to sow and how to get the water to flow again. Seeing it in practise encouraged me to look into living more mindfully. I may go vegan. I will go organic. Eco-Elf will supply. I’ll grow herbs at home and help friends whip their gardens into shape : I’ll be ripped, not ripped off. I’ll volunteer for social enterprises that offer sustainable food security, housing solutions and self-employment opportunities to those in need. We are all in need. Indeed, we  are all in this together.

That doesn’t change the fact that donkey boilers, compost toilets and biodegradable deodorants that I’ve come across in South Africa don’t work properly. I wasn’t overly impressed with the odour control issues in the long drop loos, but  in a water scarce country like South Africa, not using a flush toilet makes sense. To millions. It’s just that the different compost toilet prototypes we’ve seen so far sure don’t. And yet, as a species, on a global scale, we’ve been shitting where we sleep for a long, long time, and it’s starting to affect us. All. So, yes, I humphed while I held my nose (or weed outside) and thought about why it took so long for anyone to design a more amenable beehive that then completely revolutionized beekeeping. You know, the person who came up with the new structure was self-taught, slightly obsessive and an idealist…Oh dear! Looks like I have me a new challenge…

me not holding my nose

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Oh! Here are some cutesy photos of newbie farmers and

some links so you can bridge your own gaps!