Year 1 B.C.C.

What a difference a year makes, as the saying goes. A year is the measurement of time we use for all our big life events and projects, isn’t it? Sometimes they fly past without anything noteworthy events to mark their passing, and sometimes they are so full of good and bad moments they seem to last forever.

Today marks the anniversary of our arrival on our land. With just a couple of suitcases, some bottled water and basic groceries, we turned our rented Toyota into our dusty driveway and parked off. I timidly stepped out, this being the very first time I’d even seen the plot. Kogie was no doubt watching for my reaction. After a short prayer, we surveyed it from the roadside. Two of our neighbours happened to appear just then, so after making their acquaintance we proceeded down the long driveway at the north edge of our plot and parked in a grassy area. From the western end of the plot the view of the valley is unobstructed and once I saw this I knew we’d struck gold. We walked around the entire plot, making a path as best we could through the bush, guessing at our boundaries and marveling at the cementitious state of the soil. Only five days earlier we had been happy London suburbanites surrounded by asphalt roads, streetlights, and CCTV cameras, and now here we were. The sun burned and the wind howled (probably, it usually does) and although part of me cried for a tree to scamper up, there were none, so instead we waited for the team who were scheduled to build our first dwellings on the land. They arrived and the rest is now history which, as I gaze into the valley and mountains framed beautifully by our lovely lounge doors, seems more like fantasy (but fortunately, we have photographic proof).

Sick wid it

As I write this there is a battle raging in my bloodstream, between tick-bite fever and some anti-biotics that I’ve recently introduced. I made it a whole year but after a winter like ours, when I would regularly pick ten to fifteen ticks from my clothes after even a short walk outside, the odds became a little overwhelming. The blood test results were actually negative for TBF, but some swollen lymph nodes, over-sensitivity to everything, and the fact that I get tired typing are pretty sure indicators. So I got my meds from the doctor and have started the course. Fingers crossed! One thing I will say though is that this encourages rest and assal horizontalogy, something I rarely engage in during the daylight hours. It looks like I’ll soon be starting my first paid gig and after a year’s unemployment my sabbatical, I’ll need some time to retrain myself in the art of sitting down and staring at a computer screen. Bruno seems neither impressed nor sympathetic, which is kind of callous, considering the offending arachnid probably came off of him (my fault for turning him into a lap dog!)

The day after Kogie returned to Cape Town I too had an appointment there, with a potential client. It’s been ages since I’ve been to Cape Town proper, and not long enough since I’d been to a proper office building complete with proper desks, proper partitions, and water-cooler chit-chat. I shuddered at this strange configuration of people and furniture, which not so long ago, seemed normal. But the meeting went well, so with fingers crossed and Jeep still leaking, I found my way home again.

Our first delivery of compost arrived just the next day, so while the weather continued to warm up I busied myself with all manner of interior jobs, such as more painting, door locks and handles, and I even poured a concrete shower floor to complement the walls there. But the following Monday I could wait no longer, with that big pile of rich black compost waiting in the driveway, so it was time for some gardening. Most of the trees we bought many months ago, sitting in the nursery, are now starting to come into leaf, and so it was long overdue that I made some time to put them in the ground. I started with a Pecan and a Walnut tree, both about two years old, on either side of the gym area. Planting out these two trees was half a days work alone, as the compost was dumped near the house, and the gym area is about 150 metres away, which includes 30m of hill. Each tree, because it sits in a hole one cubic metre large, required about 7 wheelbarrow loads of compost or other filler material. So, as you can imagine, it can be quite time- and energy-consuming to plant even one. But it’s an investment, and knowing the soil here, and having experienced the winds, some care must be taken. Fortunately we have plenty of barley straw still lying loose in various piles or bales on our property, which makes an excellent mulch for the new plantings. Like many ambitious people around here we envision massive, fruit-laden trees sometime in the distant future. Time will tell if the mighty Cape Weather will allow them!

Later that day I made my weekly trip to Caledon and in the evening enjoyed the simple pleasures of a fire and star-watching, back at the cabin, to end the day. At this point I was still cooking and showering at the cabin, as our kitchen was not ready and our geyser had not been moved.

The next morning found me back at there enjoying an indescribable summers dawn. The air was clear, warm, and full of bird song. I counted at least five species; many of which are now establishing their territories, including a pair of swallows that seem to be acting casual but I suspected were eyeing our cabin’s verandah roof as a potential nesting site. After my usual lazy cuppa, Bruno and I took our morning stroll and not long after our arrival back at the house a team of three showed up with a truck-load full of gorgeous granite counter-tops, one of the final pieces of the puzzle that is our kitchen. It is a lovely pattern called “Desert Wave” , a full 3cm thick, and sits solidly on the solid sleeper-wood cabinets. A day later the plumber came and installed our sink, bringing us one step closer to a fully-inhabitable and functional house. Sadly, Andrew planned the shower-work badly and the concrete floor needed more time to cure before the sealant could be applied and geyser installed. So, Kogie and clan, who arrived the next day, had a chance to still enjoy the pleasures of outdoor showers at the cabin one last time.

It was a long weekend here in South Africa, so the whole crew arrived fairly early on Thursday and immediately Kogie and her daughter got to work unpacking boxes and cleaning. I didn’t contribute too much; instinctively staying aside unless something heavy needed to be moved, and only made myself useful later by staining the shelves of the gorgeous sleeper-wood pantry, which had been installed earlier that day by our cabinet-maker. Friday the unpacking and cleaning continued, and astonishingly about ten boxes were unpacked, their contents cleaned, and perhaps more astonishingly, a place found for all items. Within just two days the house really started to look like a place where someone might live. Many comforts of home from the UK and from Kogie’s place in Durban were, after months of storage, shown the light of day once again.

On Saturday the team rested and Kogie cooked a feast fit for kings and queens, to celebrate the end of the Tamil fasting month. Overnight the winds raged from the South West (my least favourite wind), knocking a piece of our fascia off and even shifting our shed, newly unburdened, off of its foundations. Kogie and clan returned to Cape Town that afternoon and while the winds again raged that night I considered this amazing palazzo, this Versailles, that I now live in. My little pup was curled up comfortably in the corner. My guitar sat nearby and a candle burned in front of me. Outside, even the vegetation looked miserable. Inside, with fridge and freezer humming, lights aglow, and even internet on, I would never have guessed everyone was suffering a power outage, had my neighbour not texted me: we’d like to borrow a cup of electricity! My only complaint? The ignitor on the stove (our one appliance connected to the grid) wouldn’t spark. I had to use matches, like some common cabin-dweller. Talk about slumming it!

The next week was yet more painting and odd-jobs around the house, such as building a platform for our geyser, which we’d chosen to install outside on the Western flat roof, so that the hot water is nearer to the showers. But otherwise I allocated about half my time to horticultural tasks. On Monday the cabin officially became a potting shed. It has a water source, two windows for light, and enough “ventilation” through the cladding to keep any seedlings happy. So I did a big tray of about 130 seedlings of various kinds. That week I also planted more trees, including the remaining two Macadamias. It rained the entire day on Wednesday, which kept me indoors doing various jobs. About 6:45 that night Bruno, from his new vantage point in front of the lounge doors, erupted into furious barking, complete with tail and hackles erect. This wasn’t one of his usual half-ass howlings, so I went to check and sure enough seven bovine beauties had somehow passed his guard and were munching happily on the various grasses in our gym area. I was a little worried about some of the trees and shrubs I’d planted nearby so with Bruno’s help I escorted them gently back to the main road, after which they found their way home.

The temperatures continued to climb and so I prioritized a couple of jobs: our new reed bed and the wind/dust-break by the road. The old reed bed, sadly, has caved in and buried some of the plants therein. For the new bed I created a concrete bottom and sides, and will redirect ground water via a channel dug above it. The old bathtub, which proved invaluable when mixing cob and plaster, will be “re-purposed” as a water feature in the old reed-bed pit, most likely. That left me with the pressing task of getting our wind- and dust-break trees planted out front, by the road. These are Cupressus x leylandii, a hybrid species well-known in Europe for their size and rate of growth. They were recommended to us as the best means of blocking the wind-borne dust which, during summer, comes off the road like an Arabian sandstorm anytime a car drives past. The holes were dug months ago, and because of the dense shale soil by the roadside, had simply been collecting water. Considering that soil it may be folly to try and plant anything there, but if they do take root it will create a sheltered area, blocked from the mighty SE winds, which would be ideal for an orchard.

So, knowing the labour involved in planting the Pecan and Walnut, I budgeted for two leylandii per day, over a period of four days, which would allow me enough energy left over to complete other tasks.
I’ve transcribed my “x leylandii” workout (the x isn’t for extreme, it just signifies that the tree is a hybrid, but I’ll take advantage of the marketing gimmick) in case you want to try it at home:

  • 2 sets of 15 repetitions: “bucket squat” (squat-scoop-deadlift-lateral throw of 15kg), because I first had to get rid of the excess water sitting in the holes;
  • 1 or 2 random 200m sprints (chasing Bruno away from cows or cars);
  • 2 sets of 10 repetitions: fill-wheelbarrow-and-200m wheelbarrow walk, 100m full, 100m empty (first rep with 70kg, next three reps 60kg, next five with 40kg, last with just straw);
  • 1 or 2 random 50m sprints (chasing after loose straw the wind had picked up);

Followed by 20 minutes of more shoveling, as I needed to create horseshoe-shaped mounds around the trees to redirect any ground water and provide some basic wind break for the lowest part of the tree’s trunk.

Phew. Maybe time to get back to some household tasks. Early the following week our excellent plumber returned and we finally addressed the one remaining issue that would make the house really livable: hot water. I’d created a sturdy platform for our geyser and on this fine windless day we were able to secure it to the roof and hook up the piping. All that remained was to make the electrical connection (it’s not solar yet), which happened later that day. That evening I enjoyed my first hot shower in the Blue Crane Cottage. It was bittersweet, having a shower indoors. Not so long ago indoor showers were the norm…

So our break from the cabin was now complete, except that the washing machine still resides there. It looks quite empty inside now, and surprisingly spacious without the bed there. It’s still a lovely place to sit and admire the views from. Upon my daily trips there to inspect the seedlings I found some clay at the base of the doorway which I couldn’t explain, until one day I looked up, and sure enough, there were the beginnings of a nest. It didn’t take those swallows long to figure out that the cabin was now vacant. With no trees on our landscape (many of the pines I’ve planted are not taking well), the birdlife is exploiting every vertical structure they can, including the Blue Crane Cottage. I regularly hear doves on the rooves and there is a group of European Starlings around which are a constant source of amusement for Bruno.

That weekend Kogie and the kids came up and with the geyser geysing, were able to enjoy a fully-functional house. We entertained some of our neighbours and took a short trip to Hermanus hoping to catch sight of any whales that might be close to shore, but the sea was quite rough and we had no luck.

The start of another work-week, and it was time for more painting – outside, this time. I started by varnishing all the bare wood on the ground floor in preparation for the big job of painting the outside. A rainy Wednesday found me back indoors, addressing the other big painting job, the upstairs ceiling. A mammoth 64m2 area that would require three and four coats for the cornices and flat areas, respectively. After prepping it and getting two coats on I collapsed onto the couch that evening feeling like I’d run an ultra-marathon, and then been dragged behind a galloping horse for another two. Painting ceilings is neck-craning, awkward work but surely not so taxing? Next morning it was clear I had to see a doctor.

But that was then, and already I seem to be on the mend.

Life in the big house

So is life in a big fancy house “better” than a small simple shelter? Well, I don’t have to wear a woolen cap all the time, like I did in the cabin. I don’t have to balance hot pans on the 5cm of wood which we called our “counter top”, like I did in the cabin. I don’t have to remember to step over the dodgy floor plank in the mornings so that it doesn’t upset the gas cylinder and knock the tea-pot to the floor. I don’t have to worry about the door not closing after a south-eastern rain has drenched it and expanded the wood beyond its original size. Without a doubt one needs four solid walls and a sturdy roof for shade in this windy, sunny place. But, there was a simplicity to life in the cabin which was nice. Most things were literally within arms reach. We could see where all the wiring and plumbing was. Now, I have to keep a mental map of all the parts, and anytime I hear an unfamiliar noise echoing through the house, I have to interpret it (and of course, there’s more cleaning to do!)

But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Our time in the cabin was an education. It was a great little testing ground for some of our first DIY efforts. We created our first reed bed and dam, and learned how the water flowed on our property. It’s size meant we spent most of our time outdoors which is where we should have been. We were able to really experience the strength of the winds and that helped us appreciate what the house would need to handle. We had a tiny little environmental footprint there, except for the garbage we generated.

It has been a ton of work, and an especially focused effort since about late January. Thanks to all of the excellent teams involved we rarely saw a day without some kind of progress. We’ve been so lucky to build at a time in history when a single phone call and a few keystrokes on the laptop could mobilize the delivery of 1000 concrete blocks or 306 straw bales, for example, to a destination that was off the map only a few years ago. I’m amazed by the motivating power of money – with it one can harness the energy of people and do quite incredible things. I think my view of money has changed since we began this project; I personally have done nothing but spend it the entire year. I don’t feel the absence of it and in exchange for the treasure it has bought us I feel that we got a bargain. Very easy to say that when I do not spend my time generating it!

Above all, credit must be given to the person that has really made this all successful: Kogie. She found this place, sourced our Jeep, managed the shipping details and a hundred other things that needed punctual attention, all the while keeping her daydreaming, procrastinating partner on track. Here in South Africa she made sure all the important details like tax and car registration, plot boundaries and endless Council signatures were not forgotten. She did all of this and entertained the kids, cooked a hundred wonderful meals, gained regional fame for her samoosas, and then took on the burden of a full-time job in order to see the house finished and our livelihood secured. She has been the fire under, and when necessary the boot up, my ass. I would never have wanted to do this without her, and the pleasure I get from this house is currently a guilty pleasure, knowing she can’t enjoy it on a daily basis. This is a situation we plan to change once the gardens develop and I begin to earn a livable wage.

Funny enough, just as we neared completion, our neighbours “in the valley” began building, and have already completed much of their foundation work. It’s going to be great fun watching that house take shape from our vantage point! Like us, they have a kind of rustic dwelling where they live (on weekends) while they build their main house. As they work in Cape Town during the week he’s asked me to be gate-keeper, so every now and then I walk down the road and let in a truck delivering stone, or sand, or steel mesh. It’s all painfully familiar, and although I am supportive and sympathetic, I am not jealous.

And so on the new calendar we’ve just completed year 1 BCC, if you will. Thank you so much for reading; I hope it’s been fun to follow us. I realize that this blog has been a rather pinhole-perspective, selfish publication which hasn’t provided much information about the wider place in which we live. I hope to change this in future posts, as we explore the area and understand it better.

And so, rather than another thousand words, I’ll leave you with some pictures which say it better than I possibly could…

Year 1 Montage

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