Signs of life in the garden

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The Vastrap garden is slowly coming to life after a very cold and harsh winter. Things are taking their time though because we’ve had a few cold snaps over the past few weeks and it still hasn’t rained so there is little going on beyond the watered garden. The roses are in bud and a few are flowering, but the sweet and juicy flowers are very vulnerable to attack by grasshoppers and beetles since there’s so little else to eat in the veld. As always, the bottlebrush tree in our front garden is putting on a beautiful red display and I am thrilled to see the columbines doing so well in the shady spot I planted them last year. The artichokes are looking big and healthy, but unfortunately our usually robust lemon tree took a bit of a beating in the winter frost. I hope it will recover its former glory because I’m totally lost without a supply of lemons in the garden! My sweat peas all died during the winter, but the sweet smell of the flowering honeysuckle on the pool fence compensates a little. I planted some peony bulbs this winter and I’m very happy that most of them have come up and are growing. It’s early days yet, but I’m very excited to see what develops there.

We’ve only just started planting in the veggie garden because there is always a risk of late frost in the Eastern Free State. Last year I had terrible trouble with chickens digging up the seeds I planted and something eating all my seedlings. We’re trying to combat this by putting up nets this year, but I’m not sure if it will work. I’ve also planted more seeds in pots so that I can transplant them when they are more robust. The biggest problem at this time of year is keeping things watered properly in the hot windy weather before the rains come. I’m a bit disheartened about the veggie garden at the moment, because it’s never been as good as the first year it was established, but we’ll keep on trying. If all goes well we should have a good supply of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries during the season.

Things are fairly quiet on the farm while Quentin waits for the first rains to fall. That will signal the start of the crop season which is very busy, but for now we are taking the gap and installing some heating for our swimming pool. A few years ago my dad gave us a system of plastic pipes that are used to heat the pool water, but we’ve never installed them because it required a bit of work to set it up. Since I am desperate to swim with Livia this summer and our pool is usually very cold, I begged Quentin to do something about it. The team in the workshop have spent ages building a huge frame to instal the pipes on and it is looking good so far. I must say I didn’t realise what a big job it would be, but hopefully it will work!

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Cooking with Livia

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I spent the morning with my cooking club today and Livia came with for a change of scenery. There was a constant stream of entertainment as she was passed from one adoring aunty to another and showered with love by her godmother Vicky. She should be a junior Masterchef in the making with all the food loving ladies she spends time with! With the temperatures rising, we decided to focus on a summer theme of salads and ice creams. I cannot think of many better ways to spend a Friday, cooking with friends, eating good food and delicious ice cream!

Heidi and Vicky made some great dishes with cheese and pears – the one was a fresh pear wrapped in home made ricotta, drizzled with honey and served with caramelised onion focaccia, the other was poached pears stuffed with camembert ice cream. Wow, what a treat!

I made brown bread ice cream with a butterscotch sauce, which I saw in an old copy of Vogue Entertaining and Travel from 1999. I’ve been doing a major spring clean at Vastrap which has led me to rediscover many gems that have been gathering dust under counters over the past few years. These magazines are such a treasure trove and I’ve dusted off all the summer ones to use this season. To be honest, brown bread ice cream doesn’t sound like it has much going for it, but the bread crumbs are toasted and caramelised in sugar, which makes it crunchy and delicious. Click HERE for a great recipe and serve it with some butterscotch sauce. Lucky for Quentin, I’ve come home with a whole tub full as there was so much to taste that we hardly made a dent in it. Wishing everyone a very happy weekend!

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Assessing the damage

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Last Sunday, the afternoon we returned from our holiday, a fire started on the mountain behind Vastrap. It is peak fire season in our area and everyone will be on high alert for the next month or two until the summer rains come. The veld is extremely dry and dusty and the smallest spark can set things off. Strong winds add to the danger. Of course we are happy that it’s spring, but until it rains the drab brown landscape and hazy air makes it hard to get too excited.

Thankfully the worst of the fire was on the mountain and there happened to be no wind for two days, which made it easier to control. At one point my parents-in-law panicked that their house might be in danger as the flames neared the trees behind their property, but with the help of our neighbours and the fire department who went above and beyond to come out to us at 9pm on a Sunday night, the fire was contained. In the end we lost about 200ha of grazing, but we don’t use this part of the farm often because there’s not enough water for the animals up there and no trees for shelter from the heat.

With Livia in a sling, we traversed the length of our mountain property this morning until the stone fence post which forms our boundary with three other farms. It was very crunchy underfoot and our legs were black by the end of the walk. The dogs had a ball, but they all needed a bath when we got home! Amazingly, there are already green shoots coming up only a week after the blaze. It will be interesting to see how quickly the veld rejuvenates after a bit of rain. Our thoughts are with all the other farmers that have been and will still be affected by bad fires this year.

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Pass the parcel!

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We’ve just returned from a two-week overseas trip to Venice and Istria in Croatia. It was a big family affair organised by my step-father, Charles in celebration of his 70th birthday. There were 22 of us including kids and babies! I was slightly apprehensive to travel with a 7 month old, but my fears were completely unfounded. It was an absolute joy to have Livia with us, made all the more special by the fact that she could spend some real quality time with her grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins and her sister Ashley. The kids had an absolute ball and Livia was happy to be dragged along wherever we went. She explored new food and the joys of gelato; discovered her little boy-cousins Tom, Ollie and Alexander; and seemed to love being passed from one adult to another, especially her granny Sussie, her aunty Hannia and her cousin Sibella. She turned 8 months old towards the end of the trip and since we’ve got home her development curve has just skyrocketed! It’s such a joy to watch.

One of the hardest things for me living on the farm is the fact that my closest family don’t live 5 minutes’ drive away, as they have done for most of my post-university life. It is so important to me that Livia has a good relationship with all of her grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins and that she should feel totally comfortable and relaxed in their company. The kind of family time we just spent together is invaluable to cement these relationships and I’m incredibly grateful for it. Here are some of the photos showing what a trooper she was and how much my precious little girl is loved by everyone. A very big thank you to Charles for bringing us all together in such special places and facilitating some very happy family memories. xx

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Mandela Day deferred

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It’s taken us over a month to complete the project we started in celebration of Mandela Day on 18 July – to create a study/play room for the farm kids living at Vastrap. Instead of 67 minutes, we worked on and off for 35 days and it all finally came together yesterday! This being the year after Madiba’s death and the year we celebrate 20 years of democracy in South Africa, we wanted to do something extra special. Children and education were two things very close to Madiba’s heart so we thought this would be a fitting tribute, but at the same time also very necessary to improve the lives of the kids living in our community.

Over the past year Quentin has employed a dedicated team of builders to upgrade our staff accommodation and facilities. As part of this project, a large new ablution facility was built and an extra room was added on for the purpose of housing temporary workers we employ for specific projects, such as sheep shearing and fence mending. At the back of our minds we also thought the room could be used as a homework room for kids since they often don’t have a quiet place to study. In the meantime, having a new baby myself, I also became more aware of the little pre-schoolers who don’t have much to do in the day. My right-hand man in the garden, Tseliso has a 1.5 year old daughter and there really is no place for her to go until she turns 6 or 7, which is unacceptable given the importance of early childhood education in cognitive development. There are about 50 kids living on our farm with their parents and grandparents, ranging from 1 year to 18 years of age.

As Mandela Day approached, I became more convinced than ever that we needed to do something for them, but I knew that I couldn’t do a proper job without help. New toys are ridiculously expensive and there’s no way that I could’ve bought enough things to fill a playroom. After Quentin generously agreed to move out the workers and to allow us to set up the room for the children, I sent an appeal to friends in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein to ask their kids to spend 67 minutes clearing out their playrooms of things they didn’t need. Well, we shook the tree and were overwhelmed by what fell out! We did two trips to Joburg with cars packed full of things plus a trailer for bigger things. Then we had to take the bakkie to Bloemfontein to collect a whole lot of furniture and toys from friends there. It really was amazing!

After the craziness of our auction passed, I had time to go and look for second hand furniture to use as storage and desks for the older kids to work at. I found an amazing shop in Ladybrand that had everything I needed at affordable prices. I got some blackboard paint and dedicated yesterday to putting it all together with the help of our builders, Tseliso and Livia’s nanny Matshepang who also has two young boys. We had such a lovely day creating order out of initial chaos! Unpacking all the boxes we found a treasure trove of books, puzzles, lego, blocks, colour books, exercise books, games and toys for little kids. We connected a DVD player to the existing TV and set up the radio. We also were able to create a nice chill out space using two beautiful beds we were given. We will keep all our recycled paper from our office and make sure there is a constant stock of pens and crayons. It was a cold and rainy day, but the large windows made the room feel bright and cheerful. Livia joined in the action and the little kids just watched in awe as the whole thing unfolded. They were totally overwhelmed and I don’t think they really understood that this is their room now. I left before the school-going kids got home, but I’m sure they’re going to have a great weekend exploring and hopefully studying too! I cannot thank everyone enough who helped make this a reality.

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Time flies when you’re busy!

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Over the past two months all our energy has gone into the organisation of last Friday’s Vastrap Boran Auction. It’s the second year that we’ve held the sale on our farm so the workload was slightly less than last time, but still very demanding. I was in charge of all the marketing and entertainment logistics while Quentin took care of all the animal preparations. The weeks leading up to the auction are full of lists that need to be ticked off systematically and lots of stress about who’s going to come and whether there’ll be enough buyers! Quentin and I work really well as a team though and it was very satisfying to see everything come together on auction day. Click HERE if you’d like to see some photos from our website.

While all of this was going on, our little Livia has continued to grow and thrive. I can’t believe she is 7.5 months already! She is becoming a real little person with a very inquisitive mind. She loves to sit quietly and observe the passing scene, but she’s also becoming more vocal making new sounds every few days. She was very much part of the auction action, observing all of our frenetic preparations and joining in the fun on auction day. She was an absolute angel and was fascinated by the animals and very happy to be passed from one adoring aunty to another!

Speaking of aunties, my sister Beatrice came to Vastrap for auction week to help me with all the preparations. She is such a beautiful soul and a fantastic cook. She just took everything in her stride and quietly did what was needed – from whipping up the most delicious beef bourguignon and piles of yummy brownies, to playing with Livia and taking care of her bedtime routine. It was really wonderful to have her here and to witness the love between her and Livvy. Auntie Lesley, Quentin’s sister, also spent some time with us on auction day and she and Beatrice got on famously. What a treat to have such wonderful family time while we were busy working! We also loved the opportunity to socialise and get to know some of our fellow Boran breeders better. As much as we love our animals, the people really do add a wonderful dimension to our business and we really appreciated the effort people made to travel from far to be with us. Right now its impossible to feel anything but blessed!

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The Big Freeze!

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The past few days have definitely been the coldest of winter so far. Night time temperatures have plunged to -10 degrees Celsius for three nights in a row with an even colder real feel! This reminds me of the very first winter I spent time on the farm four years ago before Quentin and I were married. That was before the house had proper insulation, an Aga stove and a wood burning fire… a good excuse to huddle close together on the couch watching the 2010 World Cup (not that we needed one)!

While Livia and I stayed warm and toasty inside this morning, Quentin was greeted by these beautiful ice sculptures when he arrived at work. Very brave men indeed working outside today. I hope they can find a little patch of sun to warm their cold bones.

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