Two months on the farm and a significant change is afoot; I’m moving again, in a twist that’s left me shaken but filled with renewed resolve and positive and excited. It’s been a tremendous learning curve for me on several fronts, not least of which is a certain level of pride at my resilience in the face of basic living conditions. When I began my Big Plan to go off the beaten track five years ago, I was not expecting to have the luxury of a year in which to research everything I needed to know, with the help of the history books, of course, during my year in Grahamstown, about the off-grid lives of my ancestors.
Everything is different to what I expected to find here at Roscan in January; Rosemary and I laugh often about my worry before coming that I would have to socialize with ‘the other voulnteers’. I’d imagined what I’d seen in movies, a vista of neat camps with happy dogs playing on lawn in the shade, or running wild on the hills until called down for their supper. I pictured the scenes of the ranch hands gathering at a long scrubbed wooden table for dinner of fried chicken and corn, all bonhomie and khumbaya; I fretted about getting out of these social ordeals and arranging to see to myself in my shack, thanks all the same. It’s not like that at Roscan Dog Sanctuary, but that’s another string of stories.
When Rose sent me photos of the shack I had asked to inhabit, I was undaunted; it was summer and I knew more than anyone I know how to survive in the rough, because I was writing a book on how the 1820 Settler women survived in their harsh domestic interior, wasn’t I? And I lived in the house built by their menfolk, didn’t I? During my research into historic houses, I’d come across many theses, stories and memoirs on the restoration projects of these and earlier buildings and was quietly amused when people raved about crude stonework exposed from two centuries of plaster; it was rubble, crude because it was never meant to be visible under the planned Victorian white icing sugar plaster of the era. Masonry intended for the eye was immaculately crafted by skilled artisans, whereas the poorer homes were a heave-ho effort when spare muscle was at the ready and inevitably the whole family would chip in, even toddlers contributing as small a boulder as they were able to roll along the uneven terrain. So when I saw the thin metal sheets that were my walls and received message upon message from friends concerned about the winter ahead, I knew I had to begin insulating it immediately. The interior was not difficult, but is unfinished; I have suffered only minor leakage from the rains we’ve had. I was excited to test my theory that women alone in rural areas can be empowered if they are taught to build their own homes. There’s currently an initiative to utilize plastic cold drink bottles, but I immediately thought – literally – of rubble, garbage. There’s no municipal infrastructure here on the farm; no refuse collection and – at the time of my coming – the farm and adjacent guest lodge – a mass on rubbish, mainly non-biodegradable.
Fifty dogs meant a shitload of tins and, being an OCD rubbish collector on my walks for years, I knew that the cigarette butts being discarded on the property yielded at least the volume of two tins a day. I also had at my disposal a limitless supply of natural stone – too heavy for me alone – and gravel, from the decommissioned SARS railway station on the site. I have passed on the idea to our farm hand, Justice, who has helped me and who will continued the project in my absence. I have a dream of it one day housing a tearoom for Rose and Duncan, where visitors can stop and enjoy her delicious cooking and great knowledge of food. It’s been delightful here in the hot weather, but I am more than a little relieved that I have been given respite from the ordeal of winter without an indoor loo or bath.
Except for missing my own baking terribly (I look forward to a stove at my new gig!), I have not really missed a stove and have eaten exceptionally well with a gas ring and good larder, with frequent gifts straight out of soil or hen from Rose and Duncan – who is generous by picking the proliferation of prickly pears which nobody but me likes to eat, and an occasional ride into nearby De Doorns or Montagu has quite satisfied any yen I have had for society, and fulfilled my meagre shopping needs and I’ve always been ready to collapse with relief when I return to the simple rhythm of the country and my serene private haven.