Welcome back. Another month gone and I don’t know about you, but it feels like a lot has happened. As you may have already heard via Facebook, we have now taken residency at the Blue Crane Cottage. We’re in da house, y’all.
As always you can get a glimpse before reading. Apologies, some of the photos seem to be taken during a snowstorm; it is in fact just some of the ubiquitous dust floating about, which had settled on my iPhone camera lens.
Colour me exhausted
It’s been another action-packed month, although there were fewer actors, and the action was rather like watching paint dry. In fact, that’s exactly what we did – watch it dry and then apply another coat. I think I’ve inhaled more VOCs in the past three weeks than I did in five summers as a teenage house painter. Ceilings, walls, floor oxides, and floor sealants, not to mention any and all preparation work required before their application. It was not something I exactly looked forward to but it wasn’t something I needed to pay someone else to do, either. Although my job prospects look good at the moment, I haven’t started anything yet, so this was perhaps the best use of my time.
It began just the day after our team left us. That Saturday, while the winds howled outside, I started painting preparations in the lounge and applied the second coat of epoxy-based sealant to the floor in the SW bedroom and in the study, the two rooms which would most likely serve as short-term storage. This sealant gives off some absolutely heinous fumes, however, and so I called it quits after that, to enjoy some downtime without even the company of little Bruno, who was stashed away at the kennel in Greyton. On Sunday I was inspired to do a little work, including embedding a few more stones in the walls of the lounge before driving to Cape Town that evening, so that the next morning I could drop the Jeep off early by our mechanic. That I did, and then proceeded to enjoy a stunning walk through Cecilia Forest, not far from Kirstenbosch. An overcast Tuesday found me at the house alone, waiting for news from our mechanic, which came late in the evening. The verdict? Another part to be ordered and another delay. Although I had no team or tradesmen waiting on me this time, I was keen to get home and finish sealing the floors, so rather than wait in Cape Town for the part, I drove back on Wednesday, fetched Bruno, and returned home.
The next day I went to work on our floors. Our floors are concrete screed (a cement/find-sand mixure, applied fairly drily, and then packed down and levelled). Neither of us wanted tiles and certainly not carpet so although the floors are a bit cool, we’ll probably appreciate them during the summer months. It needed some colour, though, which was achieved using cement oxides. In our case, about a 1.75:1 ration of yellow:red, giving us a nice terra-cotta colour. The dry oxides are mixed thoroughly with a bit of white cement and water, and simply painted on the floor using a roller and brush. When applied, the colour looks uniform but later as it dries it takes on various patterns according to how the screed beneath it absorbs the moisture. This changes once again when the epoxy sealant (which is necessary to make the floor durable to scuffs, etc) is applied. The colour darkens and all kinds of shapes and patterns appear, as if by magic. The effect is quite natural and pleasing to the eye. My only regret is that the oxide layer can come off easily, and too often we applied oxide perhaps too early to a high-traffic area, which was worn away in certain parts. To spin this positively you might say the floor has “texture”, and in fact I am starting to like it.
Anyway, the Thursday after my return I couldn’t get the oxide mix right. Rather than a vibrant brown-orange I was getting a lifeless grey, and as it turns out some of the oxides I’d bought had been mis-labelled as “red” when in fact they were a black or dark purple. So, a day lost, but to assuage my frustration I was treated to one of my favourite spectacles in our neighbouring plot just 20m away – a Secretary Bird. That evening I drove into Caledon to fetch more oxides, paying close attention to the colour in the packet, and on Friday I managed to finish the entire kitchen and dining room in the morning and the bathroom later. Somehow I also found the time to do a few tyres on the tyre wall, and I celebrated the end of the week and the fine warm weather with a little hammock-time.
Looking back, my first week without kitchen and project management duties was blissful. Suddenly liberated from a schedule I’d followed for five months, every day felt like a weekend. But I guess that meant weekends were work-days now, and so on Saturday I put the first layer of sealant on the kitchen, dining room, and bathroom and did the second layer on Sunday, after which I walked Bruno to our lovely cafe in town for a well-deserved espresso while some of our new friends ooh’d and aah’d over him. A little more tyre wall work in the afternoon rounded off a good day.
Saturday night I wandered down to our new neighbours, who have bought a 3 hectare plot just about 500m north of us, on the side of the slight valley there. Afternoon beers turned into evening wine and a fireside dinner, and while the humans chatted and admired the stars, the dogs frolicked. Bruno thoroughly embarassed me with his hyperactive antics, but I guess he can be forgiven because he really isn’t well socialized yet. He’s not grown much in a while, but his stamina has seemed to improve and it takes much more exercise to wear him out these days. Plus, it now seems obvious that he’s a Border Collie mix, which means instinctively he tries to corral or chase everything from lizards to guinea fowl to our neighbour’s sheep, and most cars that have the audacity to drive past him.
But he’s lovable and thoroughly loving, so when Kogie arrived Monday morning he couldn’t contain himself. He was in for a treat because little did he know Kogie had negotiated a full week off in return for a week working night shift. While Kogie settled in I begain painting the kitchen ceiling, in anticipation of our cabinetry being installed there. The next day our gas suppliers showed up and within a few hours we had a new tank and supply line installed, which was timely indeed. For months now our fridge, freezer and stove had sat forlornly, in their foam and plastic wrapping, in our NW bedroom. At last we were able to unwrap the stove and fire it up. Much to our delight, it worked perfectly. Kogie and I continued painting the kitchen and dining room and the next day we finished it all just before our cabinet maker arrived with some absolutely gorgeous sleeperwood furniture, including a large dining table, six chairs, a sideboard, and many other assorted pieces. This is solid, beautiful furniture, something which Kogie found and set her heart on. The craftsmanship is excellent and the rough texture of the wood grain makes it a perfect addition to the place.
Thursday already and the work didn’t stop. Next up was the study, so while Andrew started on the ceilings, Kogie started on the walls. I had an excellent excuse to leave early, though – the new company I am soon to start working for invited me to their first company meeting at a lovely wine estate in Stellenbosch. So for a few hours that evening I sampled some local vintages and met my soon-to-be colleagues, while Kogie enjoyed dinner by our neighbours. The week ended with some light work in the morning, a trip to Caledon, after which we performed a short ceremony together to bless our house.
Yet more painting on Saturday while our cabinet-maker returned with our kitchen cabinets, which of course complements the furniture perfectly. On Sunday at last we took a day of rest before Kogie’s first upcoming week of night-shift duty, something she hadn’t done in many years.
Monday again and although I was alone once more I still couldn’t help grinning from ear to ear at the thought I wouldn’t be cooking, managing, and chauffering this week. The weather was rainy and cool, but temperatures are creeping up and already the hot sunny days are as common as the wet ones. With the rising temperatures we’ve begun to see some stunning little wildflowers popping up all around us, and that’s not to mention the bright yellow fields of canola which are now in flower, interspersed among the green grass crops. Almost a year since my arrival, I am still amazed by the clarity and the colours I’m surrounded by. On our own plot we have seen incredible transformations, too. Starting in about mid-July, after only two weeks of steady rain, the grasses and other pioneering species suddenly came to life. Now, two months on, some of the grasses are 50cm high and have colonized all of the area we cleared around the cabin. It’s hard to imagine that soon much of this will die back under the merciless summer sun, but for now we’re enjoying a lushness I’d not expected. Recently I planted our first nut tree – a Macadamia – and was thrilled to find 5cm of actual topsoil above the clay, which can be directly attributed to the grass and other species thriving there.
However, regardless of the weather, most of my work scheduled for the week was to keep me indoors – more painting every day, without much variance. The effect is pleasing, however. Our plastered walls were, after all these months, fairly patchy, and a single unified colour really brings things together. More importantly, we’re preventing any loose sand particles in the plaster from falling. Straw bale walls require a paint that “breathes”, i.e. someting that lets vapours through but keeps moisture and water out, and we found an excellent supplier in Somerset West, just over the mountain. The sandy lime plaster sucks up the first coat of paint voraciously, though, so we’re going through much more than our original estimates.
On Thursday another hint of spring flew past me – our first swallow. Around May they’d disappeared without much fanfare, but now here they were again, having returned from some unimaginably long flight. Could it be true, though? Is spring really here? For a Canadian, it’s hard to believe a “winter” could pass so quickly. For purposes of comparison, winter in Canada is like being mauled and sat on by an ill-humoured polar bear for six months, whereas winter here was like having an overly aggressive wart-hog come sniff your crotch. It’s unpleasant and a little disturbing, but leaves no permanent scars. If that is in fact all I’ve got to worry about then I believe I will be quite happy here.
Friday was gorgeous, so I quickly got chores out of the way and put the first coat of sealant on the lounge, hallway, and NW bedroom floor then went outside and did a bit of carpentry on our verandah. Later our solar technician came and took our newly-installed inverter (which converts the current from the solar panels) for repairs, as it had never been charging the batteries from the solar panels. Around mid-afternoon I downed tools and leashed Bruno for a walk into the town to buy bread; anything else would have been an insult to such a lovely day. Saturday managed to out-lovely Friday, though – 29 degrees, every one of them Celsius. After finishing the second coat of sealant, I washed the lower rooves, removing months-old plaster which had accumulated there. That evening, I enjoyed night skies, a scrumptious dinner, and Afrikaans lessons beside the fire till late in the night with our new neighbours. Sunday the wind really picked up after lunch, but I managed to varnish the front verandah, so that it now matches the door and window frames.
Monday found me back in Cape Town, for a mechanic’s appointment and to pick up Kogie, who was recovering from one of the busiest weeks the night-shift had seen in a long time. However, it meant she now had a week to rest at the farm, so after a bit of shopping, and with the Jeep newly returned, we made tracks and were home before sunset.
I’ll spare you the details of the week; it was just more, yeah, painting. Fortunately Bruno, for whom all activity is a form of play, frequently interrupted us to ensure things didn’t get too dull. The only notable events were that our plumber came and partially hooked up our downstairs bathroom, and a fellow came to make templates for the granite counters soon to be installed, but otherwise we spent most of our daylight hours preparing the last bedroom and the hallway for the big event, which came on Saturday.
I got moving early Saturday morning on a task I’d been awaiting since probably February: unpacking the shed. For almost a year all our stuff from the UK as well as many of Kogie’s household things from Durban had been stacked floor to ceiling in that small 3x3m space, providing a luxury residence for many species of spiders and insect. As we acquired tools, materials, and household items, often we stashed them in the shed, fitting them into any corner or hollow we could find. Trying to remove anything meant that you had to gingerly scale a mountain of unbalanced boxes or poke your hand blindly into some cobweb-covered nook, hoping the resident spider was not a venomous type. All my tools, fasteners, and various pieces of hardware used on a daily basis cluttered the doorway itself, so for me it was quite a cathartic experience to unpack the shed. I did about four Jeep-loads myself before our neighbours came and helped us with the heavy stuff, and in just one hour we were done; even our coal stove was inside.
Meanwhile Kogie had been preparing one of her delectable biryanis, and that evening, while the wind howled and the rain pelted down outside, our neighbours joined us for dinner. At a table. In a house. With electric lights and a fridge to keep the wine cool and a stove to keep the biryani warm. With walls 60cm thick that do not shake when the wind blows. It was civilized. It was gentile, noble even. I felt a bit like Tarzan, newly (re-)introduced to human society. Fortuantely biryani is finger-food because I’m not sure I would have mastered fork or knife.
Afterwards, we enjoyed our first night in the house we have spent the past ten months building. The lovely thick walls deliver on the promise of thermal and auditory insulation. In other words, our bedroom is as cozy as any olde English B & B could possibly B. The quiet of the night seemed to invite a little philosophical reminiscence, and so we lay there recounting how, not long ago, there was only a single concrete block column in the corner there. Then, there were window frames and then straw bales, and then and then and then…
A lovely lazy Sunday morning, complete with tea and coffee in bed, made a very satisfying end to the week.
This place, which was just a building site is now, magically, a home. We’ve wrapped our arms around a piece of this wonderful outdoors, so to speak, and created an interior which reflects a little of ourselves. Of course, there’s still more to do. The upstairs is still a construction zone, and our showers and toilets are not fully “plumbed”. But for all its little imperfections, I think it’s quite wonderful. I am somewhat in limbo, having to shower and to eat my meals at the cabin but sleep in the main house. I feel a bit like a hired labourer who has suddenly been handed the keys to the estate, and can’t quite believe it’s his. The sheer space of the house is overwhelming! In the cabin, you literally turn on your heel and are at once out of the kitchen and into the bedroom. The other night in the house, I counted the footfalls as Kogie left the kitchen and walked towards the bedroom…it seemed to take ages!
Kogie has started her second week of night shift, and so far it’s been much quieter. As for me, I think I am mentally making the transition from worker to lord of the manor, and unfortunately it’s had an effect on my work ethic. I’ve slowed down a bit. I’ve still got an endless list of things to do; only now a good half of them are gardening jobs. Just the other day we had a delivery of lovely warm black compost, which means I can begin planting in earnest. I know it’s late in the season but perhaps the rains that spared us during autumn will linger a bit in spring. Spring, the season in which we arrived here. We’re fast approaching that anniversary, if you can believe it. Rest assured I’ll dedicate the next blog to that, complete with before-and-after pictures, the latest news, and probably some sentimental doggerel – so if you enjoy following us you can either check back then or click the “Follow” tab in the bottom right-hand of the screen to sign up for automatic updates. Until then, thanks for reading!