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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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!