Melissa Krige and her family are safe-keepers of an ancient, white stinkwood forest. Here she shares their experiences of living beneath its canopy.
I sit now at my desk, gazing out into the leafy depths of the forest. The sunlight shifts and plays in beams of white-gold upon the leaves, illuminating an endless kaleidoscope of dancing greens. Our resident boomslang slithers across the ceiling boards above me - she chases the mice that have made their home beneath our zinc roof. I can hear the s-shapes that she makes, from one side of the room to the other. Accepting snakes as an integral part of life in the forest, has been one of many adaptations necessary for an harmonious and happy life here. As the frogs chirp and click to one another outside the window and small birds dart in and out of the shadows, I reflect on the past 3 years here in the forest.
The sale of our house in the city barely covered the purchase cost of the forest. Certainly, a forest such as this one is priceless - it is a one of a kind, botanically unique forest - none-the-less, we had traded in a home in the suburbs of Cape Town for 30 hectares of beautiful, indigenous forest - but there was no house, no infrastructure. We had water rights on an almost empty dam. There was no cell phone reception and Telkom would not put in a land line. We knew only one other person in the area and had no clear idea of how we were going to earn a living in this unfamiliar, country environment. The challenges felt huge and often overwhelming.
What we did have though, was an existing afdakkie built by the previous owner in the heart of the forest and it was accessed by a winding, sandy road. We also had plenty of long, thick planks made from stone pines and gum trees that Francois, my arborist husband, had harvested in and around Cape Town. These he and his foreman, Lennie, used to clad the afdakkie into a storage shed. We initially imagined our future house standing in the only sizable clearing of the forest - it had previously served as the winter garden for the original farm, before the land was cut up into small holdings. Situated on a gentle, north facing slope, it looks down into the valley and is surrounded by a ring of squat, wide-trunked white stinkwoods. The energy these trees radiate, when you stand in the centre of their circle looking out to the blue mountains beyond, feels like a loving, golden embrace. But as it happened, this was not to be the site for our home.
Pressing financial constraints necessitated a serious rethink of our dream home into one that would be comfortable, suited to the forest environment and most importantly, could be built on a shoe string budget. And so our thoughts fell to the storage shed. Measuring 8 by 6 metres, it was large enough to serve as an open plan living room cum kitchen. A bathroom was added on and as funds were running low after buying four 10 000 litre water tanks, a septic tank and a header tank, plus generator and water pump, we had to carefully consider our bedroom options. A solution was found in a prefabricated "wendy house", made to our dimensions and with extra large windows to bring the forest in as it were. This we attached to the existing afdakkie and voila! we had a 3 bedroom house! An extra bonus of the wendy house addition was that no foundations were needed - this means minimal impact to the forest and nearby trees. In time they will need to be replaced with a more hardy, long-life structure like the main body of the house; for now they work well.
Both Francois and I have long aspired towards an ecological lifestyle and a home powered by alternative energy sources. The forest was to hold us to these principles: to put in ESKOM power lines would necessitate either digging damaging trenches through the forest, or cutting large swathes of forest canopy in order to install the utility lines.
In the early days, we could not afford solar panels so it was gas lamps and candles to start with. Hot water was another issue: the forest canopy shaded the roof too much in winter to make a solar geyser practical, so we opted for the old fashioned donkey boiler system which essentially entails lighting a fire under a barrel of water. This feeds into the household plumbing. Ample wood from alien trees and deadwood collected in the forest made this a viable and logical choice for us. On the water front, an extensive network of gutters and pipes collect and conduct rain water into large storage tanks; however, it was only through the generosity of our neighbours, who own the original homestead of the Farm Platbos that a more reliable source of water was ensured. A strong river flows through their land and a pipe line extends all the way through the forest to a dam above us. Kindly, they agreed for us to pump water from the river. Over the years, they have become close family friends, and they stand out as one of the unexpected treasures that our new life has brought us.
Three years ago, main-stream thinking in South Africa was still far off "green energy" and sustainable living and so accessing information and products was not as easy as it is today. But one by one, and as finances allowed, we tackled our list of challenges. One of the first things we learnt about electric appliances was that those that generate heat (iron, hair dryer, toaster) consume vast quantities of power. So, we had to either let go of, or otherwise find an alternative for certain conveniences taken for granted in the city. This was a process that took some time to work through but once completed, has been hugely liberating. And rather than compromising our living standards, we have managed to cherry-pick the technology that we consider essential for our needs, while discarding those that are not. It has also made us very appreciative of the electrical energy that we do have and we are careful not to squander it.
Today, we have three solar panels mounted on poles above the forest canopy. They power our lights, laptop, music system and an energy-efficient washing machine. Our cell phone booster and broad band antenna are erected on poles above the tree tops. The lack of television reception is not considered a hardship! The children watch an occasional DVD on my laptop, and we read or play board games instead. The next major expense will be an energy efficient fridge and the extra solar panels to run it as gas fridges are hugely consumptive.
Time spent exploring both the forest and our future options revealed that the forest clearing, initially earmarked for our house, was far better suited to a tree nursery. Here, on the gentle sunny slope, with the seven old and gnarled white stinkwoods to enfold them in their golden energy, our young Platbos Forest tree seedlings grow today with a vigour and vibrancy that lifts the heart and brings to mind the phrase: Money grows on trees.
Change is an uncomfortable and often painful process if we resist it; if accepted and embraced, the pain transforms itself into self empowerment, and with it, we can access a great reservoir of untapped inner resources to guide and steer us through the uncharted waters of our ever unfolding destiny.