If you’re not passionate about the earth, don’t bother to do the 5 hour trip from Cape Town to Forest Edge along the Knysna forest. Although it is a multi-award-winning resort with very well equipped and serviced cottages, this is ultimately a Nature Lovers’ Retreat.
I had been there before and of course loved the chilled vibe as I wrote poetry in the hammock on the cottage stoep, revelled in the ambiance of a place where you can ‘feel’ the silence and recover from the rush of a deadline driven business life.
When owner Ronel Pieterse told me they were going green, I knew it was time for a visit. So I left my laptop behind, shared a lift and embraced the beautiful lush region of the southern Cape, which I love. The 6 dwellings were built to resemble the authentic gold-mine cottage designs that were used during the Millwood Gold-Rush during the late 1800’s. But I was here to witness the green progress.
Forest Edge has never had municipal water supplies, so they have always captured their own rain water from the houses’ roofs. This is pumped to a reservoir, where it’s filtered and cleaned and pumped back to the cottages for human use. Since the big drought a few years ago they had also built a second dam to hold extra water for the thirsty months.
No extra cash flow cost for PV’s
Now solar power provides half of the electricity for Forest Edge. This is of course my big dream – to go off the grid – so I had to find out how it’s managed, financially. Ronel has worked out the viability carefully. She borrowed a substantial amount from the bank to take the whole main house and office off the Escom grid with 12 PV (photo voltaic) solar panels on the roof. Paying the bank back every month equals the same amount she is now saving from a reduced Escom bill. So there is in fact no extra cash flow cost to her, yet a capital enhancement to the property. The pay-back period in general seems to be between 3 to 5 years at Eskom’s current rates – but whenever Eskom rates go up again, it obviously shortens the relative payback period even more!
Can’t we all do this? I was very inspired and couldn’t help but share Ronel’s excitement at tracking the power consumption, living according to the sun’s supplies and feeling independent.
“I must say this has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” she says, “ranks right up there with my first kiss and graduating! The experiential thrill of realising that all my equipment, lights etc are actually running straight off the sun – WOW. Way bigger than just the intellectual understanding thereof.”
Learning to live in sync with nature
“It has also been a lesson to live more in sync with the natural rhythms of nature – I can even iron or tumble-dry when it is a really hot day, but on the second rainy day we switch on only the bare minimum. What really took me by surprise is finally fully understanding how much electricity even the average person still connected to the grid can save.”
“Obviously I counted each amp we could save as I gradually replaced lights to LEDs or Long Life bulbs – over 20 amps just changing globes! It was easy to chuck the kettle for a stove-top model; less easy to ONLY blow-dry hair on hectically hot days. The jury is still out on the benefits of the heat pump, but all in all a learning curve and a blessing I wish on the wide world.”
She feels sad that we don’t get more support or rebates or anything from government or Eskom for taking the private initiative to live greener and reduce the pressure on a choking energy system. “I will be paying for a while still – yet the benefits are endless and also include the viral effect it has on the guests who visit Forest Edge.”
Food forest drinks purified grey water
I had heard about Ronel’s new vegetable garden, or rather food forest, planted where the alien Australian Blackwood forest used to be. It was a huge job and very costly to clear out these water thirsty trees, but now they have a good supply of wood for the cold winter months and in a water scarce region this was important. On the way there I noticed another new pond. The grey water from the main house and cottages is pumped to an underground filter and then to this pond, where special plants purify the water further. This cleaned water is used to water the food garden just beyond. I get so excited when humans start emulating the natural cyclical systems of nature. Doesn’t this make perfect logical sense?
Beyond the donkey enclosure, where Hansel and Gretel (see main image) sleep at night, I was in for a magnificent surprize. “I started out growing organic vegetables and fruit because I selfishly wanted to feel more self-sufficient and have fresh produce to share with guests – only along the way did the benefits and joys of recycling, composting, worm farming and reducing ‘food miles’ really sink in. Knowing it and doing it actively are two different things. This is the gap I believe that makes ‘greening up’ such an intimidating thing for most people.”
Here I saw over 30 types of vegetables, grown from heirloom seeds, thriving in compost and earth worm rich soil, companion planted according to permaculture principles, protected from bugs by comfrey leaves and their special neighbours. Nasturtiums to attract the aphids away from the tomatoes, a little water stream to encourage birds and frogs. Twelve different fruit trees, 18 herbs – planted according to lunar cycles. Two huge red wriggler worm bins break down organic waste from the kitchen and provide compost and worm tea. Garden refuse goes into a couple of compost heaps. Wood shavings from the trees cut down provide mulch.
Hands in the soil, the body wakes up
“I guess the bottom line is to just start with a gentle step in the right direction, the rest will tumble into place and it is immensely rewarding. Not to mention that when things should fall apart economically it also means a better chance of survival for one’s family.”
Surrounded by green neighbours and friends, Ronel said she had been talking green for a long time, but the knowledge remained in her head. It was only when she started working with the soil and growing food that the cause of the planet became an experiential reality to her. “Now this is my passion,” she says. She shares this generously with her guests, who often receive produce from the garden, and learn from the educational notices on the eco trail about water saving, grey water systems, solar energy and food harvesting.
The other great new addition I valued was the new circular meditation garden with quotes from all traditions, where one can sit in peace and reconnect with your soul. I also did the Drupkelders hike right next door for the first time, where I could commune with nature all alone in the rock pools, swim under the waterfall, meditate in the forest, receive a flash visit from a Knysna loerie and just re-member myself as One with Nature.