Coco’s Year in the Wars

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I might not have a baby, but I have Coco. My gorgeous moanie groanie hound dog puppy. She turns 1 tomorrow. Happy birthday Coco!

Coco at 3 months.

Coco’s had an eventful first year. In fact, it’s a miracle she’s made it this far with all the trouble she gets herself into. She has big ears. But they are just there for show. They only work when she feels like listening.

Little Miss Moanie Groanie

At the end of her first week with us she almost had her head bitten off whilst trying to eat out of Paris’ bowl – our 60kg blind Boerboel (see A Few Words on Pet Names).  There started the first of many hair raising car trips to the town vet 17 kilometers away. It’s amazing she was okay. Look how tiny she was compared to that big dog!

Meeting Patch and Tumi for the first time.

Less than a month later, while I was in Paris on a business trip, she devoured a tub of bright blue rat poison whilst sniffing around one of our storerooms. Fearing my wrath, Quentin made it to town in under 10 minutes and once again, the lovely vet fixed her.

At five months, she was out on the farm with Quentin and the other dogs one Friday morning. One thing led to another and crunch, she was under the back wheels of the bakkie. What a panic! Poor Quentin, he felt so bad. At the vet we discovered that her tail and pelvis were broken and she was admitted over the weekend for observation. Bed rest for a puppy is no joke and we had to construct this 1m x 1m cage to keep her contained. Poor baby, just look at her! Fortunately she was still growing because she made a full recovery.

Don’t let me go near those car wheels ever again!

I worried that her tail would never stand upright again, but it did!

Queen of the mountain!

She grew and thrived and became more confident in her milieu. She has no fear of cows and amuses herself for hours chasing meerkat and barking at the sheep near the house, in true hound dog style. But the day came when she encountered a rinkhals (spitting cobra) and it spat in her eye… another mad rush to town! After cleaning it with milk and water her eye was fine. Phew!

A boring rainy day inside… think I’ll just eat this dried mealie.

Thinking that she is getting grown up now I stopped worrying so much. But then last week she came in from a long run in the rain and started acting funny. After giving her a bath to rinse off all the mud (because she can’t help but lie on my down-filled scatter cushions) she started to throw up. After about an hour she became disoriented and lost her balance. She was groaning and moaning and drooling. She looked very sick. At 8pm I called the vet and got into the car in the rain. He agreed that she was not well. Had she had her rabies shot?

Miss Miserable in a familiar spot.

After a night of rehydrating at the vet, I was told I could fetch her. The prognosis: Garbage Disease. I kid you not. Garbage Disease! From something she ate whilst scrounging in the dustbins or goodness knows where on the farm.

I don’t know what the next close shave will be or when she will use up her nine lives, but it has certainly not been a boring ride so far. I love you Coco! Please make it through the next year in one piece.

My favourite spot on the back of the bakkie howling at the cows!

Happy Winter Cattle

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In winter it’s crucial to make sure the cattle are well fed and getting enough nutrients in their diet especially after the dry summer we had. The quality of the grass deteriorates rapidly through the winter months and water becomes more scarce. Most of the cows are pregnant at the moment so the bulls are taking a rest except for one or two that have been left with the herds to make sure the cows are all covered.

Each herd gets visited twice a week to make sure they have enough food and to top up their salt supplement (salt, phosphate, maize meal and minerals).

Filling up the salt for this herd of Angus cows.

They love the salt and usually come running when they hear the car.

We love going out on a Sunday afternoon with the dogs to check on the animals. We’ve been away a lot over the past month so today was actually a real treat. We were very lucky to have a good downpour of rain over the past two days. This will help to tide the dams over for the rest of the winter and give a boost to the new grass shoots in spring.

The cows are also put in camps of green feed (oats) to supplement their diet. I love the contrast of the bright green fields against the dead brown veld in the distance.

Oats planted as green feed for the cattle contrasts with the dead veld in the distance.

For some reason the dogs also love eating the oats.

While we were out Quentin tried to take some photos of Hero, one of his Boran bulls. The sun came out just at the right moment and made the most gorgeous light. It usually requires a lot of time and patience to take a good photo of a cow or bull especially when the dogs are around. Not sure if he succeeded!

Impromptu photo shoot with Hero.

Hero’s not too interested in posing for the camera!

Sunday morning babalas breakfast

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What to do when you were up very late on a Saturday night with good friends?

Wake up late. After coffee and rusks in bed, stoke up the AGA and take a walk to the chicken coup. The fresh air will do your groggy head good. If you are lucky there will be some eggs to collect. Now don’t be  greedy. Take as many as you need and leave the rest behind for the hen to incubate. They should look something like this…

Fresh from the coup.

Chop up some baby tomatoes and mushroom. Add fresh thyme, parsley olive oil, salt and pepper. Pop into the top AGA oven for 15 minutes. Lay bacon on a tray and place in the same oven until slightly crisp.

Heat a pan on the AGA simmer plate. Add butter and scramble egg mixture. Be careful not to overcook as the plate can be very hot!

Quick scrambled eggs on the simmer plate. 

Toast some left over ciabatta bread from yesterday’s soup lunch. Spread the toast with butter, put it on the tray with the bacon fat and place in the hot AGA oven for a minute until the butter melts. Serve with tomato chilli jam.

Look at the colour of those eggs!

I’m no food stylist, but I think the colour of those eggs speaks for itself. And they taste as good as they look. Babalas cured!

Remotely challenged: 10 tips on working from home

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Today was one of those days. It was pouring with rain. It was cold. There was no internet. Not an uncommon occurrence in our neck of the woods. If it’s not the weather it is baboons wreaking havoc with our wireless mast up on the mountain or thieves stealing the battery and solar panels that power the mast.

It can be challenging working from home under the best of circumstances, never mind the disruptions to wireless, sporadic cell phone reception and the Telkom line does not cope very well when it rains or is windy. Not to mention the frequent power outages that can last a whole day.

Here are the 10 things I’ve learned to help me cope and remain reasonably productive working from home.

  1. Make sure you have a good view from the window. It’s soothing rather than distracting, but some days the view is better than others.

    The view from my desk in late Autumn. A white bellied sunbird feasting on resplendent red hot pokers.

  2. Activate your internal firewall against Facebook and blogging during the day (please share any ideas on how this can actually be done… I’m not winning. The only thing that seems to help is if the internet is out!)
  3. Make sure the animals are happy. Unhappy pets can be a distraction, especially if the only spot the cat can get warm is on top of your laptop… if it’s cold give her a nice warm spot to sit in front of the fire. Let the dogs in if they are going crazy about the lightening outside… but in this case you are probably not working anyway as there’s unlikely to be electricity or wireless.

    Happy warm pets mind their own business.

  4. Keep earplugs handy for when calves are being weaned. They cry incessantly and loudly for their mothers for 48 hours which can deprive you of sleep and be a distraction.
  5. Don’t live and work at home for 8 months on a building site… it takes years off your life and is extremely unproductive for anything other than building. Trust me on this one.
  6. Keep a 3G card handy. If the wireless stops working don’t panic. Get in the car with laptop and drive 3 kilometers to the nearest GPRS or 3G signal and download and send urgent emails. If necessary sit in the car and work until it’s done. Ignore people that drive past and stop to enquire if something is wrong. If there’s a lot to do, drive 17 kilometers to Living Life Station Café and set up shop there for the day. The coffee is great and David will welcome you with open arms, a big smile and an extension cord to get you set up.
  7. Always keep your laptop fully charged and plugged in to deal with unexpected power outages. That way you can at least carry on working for another two hours or so until the battery dies. If that’s not enough drive to Living Life and carry on working for the day, but first find out if they have power.
  8. Buy a gas stove so that you can at least have a cup of tea during the day if the electricity goes out. Whatever you do don’t try to power the coffee machine with an old farm generator… you don’t want to know.
  9. Keep warm. When I read back on my Facebook posts from last year I feel so sorry for me… I was constantly freezing! I remember a particularly bad day last autumn when the electricity went out for the whole day. We had no fireplace, no lights, no gas plate and no insulation in the house. It was truly miserable. Even Quentin felt sorry for me. Believe me when I say that working in an Eskimo suit is not comfortable and you cannot type with gloves on. Things seem to be going much better this year since we installed a fireplace, an AGA, under-floor heating, a gas stove, double glazing and ceiling insulation. I am warm and happy and Poepsie cat is no longer sleeping on my laptop.
  10. Get an I-phone and switch to the strongest network provider for your area. Since we converted in April we can now receive sms’s in our office and occasionally listen to voice messages. Best of all I can sit at my desk and do internet banking instead of driving out to the nearest reception to receive my one-time password. It’s a revelation! On wireless it’s also great to be able to FaceTime and Skype from our phones.

With these handy tips you should do just fine if you ever need to try it.

A Few Words on Pet Names

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Some of you have enquired about our cat’s curious name. No, I am not responsible for it. All of the pets except Coco were here already when I arrived at Vastrap.

Here are Quentin’s explanations for the names.

Tumi is short for Itumeleng a Sesotho word meaning “To Be Happy”. She is a 60kg Boerboel (a type of Mastiff). She is the oldest of the dogs (about 7 years) and the matriarch. She is very needy so she’s actually only happy when she gets lots of attention, usually with her heavy paw resting on your lap. Visitors to Vastrap are often accosted by “The Paw”. Sadly Tumi passed away from ovarian cancer in September 2013.

Tumi, Patch and Coco.

Tumi, Patch and Coco.

Paris is Tumi’s daughter. She was named after Paris Hilton… before my time so don’t even ask. She went blind about 3 years ago. Quentin is not sure why. It was either a rinkhals (spitting cobra) or a severe case of biliary (tick bite fever) which in very rare cases attacks the retina. The vet says it’s a miracle that she has adapted so well because normally when dogs go blind they are cast out of the pack and lose condition quickly.

A big strong head with lots of scratches.

Paris.

Patch is a Jack Russell. His name is Patch because he’s an entirely white dog with a brown patch over his right eye. He is the protector of the pack and very caring of his girls. He is Naledi’s dog.

Coco is my Beagle and the youngest of the pack. She is 2.5 years old and had her first litter of puppies in August 2013. We affectionately call her Coco Pops or Skaramanga when she choses not to listen to us with her big ears.

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Hope is Coco’s daughter from her first litter. She had 5 babies and we decided to keep one. She is a real character and I can’t wait to see her personality blossom. She is named after one of our most well-known Boran cows, Hope MHB 04-04 who was the poster girl for our first auction on the farm which coincided with the birth of the puppies.

Little Hope.

Little Hope.

Poepsie cat is named so because she was previously owned by a Scotsman living in Maseru. He called her Puss Puss. Quentin didn’t think that name would translate well into Afrikaans (if you have an Afrikaans friend ask them why). He adapted it to Poepoe and then it became Poepsie. She loves her name especially when I call her in a relatively high pitch tone and pronounce it “Poooe-ps!”

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So there you have it. Our Vastrap menagerie.

The magic of AGA

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Because it’s winter… because we only lit her this week… because my porridge is busy bubbling on the stove… and because I love her SO much I simply must document the history of our AGA stove.

Kettle on the boil for the first cup of tea!

Since October last year the house at Vastrap has undergone a complete transformation. The biggest change has been the kitchen living area and one of the best additions has been our beautiful anthracite fired AGA stove. There is something about an AGA that conjures the romanticism of farm life. One simply has to have one. Especially in an area like ours that gets extremely cold in winter. The reality, however, is that most farm houses do not have AGA’s anymore. The traditional old ones were hard to manage, made a big mess and were slowly displaced when electric stoves became fashionable. So imagine my disappointment when I arrived at the farm to no AGA….

When we started discussing the kitchen renovation I pleaded with Quentin to find me one. Fortunately his sister Lesley had an old one standing in her garage on her farm, which is about 20 kilometers away from us. Lesley and her husband Gary moved to Mauritz about 5 years ago but before that the house had been empty for decades while Bill farmed on the lands. Quentin can never remember anyone living there so they must have left in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The AGA had been standing abandoned and unused in the garage since then… can you imagine such a beautiful thing treated so badly!

Lesley and Gary very kindly gave us the stove as they had decided not to use it in their house. We were very excited to go and fetch it, but when it got to Vastrap we realised with shock that it was in a very bad state of repair. Full of rats nests, all rusted and the paint peeling off. Stupidly I didn’t take a photo of what she looked like then. I think I was too stressed about the mad rush to get the kitchen finished before our Christmas visitors arrived!

I quickly went to work to find someone who could help us. The AGA was an integral part of our kitchen design so I was determined to fix it. I got in touch with a woman from Pietermaritzburg  called Emmie who travels around the country with her husband Morris servicing anthracite stoves. Given my general experience with building I thought it would take months to get this done, but to my surprise Emmie and Morris arrived a few days later, loaded the AGA onto a trailer and delivered it back fully restored within 10 days. It was the best service I’ve ever experienced… but as Quentin likes to remind me it did come at a price! It was worth it though and we were thrilled with her new look.

The problem is that these stoves weigh tonnes… the following photos show how we used the strength of 9 men to get her into the house and into position.

Morris undoing the straps on the trailer. The bags of sand are poured in afterwards for extra insulation.

Heave ho there we go!

Negotiating a tricky corner.

She isn’t going anywhere now!

In her place with the chimney section kept open so that we can access it for her once a year service.

Of course this was done in December and we didn’t need to light her until winter in June. So we just admired her instead and finished the renovation around her.

Finishing touches… the chimney is covered with panels of old metal pressed ceiling that we sanded down and painted.

On Sunday when Quentin and I returned from being away we decided to take the plunge and light her. Everyone had said it would be difficult, but Quentin made it look like a breeze. The next day she was warm and cosy and gorgeous. I just had to put a kettle on to boil to see her in action. And then yesterday I simply had to boil some eggs for lunch and then just to make sure she was working okay I left a pot of lamb stock simmering the whole day… imagine that heavenly aroma. And again this morning I simply  had to make some porridge. So I can happily confirm that she is indeed working, but I haven’t made bread or cooked anything in the oven yet… it’s only a matter of time though!

Hot coals burning bright.

Farm eggs on the boil for lunch and lamb stock on the boil just because.

Poepsie cat definitely approves of this big new heater in the house. I bet she would even climb into the oven if I let her!

Poepsie cat approves of the new spot.

Inspecting the ovens… the top one is the hot oven and the bottom one is more like a warmer drawer.

Welcome to my world!

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Hi everyone,

The past 18 months has been a period of immense change and adjustment for me. I have moved from my comfort zone in the city to an entirely new life living on a farm with my amazing husband Quentin. I can happily say that I’ve enjoyed every minute so far and look forward to growing into and becoming more accomplished in my new role as farm wife.

Of course, I’m not a typical farm wife… I don’t get anywhere near cow dung (except if it is dry and being added to my garden)… I’m hopeless at opening farm gates… I don’t dig or hoe or fix machines… I can’t speak the local vernacular SeSotho and I don’t have a brood of children of my own yet. Mostly I just observe and learn and busy myself with the job of making a home for us. And when I’ve had enough of the quiet I simply get in my car and drive to the city where I still have a job as an economist and enjoy all the lovely luxuries that cities have to offer.

But what is luxury? Living on a farm has allowed me to appreciate very simple things in life. Time. Home made rusks. Making jam. Fresh flowers from the garden. Walking with the dogs. Sundowners in the veld with my husband. The quiet before sunset. Changing seasons.  Weekend visits with family and friends. The community of a small town. Every time I go away I appreciate coming home more. And I very much do see Vastrap as my home now.

Over the past year I have shared some of my experiences on the farm with friends on Facebook. Many people have followed my progress with interest and I am constantly amazed at the positive responses I receive. This is one of the great things of our age. The fact that you can be far away from anywhere but still feel connected, and loved and included. So I have been encouraged to start this blog as a more official record of my progress.

I have been following two other farm blogs over the past year. The most well-known is Pioneer Woman with Ree Drummond and the other is a more low-key blog of a farm wife in Western Australia called My Life in the Country. I haven’t seen anything like this for South Africa so hopefully I will have something to add even though I’m not an expert at much! It is surprising and comforting how similar our experiences across three continents have been and I can’t explain why I read these updates from complete strangers, but I do and I enjoy it.

So, welcome to my world and I hope you enjoy the journey with me!

M xx