Scooting from Port Alfred to East London
Back on the road, Mohair country became Frontier country, and we imagined travelling on oxwagons as the 1820 settlers had done. Fortunately, we were somewhat faster, managing to catch the last day of the Grahamstown Festival and even making a show.
Riding back to Port Alfred on bumpy tarred roads, we enjoyed the sky opening up as if it could finally breathe in the Eastern Cape’s uninterrupted vistas, which stretched out before us like an endless mural.
As the rest of the country faced what was quite likely its coldest winter, we holed up in Port Alfred, immersed in work.
And then we headed into the horizon on our mechanical horses, destined for the Amathole Mountains, where we’d be staying at Terra Khaya Backpackers, on Chillington Farm in Hogsback.
If you’ve ever driven to Hogsback, you’ll recall the winding road through a Xhosa village topped by the peaks of the Hobbiton Mountains, driving up the now-tarred road through the forest and as it bisects the tiny village of Hogsback before turning to gravel, a pleasure in dry season, but only surmountable in slow motion after recent rains.
Our next obstacle was a steep and twisting downhill paved with two exceedingly thin stretches of cement and a slick-mud inner that we skidded down in first gear, using our legs to balance us as we slipped from side to side.
Finally reaching Terra Khaya at the top of the hill, characterised by more waterlogged gravel, I slid into an undignified tumble and the iron-clad resolve to get dual-purpose tyres.
Fortunately, Terra Khaya is the real deal - off the grid with just enough solar to charge minor electrical appliances, water sourced from the stream and wattle-powered heating and cooking, Terra Khaya offers accommodation that’s a balm for the soul, with comfortable township-style shacks made from rubbish and wattle that looked out over strikingly-beautiful views.
Parking on the opposite side of the hill, we walked down and across a stream before walking up again to the other side, where Terra Khaya lies perched along the forest edge.
Safety was no issue - we left most of our bags on the bikes and took only the bare essentials which we carry in easy-to-reach kayak bags strapped on the front of our bikes.
Slipping and sliding up to our shack (walkways are planned in future); we lit the paraffin lamp, which illuminated our comfortable home away from home for the next two days.
A compost toilet, a permaculture garden and food forest, as well as rain and greywater harvesting show the owner, Shane Eades’ commitment to sustainability.
Shane Eades also runs Amathole Horse Trails, practicing natural horsemanship, which means a symbiotic relationship where the horses don’t wear bits, and are backed instead of broken.
Shane himself rides bareback, as comfortable on a horse as a tightrope walker at the circus.
We couldn’t miss taking a sunset ride, galloping through the twilight forest into a vast clearing lit with the red-toned hues of the falling sun.
Magic seems to be part of the package at Terra Khaya - a trip to rescue a fallen horse saw us hiking to the top of a secret waterfall at the concurrence of two valleys, overlooking a sprawling indigenous forest.
While Shane was not a vet, it was heartwarming to see him set aside half a day to go and try help however he could (initially we thought the horse had a broken leg).
Providing the horse with reiki, bringing it food and water, and organising for the SPCA to come and transfer it to a safe place were all services he provided freely and with compassion, and even though the horse died, it was great to feel that everything that could possibly have been done was done.
And then it was East London, a whirlwind of activity that started with the monthly Green Living meeting (East London’s very own permaculture group) at Peas on Earth, an organic food garden and permaculture project near Kei Mouth.
We joined a talk held by owner Colin Hozack, who told us a little bit about the project and why he’s doing it.
Having worked in game reserves and studied nature conservation, organic farming was a natural fit for Colin, who grew up on a farm outside Rustenberg and wanted to come back to his roots in agriculture.
In fact, Colin didn’t even know what permaculture was when he started Peas on Earth but intuitively wanted to incorporate conservation and ecology into their way of life.
Together with his wife Nicky, they have transformed the farm into an organic one, producing a variety of crops including a variety of lettuce, spinach, beetroot, carrot, pumpkins, radishes, corn, potatoes and even aloe, all planted according to the lunar cycle.
They also make comfrey-based lotions, jams, chutneys and pickles and sell them to farmers markets and stalls, while chickens and pigs provide a seemingly endless supply of manure.
One of the biggest issues in the garden has been balancing water catchment and drainage - with both extreme droughts and flooding they’ve had to change their approach numerous times, resulting in no-dig/trench beds that are now raised on one side to let excess water drain out.
They’re also busy converting to a more permaculture-based approach, adding in companion plants (such as onion) to help deter pests, which have proven a problem over their four years of operation.
Homemade bug sprays help deal with infestations, including one made with marigold and khakibos (tagetes minuta, a member of the marigold family also called beggars tick), which they ferment in water for a month and then spray on the plants, while a rue, garlic, onions and chilli help deal with aphids.
After exploring the six hectare farm, which is equipped with a solar shower, soon-to-be-finished compost toilet, guest accommodation (B&B), we learned that Colin plans to start and education centre that will assist in developing the community through practical, long-term training.
A paid and unpaid volunteer programme helps Colin in his goal of sharing his knowledge, while he also plans to become more self-sustainable with the implementation of a solar system.
Next up was a visit to Lilyfontein School, where we met with Kerry McLean, co-founder of Green Living and ex-permaculture teacher at the school. Kerry showed us around the thriving vegetable garden - which at two and a half years old helps contribute to the school’s Platinum Eco School status.
Linking the time in the garden to what was being taught in the curriculum, Kerry told me that each class has a keyhole bed (Mandala bed) which they were responsible for.
Wine bottles are used for edges and organic spinach, lettuce, beetroot, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, and even goosebeeries and strawberries were grown.
While Kerry now works for WESSA managing the Eco School’s programme, she is able to keep an eye on the garden and still retain a strong involvement with the school.
Staying just between Stutterheim and East London at Anna Andrews’ permaculture project, which just happens to be run by my mom, we waited out bad weather before tackling the ride to the Food and Trees for Africa (FTFA) project at Unathi Mkefa Primary School in Queenstown.
Unathi Mkefa, which means ‘the paradise’ is testament to principal Phumzile Milo’s dream of turning the school into a completely self-sustainable farm.
Water is pumped up from the borehole using a merry-go-round, which spun constantly with the power of enthusiastic kids, who vied to be in front of the camera.
Started in 2004 to provide learners with a ready supply of fresh food, the garden provides lettuce, spinach, beetroot, onion, cabbage, beans, potatoes and carrots, as well as fruit such as peaches and plums.
Future plans include a nursery where they can grow and sell seedlings, as well as creating a Grade R playground in the shade of the numerous indigenous trees planted around the school.
We spent the night with Robyn Hill and Chris Wild at their beautiful home in Cathcart. Both FTFA national ecopreneurs, Robyn and Chris were able to give us some useful advice about what projects to visit in the Eastern Cape.
We also joined them as they assessed a potential Eduplant school entry - noting factors such as re-use of greywater, mulching and overall knowledge and implementation of permaculture.
Ikhwezi Lokhusa Permaculture Farm is home to what could be South Africa’s oldest food forest, a 30-year old food forest established by permaculture legend Tim Wrigley, who has dedicated his life to teaching the people of one of South Africa’s poorest regions how to grow food.
Located just across the N2 from Mdantsane (East London’s very own sprawling township) we journeyed through a tunnel under the highway, following a farm road shrouded by trees. I had to suppress more than twinge of envy - the three young bucks who bought the farm from Wrigley’s ex wife have invested in a permaculturists’ goldmine.
The farm is overflowing with pecan, macadamia and almond trees, while avocado, orange, apple, pomengranate, fig, feijoa and pear trees are just a few of what makes up this established food forest.
Owned in trust by Alex van der Westhuizen, Luke Borg and Jandre Stroebel, along with Jandre’s brother and sister, they aim to set up the farm so it becomes completely self-sustainable.
They're looking at wind, hydro and solar systems to get off the grid, increasing their structures with natural building techniques (they have a hydroform machine that they use to make up to 900 bricks a day, and, luckily for them, have to do very little other than maintenance of the well-established orchard and gardens.
Water is heated with a donkey boiler, there’s compost toilets and worm farming as well as beehives (they harvest 40 litres of honey from just three hives, and that’s leaving plenty for the bees).
They also DJ, sell surplus produce (though most is freely given away) and are starting up a nursery to sell seedlings and of course, welcome volunteers including ‘wwoofers’ (willing workers on organic farms).
Probably one of the best things about living there is that they’re continuously discovering new trees, creepers and climbers. Just recently Alex cleared a section of overgrown bush, only to discover banana trees, grape vines and even more citrus trees.
And with the farm looking out over the shimmering Nahoon Dam and its incredible sunrises and sunset (Ikwezi Lokhusa rather fittingly means Place of the Rising Sun) they couldn’t have asked for a better location.
Of course, not all of permaculture is rural off-the-grid living. Permaculture has as much an urban context as it does rural, and Artwell Chivhinge is setting out to prove what can be done with limited space and resources.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Artwell first became interested in farming when he would help his parents with their small farm plot before school. His parents were peasant farmers and unable to pay his school fees, so Artwell started up his own garden and sold the produce for pocket money.
When he moved to East London, where he lives in an apartment complex in the Quigney, he started missing home and fresh green vegetables. So he got a bucket and asked someone to bring cuttings from his favourite vegetable back from Zimbabwe (called Long Life in English) which is planted like potatoes and grows very easily.
From there he started planting strawberries and mint, and even has a worm farm, right outside his apartment in the communal area. Nothing goes to waste - even old milk cartons are put to use to grow seedlings in.
Artwell keeps all his household greywater aside in buckets and uses it to water the plants, even keeping plants for his neighbours.
Seeing that the front of the building was completely undeveloped, Artwell decided to take action. He enriched the soil with manure, and then planted sweet potatoes, potatoes, tomatoes, shallots, lemongrass, wild garlic, avocado, elderberry and fresh herbs.
Granadilla were planted along the side of the building and are now starting to climb up. Of course mulch played a large role in keeping the soil moist and now Artrwell’s neighbours regularly come harvest fresh vegetables for their meals.
Local school’s such as Hudson Park Primary even come round to learn from Artwell, who is making quite a name for himself in the region. He’s also helping develop a permaculture curriculum for his son’s school - the Faith Revival Christian School.
Meanwhile, the building was surrounded by barren flower beds when Artwell decided to get involved. Now he’s growing rose geranium, thyme, borage, comfrey, chives, sweet potatoes and garlic chives.
Fruit trees are also planted around the building - we see a peach, an orange and an avocado tree all planted from seeds. Having never once asked for permission from the building owner/landlord (or even the municipality),
Artwell is also a bit of a guerrilla gardener with an ‘act first and ask for forgiveness later’ attitude. But he believes his results speak for themselves. “I tell people why do you want to grow lawn, you can’t eat lawn”.
The passionate guerrilla gardener says there’s no reason not to grow, wherever you are and whatever your space restrictions. “Even when I used to live in flats and didn’t have land I was still eating food grown in pots. You can do anything as long as you’re not lazy”.
Lazy he certainly is not. As programme facilitator of the Eastern Cape NGO Coalition (ECNGOC), Artwell started a household food security programme called Household Food Security Model (HFSM,) together with South African Institute of Distance Education (SAIDE) and the University of South Africa (UNISA).
The programme focuses on teaching small-scale farming skills that participants can share with their neighbours, helping to ensure there is enough food on the table at the end of the day while offering the potential to sell surplus produce and earn a small profit.
“It leaves a lasting impact when a household actively participates in transforming itself around food instead of just waiting for handouts”, he says. What's more, both SAIDE and UNISA offer the programme as an accredited course.
With the assistance of ECNGOG, the programme has been implemented throughout the Eastern Cape. During the 12-month programme, each student has to work with five households in their own community - thus sharing their learnings and reaching even more people.
The course includes: household food security, working with households, sustainable natural resources, food behaviour and nutrition, optimising household food production, and food resource management.
I tend to agree with Artwell that the programme will go a long way towards addressing poverty, reviving small-scale farming, creating local economic development and generally providing the relevant skills needed to improve food security in the province and the whole of SA.
When I said whirlwind of activity I wasn’t exaggerating. Our next stop on the endless road was an eco-village near Haga Haga called Khula Dhamma, a spot I’d tried to visit twice before when visiting from Dubai and been stormed out!
Fortunately the day dawned bright and clear and we set forth to Khula Dhamma. A meat-free, alcohol and drug-free community, Khula Dhamma was right up my alley with the aim to ‘grow on the path of awakening’.
While permaculture teacher and community member Tim Wrigley wasn’t there to show us around, Van Dyk Smit, a volunteer who’d been working closely with Tim, offered to give us the tour in Tim’s absence.
Khula Dhamma aims to be as ecologically sensitive as possible and to minimise their carbon footprint - so buildings were made of natural materials such as cob, wattle & daub and straw bale, while donkey boilers were used to heat water, and power is sourced from solar and/or wind.
Each dwelling seemed to have total autonomy on what methods to employ, but it was clear that KD attracted like-minded folk. Toilets were mostly compost, while the volunteer centre still had flushing loos.
On first impression Khula Dhamma seemed like a very welcoming, open community, though it had of course, like most eco-villages in South Africa, faced their share of challenges.
Tim believes a commitment to the Buddhist mindfulness precepts is a very positive aspect of life at Khula Dhamma.
Tim is also committed to land restoration with a selective alien clearing policy that ensures indigenous tree seedlings benefit from the nitrogen released from the wattle and lantana roots while also speeding up the succession process.
We visited Tim’s impressive vegetable garden, with raised beds, keyhole (Mandala) beds, companion planting and extensive mulching. Tim has planted just under 100 fruit and nut trees as well as hundreds of indigenous and luceana trees to protect the productive trees, between which are planted vegetables and staple crops such as pumpkins, corn and beans (known as the three sisters).
In fact, it was after experimenting with growing maize in mulch during a year of major drought, and realising that his crops were the only ones to survive, that Tim discovered his lifelong passion - teaching people to farm naturally.
Interestingly, it was hearing Manfred Max Neef, who believed that the major cause of poverty is development, that led Tim to resigning from a longstanding job with international NGO World Vision to dedicate himself to teaching Natural Farming (mostly in Xhosa villages) for the past 14 years.
Currently, Tim offers organic and permaculture courses on his 2- hectare property called Earth Harmony Homestead.
After touring both Tim’s property and much of the KD farm in somewhat stifling heat, we decided to take a trip to the beach at Haga Haga and cool down in the sea.
Arriving at the beach, we were amazed to see dolphins swimming so close to shore we felt sure we could swim with them, while further in the distance we could see whales spouting water (whales breathe out and the burst of air and water, called a spout, can be seen about 2 kms away).
Even Stutterheim made its way onto our agenda, with a visit to the Shire eco-lodge.
An architectural masterpiece, the Shire is home to four chalets set in a semi-circle facing the beautiful afro-montane forest. Nearly everything is custom-made, owner Rob Scott said he "became an electrician, plumber and painter in the space of a few months".
Built completely out of wood, each chalet is a unique curved shape, which also assists in natural cooling - the hot air rises to the top of the chalet where it can be easily-released by draw-string roof windows.
These windows were a marvel unto themselves. The glass literally had to be bent with brute force, while goggles and gloves were worn to protect from any mishaps... (and yes, there were mishaps - imagine Rob and his father finally getting that glass to bend to the shape of the walls when a loud bang sent fragments of glass showering down on them!)
Furniture was made using readily available Australian blue gum and black wattle, alien trees that needed to be put down anyway, showcasing Rob's talent as jack of all trades, and seemingly, master of many.
After a walk in the forest, which buzzed with life (bird calls, the bark of baboons, the sing-song of cicadas) we visited Rob's indigenous nursery, where he astounded us with his knowledge of indigenous bulbs and tubers, many of which are rare endemic species that are sold to local and overseas collectors.
And with an organic food garden and orchard, as well as a large reservoir (230 000L) which stores water collected from the river, the Shire is probably one of the most 'eco' of the eco-lodges in South Africa.
Trucks blaring, cars overtaking us closer than could ever be necessary and friendly waves from road workers and we were back in East London, my home town, for a short spate of relaxation before we braved the infamous roads of the Transkei.
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