Back to the beginning

How many times has someone said to you: “you know, it’s the journey, not the destination”? After the 36th time you probably nodded vacantly, muttering, “so true, so true”, while ignoring the cliched message they were so mindlessly parroting. Well, it is cliche but it also captures a moment of realization. Where is the finish line, exactly? Lately it seems that every time I draw a line in the sand… the goal-posts keep moving back, and the carrot is pulled just out of reach. Okay, mixed metaphors aside, it does beg the question: do we ever actually finish anything? Don’t the words “the end” just occupy an arbitrary spot on the continuum?

I guess we were all nomads once, moving from hunting ground to hunting ground. Perhaps since we (or most of us) settled down and became agricultural, our wanderings are less physical but still a vital psychological activity. That is, we need to participate in the mythical cycle of leaving-journey-discovery, which could be any kind of project or endeavour, to satisfy our nomadic minds and souls. The buzzword these days is “narrative”, which I understand to mean that our physical actions are directed by an accompanying psychological story that is hard-wired, at an abstract level, in all of us.

So here’s how our adventure has lately been written. It’s quite a saga this week, due to the time period covered, so by all means, skip to the photo gallery if you’re short of time. There are no dragons or cyclopes either, but there is a single-headed dog from hell, called Bruno.

The end

So, starting in mid-July: if you recall, I’d just returned from a week-long sojourn in Cape Town….
For me, it was a return to space, normality and productivity. For Bruno, a return to space, normality, and his doting man-servant. Fridge stocked, Toyota full and tradesemen re-scheduled. I was even able to retrieve my power drill which had been sitting in some CT repair depot for almost a month. Sure, the Jeep was still many miles away, but the Corolla I’d rented seemed a worthy temporary replacement, and hey, I wouldn’t drive too fast on our rough roads.

So Monday morning we began work once again, starting with an internal pet project which I’d been very keen on since the inception of our plans: arches between the two columns that separated the lounge and kitchen/dining area. Non-functional, you might say, as they provide no support for the floor above, but certainly aesthetically pleasing. First, we needed to bend some reinforcing steel bar and secure it to the columns. Then, wooden forms were bolted to the sides and bottom which allowed cement to be poured in over the steel. The electricians then arrived a day later, and spent two days installing the light fixtures and wall plates. The wooden wall framework upstairs was begun, and yet more plaster applied. On Thursday that week the screed in the kitchen, lounge, and dining area was completed and the carpenter came to build railings at the top of the staircase.

The weather was extremely cold during the first three days of this week, and Friday saw gale force winds which prevented our gutters from being installed. It seemed that winter had finally set in. Morning temperatures were consistently around zero, give or take a degree, with rains and winds as constant companions. The little Corolla stayed parked on high ground for the entire time, as even the slightest mud puddle could probably swallow the thing (having hired from the airport, we were competing with international travellers who’d reserved any 4x4s well in advance, and therefore had to make do with what was available.)

While most other building teams had downed tools during this wintry period, we carried on, as most of our work was now inside. Early that week we plastered the ceiling board joins downstairs and developed the arches further, by building up the sides with bricks and more cement. The middle 30cm of the arches themselves are hollow, so that they are not dangerously heavy. Our downstairs shower floor was put in, and the cupboard between the two bedrooms, which sits above the doors, was also developed. On Tuesday, one of the coldest days of the year, we added cornices and installed some doors while I added some slate window sills outside. At 3pm that afternoon, after three weeks of ongoing delays, our gutters were installed. The team of five arrived in a much smaller truck than I expected, and using a rather ingenious little machine which shapes flat aluminum into gutters, had the whole place done in just three hours. As if to inaugurate the new additions Mother Nature provided some cold scattered showers overnight.

By now the cabin was properly frigid, in dire need of a nice fireplace, but at least I could rest knowing that if our fridge failed due to an Eskom outage, no food would spoil.
Sadly, winter here also means that the tick population is at its highest, and therefore our little canine tick-magnet needed to be weaned from the comforts of my duvet, and re-trained to sleep outside at night. I built him a very functional little kennel for this purpose, which sits awkwardly on the stoop and takes up a full half of it. The first few nights were very difficult for him, and although he instinctively understands his role as guardian, he’s still a puppy underneath and scratched and whined constantly. Unbeknownst to him, he manages to shut us in by scratching at the door handle (a horizontal “deadbolt” type latch), and sliding it into a closed position. The first couple of times I had to exit via the back window, stepping gingerly on a usually wet and slippery geyser, which sits behind the window, to escape. Later I learned that by shaking the door I could loosen it. However, he soon became accustomed to his new routine and although we are sometimes subject to sudden outbursts of furious barking, it’s generally a healthier arrangement.

The next day found me in Caledon on a miserably drizzly day, trying unsuccessfully to refill our gas cylinders. Lately there have been country-wide shortages of gas due to some refineries shutting down for maintenance, and considering the number of people which use this as their primary source of cooking energy (and heat during winter), it’s no surprise that they’d run out. Back at home, the plastering continued inside. On Thursday the rains began in earnest at about 4am. The previous day we’d also directed our new downspouts into those great 5000L tanks which had arrived a month ago. Now, lying in bed listening to the water pelt my little roof, I started to become very nervous once again that the gutters were still draining and that none of the big tanks had shifted (half of our front tank was balanced precariously on packed sand; pretty dumb in retrospect). So, donning sandals and using my iPhone as a torch (since both my boots and lantern were carefully stowed in the back of the Jeep, 150km away) I sleep-walked over to the house and made my inspection. Sure enough, both gullies draining and sure enough, the front tank had slipped off its footings and had yanked the downspout off of the fascia. Just a few hours later, after the rain had subsided, I came back to check the tanks and two of them were almost full! After just four hours of steady, fairly heavy rain we’d already collected about 7500 litres. Inside, the team finished the drywalling which demarcates our bathroom and closet that day.

Friday, July 24th started out as any other day. As on any Friday, both I and the team were in fine spirits and looked forward to the weekend ahead. Even the cold rainy weather didn’t dampen our spirits, but things took a drastic turn for the worse around mid-day, when our foreman came to the cabin to report that Donny had taken ill. Soon after we were on the road to Caledon, as fast as the Toyota could possibly manage in the conditions. Half-an-hour later we had Donny in the ward, under the care of hospital staff. He was already battling at this point, but as there was nothing I could personally do, I took the other team members home and returned back, to find that his vital stats had been stabilized. Somewhat relieved that he was to be transferred overnight, I met Kogie in town and we went home, or at least tried to. It was already 5pm and the light was fading. On top of that it was still raining and on top of that a double-cab trailer had tried to make a U-turn on our road home and was now jack-knifed across both lanes, making passage impossible. That is, except for a small, muddy lane beside the truck which was impassable without 4-wheel drive. So, because our trusty Toyota was incapable of this short 5m detour, we were forced to take a 45km detour, half on tarred road and half on dirt road, a section of which sat very low and very close to a dam. Our choices were very limited, so we chose this detour, which was passable enough until we reached that dreaded spot. Sure enough, the road was flooded and it was difficult to tell how deep it was or what lay underneath. I threw a few stones into the deepest part but if anything it was discouraging. We reversed back up the road a bit, having decided the risk wasn’t worth it, when along came a little VW Polo – a car more incapable than even a Corolla – and breezed through the water without any trouble. This had been about the only car we’d seen on this road, and it’s timing was so perfect that we both agreed it must have been heaven-sent. Fifteen minutes later we were back at our plot and all that was left was to lug about 40kg of groceries 200m to the cabin, from where the Corolla was parked. I’ll draw the curtain there; suffice it to say that was enough drama for the day and we slept like logs.

On Saturday I was off early to Cape Town, to finally return the Corolla and pick up our long-awaited Jeep. I’d had our rental for two whole weeks now, and through careful use of drop-sheets on the seats, managed to maintain a reasonable degree of cleanliness inside. All the same, my first stop was the car wash. It was a cool but astoundingly bright and sunny day, full of promise, so when I was informed of Donny’s death at 8:30 that morning it was especially shocking. The previous evening the doctor had seemed very pessimistic about Donny but was at a loss to explain the cause or offer a possible diagnosis. Still, I was incredulous simply because Donny had never – other than a brief episode at Easter – seemed, in any way, ill. He worked harder than anyone and had always had a good appetite.

I went through the rest of my day in a distracted state, but managed to retrieve the Jeep as well as curtain rails and various other necessities. On Sunday Kogie and I drove to Greyton to visit with Donny’s family and offer our condolences. That he had worked right up until the day he died, providing for his family, was somehow the saddest thing for me. I don’t think I can say much else about it. His comrades agreed to continue with the work on Monday as usual, which was perhaps the best way to respect his memory and take their minds off of this tragedy. So we continued, though there was a thoughtfulness and quietness among the team which spoke volumes. The awful weather continued, but the team finished the ceilings upstairs and addressed a small water leak on the west side. After many weeks I finally resumed work on the tyre wall, as the erosion of the clay excavation was now impossible to ignore. I’d dreaded doing this simply because the clay was now very saturated and very heavy, making an arduous task even arduous-er. But my malaise was lifted later with the achievement of another milestone: electrificazione. Today was the day Eskom came and plugged us in. Today was the day we got the snap-crackle-pop of voltage in the Blue Crane Cottage. Heretofore we’ve been powering our tools and other accessories using two extension cords running a total of 130m from our cabin, which carried the power to the house. What a thrill to plug in our radio directly into the wall and hear it come to life! Ok, turn it off, there’s nothing good on that station. That evening, Kogie and I visited the house after sunset and turned on our lights for the first time. It was really quite lovely – the lights are soft white LED-types which increase in luminescence the longer you leave the switch in an ‘on’ state. There is no glaring reflection off of the interior plaster, so the overall effect is very calming, almost like candlelight.

In the days following our electricians came and connected the lights and fixtures upstairs. The team got busy installing curtain rails and continued the cornices, while I did some more window sills outside. The horrid weather continued, and on Wednesday we experienced the strongest winds to date. I’ve developed something of an anemometer inside my head over the past few months and I’m sure this was significantly worse than the big storm of June 2nd. I couldn’t actually sleep, even with the aid of ear-plugs. It absolutely thundered in from the NW well into the early hours of the morning. It was followed by more cold, more rain, and more wind. On Friday it finally subsided and the team took us one step closer to completion by installing the front door and the door to the electrics room. That afternoon, I performed the symbolic act of returning the baling needles and clay sieve we’d borrowed from our friends in Greyton so long ago. It had been months since we’d actually used the baling needles and to me, they appeared to be an artifact from another time period.

Saturday and Sunday’s weather must have been a reward for tolerating all the rough stuff that had preceded it: glorious sunshine, windless, and hot. It was a boys’ weekend at the Blue Crane Cottage, as Kogie was working on Saturday and then hiking up Table Mountain that Sunday. So me and Bruno did our fair share of work – more tyre wall and window sills – but also made sure the hammock was in working order. This hammock had been stuck in our garage in London for the past two years, for lack of suitable weather there. No sooner had I nestled into it on Saturday afternoon, than we had our first appearance of a visitor I’d hoped our dam would attract: a black-headed heron. It glided in noiselessly to check out the scenery, only about ten metres away from me. I must have been totally captivated because I temporarily forgot about the dog on my lap, which suddenly became the dog chasing the heron away. Ah well, another time, perhaps.

Refreshed, I began the next week with high hopes. Plastering continued, and I added a few more tyres to our wall, which was now at least high enough to prevent most of the earthen wall behind it from falling into our back yard. We also had another look at the small leakage in the West flat roof. Over the past week it seems, because of the low angle of the roof and the direction of the wind, that rain had actually been blown up the roof and under the flashing, where there were small gaps. I took advantage of the temporarily dry weather to add some caulking under the flashing to prevent this. More gale force winds rolled in on Monday and Tuesday. I can’t stand being in the cabin during such storms, so while the team proceeded with cornices, plastering, and door locks, I fortunately had business in Hermanus. Apart from collecting more seashells for our shower walls, I also had the necessity of some personal grooming, i.e. a haircut. Not for my own sake, of course – I’d probably become feral without Kogie’s weekly visits – but because the following day I was scheduled for…a job interview. Well, not an interview perhaps but an informal chat with a company which may be interested in contracting my software development skills. What made this such a tempting offer is that all their contractors and employees work from home. That’s right, your humble narrator may soon be using his computer for something “serious”. I sped down to Stellenbosch on Thursday, freshly shorn, and had a very pleasant meeting. On the way I also picked up the paint we’ll be using, a natural water-based breathable coating. The colours are “Terra Cotta” for the outside and “Soapstone” and “Coffee Cream” for inside, in case you were wondering (don’t worry, I won’t make the joke about renaming it the “Terra Cotta-ge”).

It was another stunning day, and I arrived home early in the afternoon, with ample daylight left to enjoy from the perspective of the hammock. That night I heard crickets chirping for the first time in months. Could I interpret this as a sign that spring is on its way? Some people are already talking of winter in the past tense, but I’d rather not get my hopes up yet. Friday was yet again calm and obscenely hot, so while I was held in suspension in the hammock, the team finished the last section of screed downstairs, in the lounge.

Kogie came up that evening and we spent Saturday visiting friends and doing various jobs around the place while our solar engineer came and installed our eight panels, inverter, and batteries. The panels are on the small, flat roof above our first-storey verandah, which means they’re invisible to someone on the ground. They therefore lie at quite a low angle but we’re assured that they should still capture the sun efficiently. On Sunday we drove towards Franschoek, where halfway along the pass exists a set of trails up Mount Rochelle. We chose “Uitkyk” (outlook) which was a lovely 10km round-trip ramble among Proteas and assorted fynbos. The outlook point at the end was indeed stunning.

The next week, we’d decided, was the last that our team would be with us. We’d (or they’d, more accurately) completed 90% of the house, excluding plumbing and painting. As it was a long weekend Kogie stayed here on Monday, and because it was the last week we had a celebratory braai that evening. The sun accommodated us by setting later than, well, the day before, and so we toasted our association with good food and drink.

I drove Kogie back to Caledon early Tuesday morning, and upon my return we got to work. I addressed the tyre wall in earnest, finishing seven for the day, and in between I had a bit of fun decorating our shower walls, which consisted of throwing crushed seashells against the drying cement there. The team did the shower walls upstairs, adding their own artistic touches. Our electricians came and finished their work, which included installation of another outside light and a faulty line. At noon that day we performed another symbolic act, by rolling up the 130m electrical cord running from our cabin to the house, as it was no longer needed. Although the post-partum depression didn’t set in immediately, I couldn’t help but draw the comparison between it and an umbilical cord, which had provided energy to the building site, and later the house, ever since the inception of this project in January. Now our creation was standing on its own, and I allowed myself a little paternal pride.

Wednesday found me in Hermanus while the team continued with cornices and various finishing touches. The weather has been cooler but mostly dry; suggesting that those recent summery days were just a fluke, a tease. On Thursday this was confirmed with more gale force winds. Our shower glass was installed while I did one last trip to Caledon for one last bag of Cretestone and lime, both key ingredients in our plastering efforts.
The Jeep, I’m sad to say, is haemmorrhaging oil again and needs to be taken back to Cape Town for attention. Driving out here after the rains is a lot like driving on the surface of the moon, but with a helluva lot more gravity, evident in every pot-hole you hit. It takes its toll and I am looking forward to many fewer trips after this week.

Friday, the last day. The last day of the work-week and the last day of working with our excellent team. It has been five months and one week, if you’ve been counting. Day in day out, these guys showed up and worked uncomplainingly, tirelessly, and diligently to build this luxurious residence for us. Initially they were brought in to raise our bale walls and then plaster, but they demonstrated skills and a work ethic which easily convinced us to keep them to help us with all other aspects of the construction. I personally am grateful because I am a lousy “boss”, and they didn’t require constant supervision. Our foreman in particular was self-driven and could practically read my mind by the third month.

So with little fanfare and conversation, as was their manner, I drove them all home and then dropped Bruno off at the kennel, just as I did weeks ago.

The beginning

So here I am in the cabin, shivering a bit as a lingering winter North-east wind blows in through the open door. For now, it seems Kogie and I will continue this little journey alone. I am grateful that there will be no more cooking, no more weekly trips to Greyton and back, and no more project management. But strangely, I don’t yet feel any sense of closure with their departure. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and I’ve watched and hopefully learned enough to know what I can do wrong and how to avoid doing it. I hope that during the next weeks I will have a chance to develop a tactile relationship with this house that will allow me to feel I’ve contributed to the construction of it. And then? And then, at some point we’ll be “done” building the house, and will start living in it. One adventure will come to an end, and no doubt others will want to begin.