A burnt arse, and other pitfalls of the post-carbon age

One of my favourite places to visit is Berg-en-Dal Farm on the outskirts of Ladismith in the Klein Karoo, home to the Klein Karoo Sustainable Drylands Permaculture Project.

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To many of the locals it’s sommer a hippie farm – at least that’s how it appeared to townsfolk when the project was launched back in 1999. The newcomers with their long hair and vegetarian tendencies simply didn’t fit the profile of an area that boasts 11 churches and counting, where the town butcher, Vleis, has named his two boys Lammies and Tjoppies.

These blommekinders wore garments that looked as if they were borrowed from Patagonian alpaca wranglers. That’s if they wore any clothes at all. Rumour had it they were nudists(!), and possibly one worse: drug-dealing nudists! Plus they’d bought a farm with no water. Nobody in their right mind buys a farm no water.

But as the first decade of the new millennium rolled by, the method in their madness became increasingly apparent. Amid headlines warning of acid mine drainage rising below Johannesburg, crocodiles dying in Loskop Dam, the shock of Eskom’s failure to deliver electricity to much of the country and all of this against a backdrop of global climate change, here was a community skilled in the conservation of scarce resources, which produced its own electricity and sought to grow much of its own food.

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Increasingly people came to the farm to learn these living techniques. Not only suburbanites seeking absolution for the amount of plastic they put out on the street on rubbish day, but also managers of very large cropping enterprises in the Free State, major retail consultants, and so forth.

The founding members would be the first to admit that the place looked like a down- at-heel caravan park in the early years. But nowadays the farm is something of an oasis. The communal garden, or ‘food forest’, is mature’ and all down the valley private gardens are being created, as are the houses of the members, most of them self-built from materials on the farm.

Some of the structures are still pretty basic, though, like the cottages at the foot of the valley, where the hills narrow. To begin with, I seem to recall WWOOFERS were billeted there. That’s ‘Willing Workers On Organic Farms’, a global movement of people who offer their labour on organic farms in return for lodging and sometimes board.

But WWOOFERS are usually unskilled drifters, and soon those who came to Berg-en-dal were being billeted in even less salubrious accommodation, and the cottages became the farm’s rental accommodation. And so this is where I was put up.

It feels very remote there. In the evening, when the sun dips below the hills, you can imagine yourself the survivor of an apocalypse, making do with things scrounged from the devastation. But this doesn’t mean you have to forego all modern conveniences. There’s a bath, for one thing; an outdoor one, nogal, which the locals call a ‘fire bath’.

“You must use the fire bath,” they all suggested, with enthusiasm. “Pour yourself a glass of wine, drink in the stars,” they said.

The tub is an old free-standing cast-iron patriarch, which you fill from a tank of rainwater upslope. You then make a fire in the clay kiln directly below the tub.

“There’s just one thing you need to be careful of, other than snakes, and that’s the fact that the bottom of the bathtub is going to get very, very hot. So before you sit be sure to place a tile in the bath, which we keep around for that purpose,” warned Mohammed Tahir Cooper, one of the farm’s founding members.

In preparation I bought a bottle of organic wine from the town Spar and, about an hour before sunset, I began preparing for my bath, a process which consumed far more energy than anticipated. For starters, I had to clear the mulch of acacia leaves out of the tub. Then, after filling the tub, I had to fish out the arachnid community that washed out of the hose with the rainwater. Next, I went foraging for wood – no easy task in a biome of shrub and succulent.

But finally I lighted the fire and opened the bottle of wine. About an hour later the water in the bath was tepid. About an hour after that it was pitch dark and the water was still tepid, but I had candles arranged at the corners of the bath and my enthusiasm was still high.

Eventually I decided it was now or never, tossed all remaining combustibles into the kiln, placed the tile mid-way down the tub, and climbed in. The tile was, of course, cool, and produced some very disagreeable sensations in my nether regions, since the water around it was now pleasantly warm.

The stars certainly were something to behold, and a fingernail of moon was rising over the peaks of the Klein Swartberge. But before long the temperature of the tile had risen to match that of the water, and then it exceeded it a little. Then, very quickly, like the panel of a space shuttle that’s just re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, the tile got very, very hot, causing me to thrust upwards.

Perched on the edge of the bath like a baboon treed by a puff adder, I pondered my predicament. Preparing the bath had cost me at least two hours of effort, and I had been in it for less than five minutes, and although the water temperature was perfect, how was I to now enjoy it without tanning my own hide? Then I recalled the rubber doormat on the other side of the cottage. It was the kind with a honeycomb pattern.

A quick moonlit streak later, and I was back in the bath, seated comfortably on the mat, once again enjoying the stars. But to be frank I wasn’t all that comfortable. Water had entered the hexagonal spaces of the mat and, trapped between the tile and my backside, these capsules began to boil, and I was forced to continually shift around.

Pretty soon the poaching of my backside had eclipsed my interest in the stars and I found myself once again perched on the edge of the tub, this time without any fight left in me.

I made my way indoors, dressed, and walked up the road to the communal house for dinner. It was an outdoors affair, with tree stumps and other hard surfaces for seats, and at some point it must have been apparent that I was in some discomfort, for smiles spread around the group and there was some tittering.

“How did you enjoy the fire bath?” asked someone, the corners of her mouth a battleground between politeness and mirth.

“Pretty damn fiery,” I said, and the group collapsed in hysterics, sending sections of spinach and feta pie to the ground.

Turned out nobody has ever really managed to master the fire bath.

* For more information on Berg-en-Dal, go to http://.berg-en-dal.co.za.