Hindsight is 2018

Hello, and Happy New Year! Well, new-ish year. At least by the Chinese timeline. Thought you’d seen the last of this blog? Sorry…the cavalcade of codswallop continues. I’m gonna pitch another shovelful of prosaic poop onto this great, steaming, hyper-texted crap-heap known as the internet – but don’t worry, it’s been aged a full year and so most of the offensive material has rotted down into an odourless yet hopefully rich and fecund material.

While most of you are probably looking forward by now, I am going to invite a little retrospection. And what is retrospection, really, but the intellectual composting of one’s experiences, wherein the micro-processes of the mind separate what is useful from what is not, catalyzing cognitive compounds capable of forming new, more complex ideas?
Ahem.
Speaking of retrospectives, here’s mine, for 2018. I’d better get on with it, before 2019 gets much older…

REHYDRATION

February already…one year ago, Cape Town was still in the grip of a serious water crisis, with reserves at an all-time low. For the average Capetonian, life became a little less convenient and comfortable. Water pressure was dropped and supply denied for periods of time. Grey water was recycled in a most sensible but forgotten way. Laundry was handled by a system of triage, and many luxuries like weekly car-washes and vanity lawns were denied.
Then, sometime in early March, when things seemed at their most dire, “Day Zero” was pushed back indefinitely. Thanks to a greatly reduced consumption, diversion of resources from some agricultural area, and enormous donations from a farmers association, the worst-case scenario was avoided.

As if by Divine providence, the winter rains started early and continued steadily over the next few months, replenishing the dams and hopes of Capetonians.
Had Cape Town not been blessed with abundant springs, the outcome might have been much different. Beleagured Capetonians at least had the option of queuing, at specific locations, for water: clear, clean, ohmygodthatssomuchbetterthantapwater water. The real trick will be to create an infrastructure that might deliver this same water throughout the city…

Out here in the Overberg, we didn’t suffer under exactly the same restrictions, fortunately. Winter rains had ceased quite early in 2017, though, and by mid-January our dams were dry and we were already feeling the pinch of nature’s own water restrictions. The summer days were dry and hot, and strong winds blew that hot dry air across a parched landscape, often leaving tired, thirsty plant life standing limply in its wake, wishing for an underground aquifer to tap into.

Here on the farm we simply did our best with the stored water we have, giving priority to our newer trees and grassy areas, and instead turned our attention towards all those unfinished projects of 2017…

RESOLUTIONS

2018 began with a flurry of resolutions and plans, and as soon as businesses re-opened again after the Christmas holiday, we placed one large order of wood with the intention of completing the following:

The Coop – It was time to get some birds. What this farm lacked was some kind of feathered lizard that would be happy to contribute their eggs as a source of protein for the humans living here. Eagles were considered (too “flighty”), as were ostriches (bad-tempered, but they double as transport) and penguins (adorable, but prone to heat exhaustion), but in the end we settled on chickens, and thus a suitable house was required.

As always the relevant information available on the internet was overwhelming, and after hours being amazed, disgusted and inspired by the works of other people, I finally settled on a design that would give the chickens the space and ventilation they need, but be fairly easy to clean, and of course be achievable with my nascent carpentry skills. This was started in late February, and finished in early April.

The Jetty – the cruel irony of having dams here is that, during the scorching summer months, when you need the water the most, it ain’t there. At least, that’s true of dams as small and exposed as ours. Evaporation from wind and heat will take its share ever-so-subtly, and Alsatians who love an afternoon dip also tend to extract a surprising amount in their fur, until that day when you run outside with your Barbie surfboard in hand, rabid from the heat, only to find a small, greenish puddle awaiting you. However, we’re determined to make the eastern dam a swimming hole, and to facilitate some future cannon-ballers, belly-floppers, and sun-downers, we thought a simple jetty would be suitable. This was a quick one; started and finished sometime in late March.

The Gym – Ostensibly built for “the kids” (a relative term, depending which age limit you use), the designer had lately envisioned some interesting additions suitable too for “the adults”, and got to work in early April, after the coop and jetty were finished.

The Vineyard – Every small holding needs a vineyard, in my opinion, especially if the smallholder is a hopeless drunk, or aspires to be one. Vines obviously grow very well in this area, and I really am keen to explore the mysteries of viticulture. This project involved no real carpentry; just the creation of some trellising. The vines themselves – fifty Chardonnay plants – came from a major supplier in Wellington, who were also kind enough to give this virgin vintner some expert advice. This project was finished much later, in September, just after the winter rains had subsided and the ground was softer.

Other projects included:

The swale garden – this is a bit of a misnomer; it’s simply a 60cm-deep ditch cut, in an angular serpentine fashion down the slope, below our reed bed. I was very keen to make better use of our grey water, and so have redirected it down into this ditch. I’ve also dug beds in the areas of the hillside between the ditch (a picture might help clarify it), with the intention of saturating the hillside even in summer. The ditches can’t be called swales because they have a fall – that is, the water runs constantly but does slow down as it navigates the bends in the ditch, and so sinks in. So far, it’s been somewhat successful. This project was our first of 2018, and accomplished entirely with an earth-digging machine.

The Dog House – well, maybe it should be called “the Cottage”, considering they are, according to the latest census, the primary residents at the main house. But we wanted a sheltered “den” they could escape too when the wind was blowing or the sun was a little too hot. I wanted to make good use of the space, though, and so built a flat worktop as the roof – hinged, to allow for cleaning access. It was another learning project, and the result was a mediocre piece of masonry fronted by an appalling plastering job, with a poorly-designed roof unusable as a serious worktop. But Dickens, ever my staunch supporter, humours me by sometimes crashing inside there, following his afternoon dip.

The shades – on one of our trips in the Cape, we stayed at a cottage equipped with some very cool roll-down canvas shades, and we both instantly realised what a fine addition such shades would make to our verandah and back porch. So we contacted the company, who promptly paid us a courteous and professional visit. However, pretty much every interaction with the company thereafter, involving the correct sizing, colour, invoicing and installation, was one headache-inducing fiasco after another. Eventually, sometime in April, the shades (ironically, of the incorrect shade) were installed. During a weekend away I naively left them pulled down on our upstairs verandah, and some strong winds ripped them to pieces. At this point I handed the entire matter over to Kogie. I don’t even remember when, but the shades were replaced, and the whole affair took the better part of a year. No building or skills required, just an immense amount of patience.

RECRUITMENT

Wow, you’re probably thinking, where did you find the time? Did you quit your job, or more likely, were you fired? Not exactly. In fact, my team has shrunk since early 2018 and if anything I have slightly more demands on my time, professionally speaking. What happened was a wonderful synchronicity, in which our need for an extra hand on the farm was met with the two hands, two legs, in fact the whole package – of S, from Malawi. S began with us in January, and I hate to think where we’d be without him. All those “little” jobs – like weeding, watering, repairing fences, making wind-breaks and clearing bush – take more time than you might imagine. Your humble narrator actually only has about a 2 hour window of free time in the mornings – and that’s in the summer, when the sun rises at 5:30am – before his other work begins. So I had to either resolve myself to doing projects in a very piece-meal fashion, or put them off until the weekend, when I could dedicate a decent amount of time to them. When S arrived on the scene, suddenly anything was possible. I could hardly hold back the tears of joy when I realized I could delegate some of my duties to someone else:
You mean – you’ll dig those holes? Clear all that bush? And put the fence on? Really? So at the end of the day, something will be, like, DONE?
All those nagging little projects, forming an almost interminable list, started to be ticked off in very short order, and S had a hand in many of the aforementioned projects. We’ve still to find the limits of his stamina, but on top of that he’s a great guy to work with.

Anyway, ’nuff said. Recreation, you ask? Naturally…

RECREATION

Mid-May arrived and it was time for a change of scenery. Our first destination in 2018 was a place that had caught both our imaginations – the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. It’s quite accessible, via a short flight to Bloemfontein and short drive to Maseru, which is precisely the path we followed, arriving at that chaotic yet very lax border crossing at noon on May 15th. Maseru is a typical African city, sporting the usual islands of eye-catching colonial architecture surrounded by a sea of tottery infrastructure and endless car and pedestrian traffic. But it was new, and the start of an unforgettable road trip which took us through some truly awe-inspiring landscapes. The technological and logistical marvel of the Katse Dam was a highlight, as was horse-riding in the mountains. We ended a very happy week enjoying a night at the hotel which boasts the highest (and coziest) pub in Africa, at the top of the Sani pass, while sub-zero winds howled outside. The next day we began our descent down the fabled pass – another exquisite piece of scenery – and back into the Republic of South Africa. The second week of our holiday was to be spent in KwaZulu-Natal, to enjoy a week of visitations and

RECONNAISSANCE

If you’ve been following this blog, you might remember that in late 2017 I proposed marriage to Kogie. Proposal accepted, we now had to plan an appropriate ceremony and reception. During the months prior we had discussed options for the location, and then sent out a “pre-invitation” to our local and international friends and family, to see who would be interested in coming. Our response was better than expected, and so during our week in KZN we spent a fair amount of time sourcing wedding venues and suppliers. The time was very well spent, and for our reception venue we discovered a real gem which suited us perfectly. We secured it and made a number of supplier contacts for each of those myriad little details which go into the creation of a modern matrimonial event.

All in all, a refreshing respite from routine, allowing us some rest and

RECUPERATION

While the people again enjoyed the blessing of good health in 2018, there was still the on-going saga of our little Border Collie-mix Bruno, who was recovering from his accident and the subsequent amputation of his right foreleg. It was a depressing time, frankly, to look upon this amazing little creature hobbled so. His recuperation was a difficult one simply because of his nature. He’s a Border Collie by nature, which means his body can hardly contain the spirit inhabiting it. He was still, just a month after the accident, very keen to walk and play. So thanks to that and to the nature of his injuries, his recuperation was a slow process. We kept a rigid cast on his leg until about February, during which time we built up his shoulder muscles again. Then we switched to a supportive bandage, and before too long those neural pathways once again re-connected and he remembered how to walk. But because of the nerve damage, he lost all his toe-nails, and the adjoining bones on each toe, and those wounds took forever to heal. It was a never-ending cycle of healing and infection, and the wounds only really closed up around June.

But, we had the best doctors around – the most attentive, compassionate and patient people you could ask for, and they supported us along every step of the way. Bruno even flirted with Facebook stardom when they posted his story online. Now, on top of the usual duties, I had to sign autographs and give interviews for him. The one silver lining to this whole story shone through almost exactly a year after his accident – a local farmer, who always kept his Border Collie inside during harvest time (precisely because it had similar instincts to Bruno), felt pity for his dog during this harvest and let him out, instantly regretting it, when the poor thing chased and was caught in the combine’s blades, and suffered horrible injuries. The family brought the poor creature to our wonderful vets but were quite hopeless about their dog’s prospects until they saw Bruno’s video. Like Bruno, he lost one foreleg but otherwise made an amazing recovery.

Another casualty of this affair was Dickens, who lost his sparring partner and playmate. Bruno has become much more cautious and aware of his physical vulnerability, and has become aloof. I suppose we’ve disrupted the natural order of things, and although he’s still the alpha dog, Bruno also knows he’d have trouble enforcing that status. Fortunately Dickens is a hopelessly curious and friendly soul, and wasted no time making the acquaintances of the new arrivals…

REPLACEMENTS

The coop was finished in mid-April, a promising little hotel that could comfortably accommodate about 20-25 birds. There is an upper level for roosting, beneath which are the laying areas, and a large open front section where more roosts can be added, or left alone for a feeding area. So the stage was set, but actors were in short supply until sometime in early May, when a nearby neighbour went to the Eastern Cape and procured 100 Lohmann Brown hen chicks, a breed known for its productivity and large egg size. I put in my order for just fifteen, wanting to start small, and gave six of those to our excellent neighbours down the road who took care of the new arrivals while we were in Lesotho.

When we returned we kept the chicks in the house at night, as nighttime temperatures were starting to drop. During the day, we experimented with makeshift pens but finally at about five weeks of age we moved them into the coop. Now filled with straw bales, the coop turned out to be warm enough even at night, and the new chicks started to settle in and exhibit all the charming behavior one might expect. Another month passed and they started to grow, gain new plumage, and were becoming part of daily life here. They’d essentially bonded with me and Kogie, and had no fear of Dickens, who was fascinated by them. So much the worse, when in early July a Cape Genet found its way inside the coop and went Dracula on the poor things, killing six of the nine. I was gutted, and especially annoyed with myself because I’d left a ridiculously wide “ventilation” gap in an otherwise predator-proofed coop, through which the Genet had entered.

After a suitable period of mourning, the three remaining chickens were given new flat-mates: four new Lohmann laying hens, and a magnificent Rhode Island Red rooster, which I bought from a neighbour. The new birds took a few days to adapt to the routine of being locked in at night, but otherwise made themselves at home in short order. They seem to be a mild-mannered breed – the elder hens showing no serious aggression towards the younger – and all are watched over by a most attentive and gentlemanly rooster, which, even as I write this, is announcing his presence to the neighbourhood.

In time we may let them range a little further with a mobile coop, but for now these poor captives, affected by some avian Stockholm Syndrome, regularly offer a ransom between four to six eggs a day to their captor. They’ve had no health issues, and the egg quality and size are very good. None have become broody yet, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed; we’d love to grow the flock to at least double its current size.

REMARKABLE

The winter rains came, a little ahead of schedule. They continued steadily through the next few months, giving relief to a parched landscape, to farmers, and to Cape Town residents and politicians alike. Some say 2018 saw the end of a four-year drought cycle, and in retrospect, it did seem to be a longer wet season, with more consistent showers. It filled our tanks and dams and gave a proper Western Cape Welcome to the numerous trees we planted back in April – a wide assortment including some citrus, nut, and windbreak species. We extended our gym area and green-ified it and the other half of our front slope with new grass.

So while rain fell, dogs healed, and chickens laid eggs, we steadily organized every last detail of that grand event scheduled for late October, our wedding. By about June we had firmed up the guest list, and were pleasantly surprised by how many foreign invitees accepted. Because of that we felt we ought to give them a unique taste of South Africa, and so we elaborated on our initial plans, incorporating a new detail here and there in the hope of crafting a special experience. Although he handled the accounting and various other details, your humble narrator was spared the brunt of this organisation. It was his bride-to-be who sought and procured, with creativity and aplomb, all those special touches a modern wedding demands. Amazingly, she did this while also arranging a holiday to India, scheduled for September.

To make this all possible the two of us worked and saved, both still enjoying the blessings of solid employment. For me, that meant adding a couple more hours every day, but thanks to a smaller team size and increased work load, this was not a problem. I was amazingly fortunate to acquire a piece of kit that would help me greatly in this – one of those adjustable monitor stands which allows you to stand while working. This was something I’d wanted but could never find, and it fell into my overused lap via a neighbour’s house sale. What a difference it has made to my energy levels – I mean, I just couldn’t stand all that sitting down! (Joke of the Year 2018)

September arrived and with it, six Muscovy ducklings waddled into our lives. These were the generous wedding gift of one of Kogie’s friends, and one of the few gifts we would actually accept. A gorgeous little yellow-and-grey sextet which communicated not with raucous quacks but a whispery sort of whistle. Like the chicks, they stayed in the house for their first few weeks until the temperatures climbed a bit, at which point we introduced them to the chickens and their new home. This shared accommodation is generally not recommended, but I wasn’t keen for the little things to roam freely at the dam, where they would be fair game for eagles and other birds of prey (plus, some say Muscovies are an odd duck, in that they do not need to be around water all the time).

However, they became quite comfortable in the coop, taking the bottom floor while the chickens roosted upstairs. While they were small enough and easy to capture, I did take them to the dam once or twice for a swim, but as they grew and settled in it became harder and harder to convince them to go to the dam. Our dam, at least. Sometime in early December one of the more precocious ones flew to the coop roof, and from there was ably to espy our neighbour’s dam just down the hill, where I found her a few hours later, happily foraging around the waters edge.
We had another such jail-break a week later, at which point we clipped their wings.

In mid-September Kogie spread her own wings and, with her daughter, flew to India to revisit and explore a little of the great subcontinent. While I received updates of 35 degree temperatures and sweltering humidity, September here brought downpours and even a day of (short-lived) frost. However, it was the beginning of spring and the days were full of sunshine and promise, and the eastern dam full of lovely new rainwater. Some mania, or distant memory of Canadian lakes must have gripped me because I couldn’t resist a dip. And it was lovely, as long as you could keep yourself buoyant on the top ten centimeters of water – beneath that there was a toe-tingling thermocline which I found shocking but also kinda nice (guess you can’t take the Canada out of a boy).

The next day was one of the times I took the ducklings to the western dam for a play. They settled in comfortably around the waters edge, and when I went to fetch them at 6pm they had no intention of going back to the coop. Wisely donning a wetsuit, I jumped in and managed to get half of them, but three escaped out of the water and under the fence. I have a vague and embarrassing recollection of running through the renosterbos chasing Muscovy ducklings, barefoot in a wetsuit. It was, even by my standards, kind of weird.

October and another winter had come and gone, which our house had once again weathered beautifully. Still, it had weathered slightly. Now, with the imminent arrival of visitors it was time for a little…

RESTORATION

It was the fourth winter “inside the bales” and I was still a bit paranoid and certainly curious about what they look like under all that plaster and paint. Are they wet and moulding? We see no visible evidence of that, nor is there any such smell from inside the house. However, after the initial settlement of the house, there were a few areas of plaster which had developed cracks – some serious – and this is a job I definitely need to delegate, so we contacted our old friend and foreman of the original team to come and help us out. He readily agreed, and so my next stop was the farm where we got our original bales. Fortunately the farmer still had a container full from the 2017 harvest, so I drove home with eleven immaculate golden bales, each more perfect than the other (one learns to appreciate these things), and reluctantly shredded two of them for the imminent plaster work.

Over just two and a half days our old foreman managed to repair all the trouble spots and make the place look as good as new. There was only one serious spot on the west wall (which takes the most rain and hottest temperatures), which had suffered because of a flaw in the original work, a 1m2 “hollow” spot, where the straw had not been packed densely enough. Though the straw underneath that section was moist (from a recent rain), the surrounding straw was neither moist nor mildewed. It is recommended for straw bale houses to have an exaggerated roof overhang (up to 70cm), but we didn’t implement this on account of the winds here. I was very pleased to see that even without this, the thick layers of plaster, lime plaster, and paint were doing their job.
So, with some guests soon arriving, all that was required to make the place look ship-shape was to apply a new coat of paint, which I soon did.

The whole process of revisiting the farmer and working with our foreman was a very satisfying one. It had been three whole years since I’d parted company with them, and seeing them again revived some very pleasant memories. I could now look at them as “old” friends, or at least old acquaintances. More than anything it lent some perspective on the three years that had passed, and gave me a stronger sense of permanence and ownership.

I had very little time to reminisce, however, as the big day was approaching quickly and there were still a hundred details to consider for the one thing on everyone’s mind …

RE/UNION

Kogie flew home from India in early October after a hectic but enjoyable three weeks abroad. Not a moment was wasted on arrival, either. After a short visit and reunion at the farm a long week of work intervened before once again she returned just long enough to sort out some last minute details and welcome some old friends of mine who had flown down from the UK. After that, we said our last goodbyes as a “casual” couple with wide eyes and big silly grins, knowing that the fun was only beginning. We still had many details to finalize, and of course the question loomed: would everyone play their part when the time came? We had arranged everything remotely, except for our original trip and another by Kogie sometime in August. This time she preceded me by a week while I saw our guests off and clocked a few more work days before flying to Jo’burg to meet a very special invitee…my mother. And my cousin, (also special), who together made up the family representation from my side. They had flown from Canada just the previous day, and not long after arrival were promptly shuffled onwards to Durban, and then the hotel, where they finally felt solid ground for the first time in about 72 hours.

The hotel is an absolute gem on the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, which started as a simple affair in the 1920s and has since gone through various phases but has maintained a classic, comfortable feel. It sits nestled in its lush landscape perfectly, unlike so many modern tourist tenements littering the coast.

I arrived on the Friday, just as many of our friends from all over the globe started to arrive, most having programmed a South African holiday around our event. As I enjoyed one glass of wine on the balcony, suddenly familiar faces started to turn up and invited another glass to celebrate the occasion. It was the best bachelor night I could ask for. Meanwhile Kogie had spent the week neither relaxing nor being pampered but arranging as much as possible right up until Friday, when at last she submitted to a girly night of her own.

The big day had arrived – Saturday, October 27th. I awoke with some nerves and apprehension, which I tried to dissolve into the Indian Ocean with a swim, at daybreak. From that point on, though, I barely had time to become nervous. Since I was on-site it was my turn to liaise with all the service providers arriving, and finalize the nitty-gritty with our hotel program manager. But she, in true South African style, threw herself into the moment with a genuine desire to make it special. Nonetheless, it had completely occupied my morning and I had just enough time to rush back to my room and change before our transport arrived.

The rest is history … a beautiful intimate ceremony in the Tamil tradition at Kogie’s home temple, full of colour and natural elements. A moment long in the making but somehow perfectly timed.

The reception followed later, in a colourfully-decorated marquee raised for the purpose, only metres from the beach. A gorgeous sea breeze cooled the guests as the marquee was filled first with the graceful sway of Tamil dancers and then, following some speeches, the intense drums of a Zulu dance troupe. The drink and food flowed freely until a reasonable hour (we were a mature crowd, after all) when we all departed for bed.

The next morning, instead of embarking on a private honeymoon, we had instead arranged to spend that time with our visitors. Our little convoy drove north to St. Lucia for a lovely wetlands boat cruise, before continuing onto Hluhluwe-Umfolozi game reserve, where we spent the next two days mingling with the denizens of the bush and in the evenings, with each other.

After that, we returned to the Cape with my family to see more of this awesome country, but at a slightly slower pace. My mother, showing incredible fortitude and stamina, had been practically swept off her feet in the first few days, so our focus was on local sight-seeing and some down-time. All too soon, they also returned home and, suddenly, that was…that. Incredibly, after six intense months of careful planning and the cooperation of many excellent people, everything had somehow come together. By far, of all our “projects”, it was the most ambitious and involved. Fittingly, the year was itself winding down and now it was time for some…

REST AND REJUVENATION

Work continued steadily for both of us, right up until Christmas. The kids were regular visitors, enjoying the dam and the new jetty as if it had always been part of the landscape. Life was otherwise calm and quiet, right up until December 31st.

And then a new year was born – and it seems to be a precocious toddler, having already thrown a few challenges our way. Fires in the area have been rampant and frequent, threatening some of the most beautiful vineyards in the Cape, as well as one blaze burning as close as 100m from our house! But, along with so many other blessings, we have an active and reliable community who never hesitate to help.

We’ve hit the ground running, too, and have already erected a protected area which will be our productive garden. This is the thing I should have set up in 2015. Instead my garden became an experimental playground; the produce from which was merely incidental. After three lackluster years, we agreed we needed to have a slightly more controlled environment that would provide more regular and reliable yields.

In other news, one of our ducks has just begun laying. That’s a pretty good success rate with the birds, I’d say. Maybe I should look into getting those ostriches…

RETROSPECTION

Thanks for joining me on this backwards-looking journey. Looking forward to the next time…

Pictures