The first challenge of volunteering on a farm in a country you are not familiar with is getting there. As we were headed to Happy Toes Farm in Groot Marico, South Africa, we took the bus from Johannesburg and almost ended up in Botswana!
Somehow we got off at the right gas-station-in-the-middle-of-nowhere and Jeannine, the farm and volunteer manager, was there to pick us up.
Happy Toes stands on a piece of land of roughly 3 hectares, and when the owner – mysterious ex DJ Byron who was unfortunately away during our stay – first moved onto the land about six years ago, he lived in a teepee (or maybe a caravan, in which case the teepee came later… but there was definitely a teepee involved!) and spent the first two years mostly observing, planning, digging, and planting trees.
As a result, the place is very well set up and gets closer each season to fulfilling its potential for self-sufficiency, leveraging permaculture as a philosophy and set of techniques to get there.
There is a main common area – an open kitchen and fire pit – that is the heart of Happy Toes from a human, dog, and cat perspective. As far as the farm goes, however, its heart is the pond, dual dam, and canal system. Without water, nothing would happen.
Above the kitchen is a space for classes, whether it’s modules of the Permaculture Design Course (PDC) or yoga. In the back, two living spaces in the form of a small cabin and a caravan; a bottle deposit; rabbit hutches and worm bins; the compost toilet; and the water system.
The view from the kitchen gives onto the gardens, with the nursery and the “tunnel” (a mini greenhouse type setup which during our visit was exploding with bushes of various gorgeous types of lettuce) to one side. Just beyond lie the chicken coop and pig pens.
On the other side, by the driveway, are Byron’s cob and thatched roof house, two small cabins – one which we called home for the week – and a larger wood structure which was for storage but will hopefully become a dormitory for volunteers.
Another volunteer, Alixio, was on-site since a few months and staying for a year. His didgeridoo skills were surpassed only by his ability to withstand the sun and the cold without wearing shoes or a shirt! I tried to accept the cold and acknowledge it but still needed a sweater, scarf, and hat to actually be ok.
So what did we do during our week-long stay?
Farms are a wonderful mix of daily chores – checking on and watering seedlings, feeding animals, opening the tunnel up – and endless to-do lists. There is always something that needs fixing; seeds that need to be collected, cataloged, or planted; or a multitude of projects waiting to be taken on.
We transplanted lettuce, mustards, cabbage, and calendula seedlings from the nursery into garden beds, cataloged seeds (it felt like window shopping at Christmas), transferred chickens to a mobile coop and then chased chickens as they escaped in the process (oops), collected firewood… the list goes on. Francois also enlarged and improved the fire pit so multiple kettles, big pots, or grills could be used at once; convenient given how much time we spent by the fire.
We made delicious meals, too, learning a few secrets from Jeannine in terms of breakfast porridges, stews, and slow-cooked elements (the latter using a box full of hay, with a dent in it for the pot, and a pillow to put on top as a heat seal! See photos below, coming as soon as wifi allows it!).
My favorite discoveries were purple peas (an explosion of fresh and delicious flavor in your mouth), homemade spicy sauce (a perfect blend of chili, ginger, garlic, and honey), and pap with eggs for breakfast (think oatmeal made with maize flour and accompanied by scrambled eggs with herbs from the garden).
Over the weekend, Stephen – an IT architect turned farmer who lives on a neighboring farm – and Jeannine ran Module 1 of the PDC and we were able to participate. Fascinating, incredibly complementary to all the reading and research we have been doing over the past year or so, and with very useful practical exercises. One involved building a herb spiral! Easy, fun, and my favorite application of the mathematical Fibonacci sequence to date.
Jeannine also introduced us to gardening yoga, something definitely worth looking into some more!
The night before we left we witnessed an incredible storm which started with thunder and lightning so close by that the lightning actually hit Jeannine’s wood-handled knife! Then came the hail, the wind, and the stunning play of light through the clouds. Sleeping under a metal roof made it sound like the skies were falling, but when morning came the earth looked refreshed rather than flooded and for once the dust seemed to be still.