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Permaculture in Bathurst
A conversation with Eco-pioneer Rob Gess

While visiting Bathurst, my sister Karen and I decided to stop over at the Dancing Donkey Store, which we’d heard had natural, organic products. Rob Gess, the owner, opened up for us and we followed him in to the store, housed in a small round rondavel (thatch-roofed hut).

Dancing Donkey store, Bathurst Port Alfred

The store was a treasure-trove of goodies - an assortment of African art and crafts including handmade bird whistles (yes, I bought one), handpainted keystones made from walnuts (guilty as charged), dreamcatchers, handbags, clothing, jewellery, musical instruments - all made by local artisans.

African products in Bathhurst

And, of course, the products made by Rob’s wife Serena - homemade herbal ointments called Greenaways.

Greenaway’s is made from herbs, coldpressed seeds and nut oils and beeswax blended by hand.

Greenaways herbal products

I decided to buy the calendula ointment - great for insect bites, rashes, and skin issues; helps reduce scarring, and even strengthens varicose veins.

A part-time Palentology lecturer at Rhodes University and Environmental Impact Assessor, Rob is a fascinating person to drop in on for a chat.

Rob Gess at Dancing Donkey bathurst

We discussed mental hospitals and ethical dilemmas in terms of involuntary commitments, the garden of Eden and the origin of consciousness, and fruitarianism and ethical beekeeping.

Permaculture garden

My interest perked up when I heard that all the herbs were grown organically in the cottage garden, pollinated by their own bees.

Could they be practicing permaculture?

I asked Rob to show us around his garden and the moment he mentioned zoning I knew he was practicing some form of permaculture.

A self-defined ecological gardener, Rob uses permaculture methods such as zoning, diversity, natural succession, herb spirals, circular or Mandala garden beds, trellising and many more. trellising vegetables


As Rob took us around his garden, I regretted not carrying my voice-recorder - Rob was passionate about his garden and clearly a wealth of information. He showed us an abundance of fruit trees in his orchard -including figs, gooseberry, plums, apples, fig plums, custard apple, loquats, oranges, lemons, and even a Mexican apple.

There were also banana trees, planted on the edge of a mini-swale to capture and retain water.

banana circle set on swale

Rob also showed us a native tree called the Knobwood Tree or umnungwamabele in Xhosa - which literally translates to “White Woman’s Breasts!”

knobwood tree

Set on sea-facing slopes, the garden was clearly structured into zones, with the vegetable and herb garden closest to the house, the orchard further on, and the wild zone on the outskirts, home to an indigenous forest and mist belt.

indigenous forest, mist belt

Rob tells me that he’d utilised native plants in his design - for instance the Rhus tree is usually cut down - when in fact it’s a mist-producing plant that provides shade, natural habitat, 100 sq metre water catchment as well as leaf mulch.

He pointed out an orange tree growing naturally amongst the Rhus trees, telling us that he doesn't interfere with nature, rather allowing things to grow where they please, and reaping the rewards.

Though I’d have loved to chat for longer, regrettably our time was short so our conversation was pretty rushed. However, it’s clear that Rob’s taken care to work with nature, and his success is evident in the vast amounts of indigenous trees growing without ever being planted.

Despite the fact that Bathurst has suffered from an extended drought, Rob’s garden is a green, verdant slice of heaven.

Return from Eco-pioneers to Eco-friendly-Africa Travel

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