Tuesday, January 25, 2011


It’s been a while since I’ve sent out an update from the forest and the cliché “no news is good news” certainly applies. Besides being sucked into the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy of brick-sized novels, there are a variety of reasons for the long silence. Predominantly, spring (and by now, late summer) has arrived, delighting us with an abundance of flowers, insects and butterflies. This is the first season that we are truly settled on the farm and I find myself pottering about: planting, picking, smelling, weeding, feeding animals, watching freaky spiders spin their prey into web cocoons with the children… basically enjoying life.

When we first arrived in Knysna, there was talk of a magical three-year period in which to find one’s feet. October saw the dawn of this new era and I can definitely say that there is truth to the rumour. It does feel as if we are finally settled and looking back over the past 36 months, I hardly know how we made it some days! Coming here does seem like an idealistic dream (testimony to my permanently rose-tinted outlook). We had no idea of the hardships that farm life would involve – from the baboons, lice and flea plagues to the lack of water and adjusting to solar power. Then there was the unexpected passing of my mother/friend/soulmate as well as the general existential and financial crisis experienced by pretty much everyone on the planet! But the increased appreciation for life, love, water and resources, sharing these incredible natural surroundings with our beautiful neighbours and seeing our children run free, has made all the “suffering” worthwhile.

And after 3 years, we finally got ourselves some chickens! The children and I selected 5 little one day old chicks: I chose “Penguin” a little black and white number, while Luke went for “Popcorn” and “Lovely” and Mila has the two “Golden Girls”. Having had absolutely no experience with live chickens, I was quite shocked to learn that they should be kept under lights for the first few weeks. The words: “are you out of your mind” went through my head as I listened to the purveyor describing how to position a 100 watt globe over the chicks and keep this light on 24 hours a day for two weeks. She obviously had no experience of solar power! We resorted to good old fashioned water bottles - refreshed 3 times a day - and this managed to keep our chicks alive long enough until they could be placed outside with the rabbits and quails in what is becoming a very lively little enclosure. (Luckily, we had some good rain, so constantly filling the water bottles was not a problem.) The rabbit/quail/chicken cage is of course another reason for my long silence: the kids and I find ourselves chasing chicks and stroking our rabbits rather often. The there’s the constant task of filling in the tunnels that the rabbits keep digging in order to ensure that they don’t escape – something that my guru neighbour, Mr R had warned me about…

We watched our chickens grow bigger in anticipation, anxious to discover whether they would turn out to be egg-producing hens or noisy, troublesome roosters. At one point we suspected 4 of them of being roosters and were debating the option of eating these (a strange discussion to have in a vegetarian household!). But alas, it appears by the rather amusing cock-a-doodle-ling that Popcorn is our only rooster and pretty trouble-free (for now).

Our beloved rabbit Fuzzy turned out to be a boy after all, but our first set of 7 baby rabbits all died within 2 days of being born. The first 3 gruesome little bodies were strewn around the cage with injuries presumably inflicted by the chickens, and the remaining 4 babies were discovered in a half-dug burrow - one already cold. It appeared as if Coco had abandoned them. After hot-water bottles and various tactics to try to get her to bond and feed them, we eventually took the last two survivors into the house and proceeded to feed them baby formula with a syringe. Both managed to get through the night, but neither made it past the next day. We spent a few hours demarcating the cage in order to separate the rabbits from the birds, and will report on the next litter soon.

In the meantime we’ll continue rearing the pair of baby field mice we found amongst our extra dinner plates when we tackled some boxes on Boxing Day.

Of course, there’s been the dependable presence of wwoofers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). We were blessed with a 3 week visit by Tasuku, a mathematician from the island of Okinawa in Japan. He built a very neat growing tunnel (mathematically quite accurate!) and having worked in a sushi restaurant in California, was able to show us some nifty new tricks and recipes – tuna mayo rice balls wrapped in nori have now become a regular meal in our household. He infused our farm with Japanese grace and cleaned the kitchen immaculately.

Tasuku (whom Luke called “Hey, let’s play Lego” for about a week before he could remember his name) was followed by our first South African wwoofer (a lady name Lucianne) who spent 2 weeks wrestling with the “Kak”-kuyu grass, which is constantly invading our flower beds. We then had our second local volunteer, Alexa from Cape Town, who jumped on the trampoline with Mila and painted the newly erected patio roof beams. Yes, we finally have a roof over our patio and celebrated with a fabulous roof wetting party attended by our kind, caring (and quite eccentric) community!

I had a break from the farm when I recently visited Pretoria for my 20-year high school reunion.  I attended a rather well-respected, Afrikaans girls’ school. What a blast! Whereas the 10 year reunion still had a measure of posturing and showing off (who got married, gained/lost weight, etc.), by now we all seemed to have grown up, even sporting the odd wrinkle with pride. The “koeke” (i.e. the “good” girls) had figured out the carnal matters which led to them having children while the “terte” (the “naughty” girls) also bore children, causing them to settle down, and so we were pretty much all on the same page. (In case you were wondering, my allegiance was with the naughty ones!) After the official lunch with the girls on Friday, about 20 of us went to a “resort” in Warmbaths for the weekend, where things got loud and juvenile (especially since many of us left our husband and children at home for the weekend and had complete freedom to regress to our teenage silliness!). Plans are already underway for our 25th – this time at a wine farm near Cape Town and the doctor among us is rumoured to have made promises of bringing the Botox along…

Kevin has been living the high life – travelling to Johannesburg to work his photographic magic on the 5 star Legacy hotel group (and being accommodated at one of their fine establishments, which of course made me green with envy!). He also had a stint in Cape Town and was awarded a Gold and Silver award in the Fuji Film photographic competition (no prize money, though). He also has a new lady in his life: a sleek 17” MacBook Pro (Apple laptop) – a truly sexy piece of equipment which has enabled us to watch movies at a much lower energy consumption and have internet access in the house…the first time in 3 years that we can surf from the comfort of our couch. Things are really looking up!

The kids are doing marvellously – Mila goes to grade 2 and is switching from recorder to guitar while continuing with her ballet lessons. Well on her way to becoming the next Hannah Montana (she even received a blonde wig from Santa)! Luke is ever the Lego builder and enjoys kicking the soccer ball, imitating pirates and Michael Jackson and catching frogs and fish in the dam with his new fishing rod.

A few months ago, our cleaning angel, Sophie, resigned from our domestic chores in favour of her Thesen Island employer. I have since spent many hours in cleaning meditation – getting closer to enlightenment with each wipe, scrub and sweep of the mud and dirt left behind by the actions of my beloved family. I have discovered that there is something rather fundamental and cathartic in cleaning up. It sets a certain pace to the daily activities and completes the cycles of creation - like teaching the children to pack one game away before starting another one. However, for fear of ultimate enlightenment and spontaneous combustion, I have relinquished my domestic stronghold and agreed to employ a new domestic helper (if only for one day per week)!

We have been immensely blessed with an abundance of rain over the past few months – our tanks (capacity: 26,000 litres) are full, our dams are swimmable and we have more water than we’ve had in three years. Flushing the toilet and filling the hot water bottles for the baby animals have not presented any problems. Now the new bath in storage is really starting to beckon for a bathroom!

We’ve had a fabulous festive season, hosting dear friends (Brett, Sue & co) in our refurbished container/wwoofing room: by now quite a civilised guestroom. The daily mud baths and dam swimming was quite a change for them from their London existence and Brett applied full-blown urban warfare techniques when a fly plague presented itself. With sticky fly catching strips dangling from every conceivable place and armed with fly swatters, we sipped our sundowners, discussed New Year’s resolutions while gazing out over the forest, listening to the call of the fish eagle.

Speaking of which, the large wooden eagle carving (which we moved with from Johannesburg) was positioned at the edge of the dam, but got knocked over continuously by the grazing cows as they try to scratch their ears against it. After three attempts at stabilising it, Kevin finally dug a huge whole and poured 4 bags of ready mix into it, adding some solid steel bars for good measure, and proclaimed: “the eagle has landed”.