Why you should care

This 10-day course in South Africa’s Amathole Mountains will make you totally rethink your place in nature.

“Look, I’m totally not their target market,” says hotelier and aesthete Jayson Clark, before describing how he didn’t immediately jell with the composting toilets, yoga sessions and sun salutations on the Reconnecting With Nature permaculture course. He signed up hoping for practical tips for making the community garden he founded more productive, but “by the end of the course, permaculture had become a lifestyle,” he says. “When I got home, I actually missed the composting loos.”

The 10-day course takes place at Terra-Khaya, a sustainable and totally off-grid backpackers’ lodge near the mystical forested hamlet of Hogsback in South Africa’s Amathole Mountains, two or three times a year. The syllabus, explains Shane Eades, the center’s “Earth guardian” and one of the course instructors, contains loads of practical info on topics like mulching, seedling production and organic gardening, but it also requires participants to reconnect with themselves on a deeper level.

Hogsback is a wooded wonderland of artists, hippies and hermits …

“The yoga and meditation made me more receptive to new ideas,” remembers veteran gardening journalist Kevin Beaumont, whose home garden is now “unrecognizable” a year after completing the course. Beaumont was also drawn to the lodge’s location — Hogsback is a wooded wonderland of artists, hippies and hermits wedged between the economically depressed apartheid-era “homelands” of Transkei and Ciskei — which brings permaculture’s anti-capitalist message into stark relief.

But Terra-Khaya’s not all about learning to create highly efficient self-sustaining ecosystems. There’s also a 10-day Building With Nature course and an annual tree-planting festival, which is hard work by day but “quite a jol” by night, says Eades, who also leads horse trails through the Amathole Mountains ranging in length from a couple of hours to four days.

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Participants learn the basics of mulching, seedling production and organic gardening.

Source Nick Dall/Ozy

Besides, the hand-built backpackers’ lodge — which can sleep 23 in beds and a lot more in tents — is an attraction in itself. Here you can simply splay out on a hammock with one of the resident cats, get involved in the daily operations (plant five trees in exchange for a meal) or disappear into the surrounding mountains, lakes and waterfalls for the day.

But back to the permaculture course, which Clark affectionately refers to as “hippie camp.” Led by Tim Wigley, who spends the rest of the year sharing natural farming principles with impoverished subsistence farmers, a typical day involves waking early — but not before the wood-burning “donkey” that supplies the showers has been fired up — and participating in some sort of meditative activity. Lectures happen after breakfast, when everyone’s still fresh, while the practical component of the course — anything from constructing a swale to attempting to persuade a subsistence farmer in the local township to adopt permaculture principles — takes place in the afternoons.

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Participants gather for lectures after breakfast — before the practical work begins.

Source Nick Dall/Ozy

After scrubbing up, everyone gathers for dinner. The mostly vegetarian and homegrown fare earned rave reviews from both Clark (who did admit to sneaking in salami sticks) and Beaumont (“Maybe it’s the air up there, but I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!”). And then it’s early to bed to rest up for another day of mind-broadening philosophizing and back-breaking manual labor.

Recent convert Clark describes permaculture as “a way of conning your plants into believing they’re growing in a real forest.” Since his course, he’s been frantically mulching and intercropping (planting loads of different things in the same bed) — and hardly ever weeding. He’s also constructed little paths everywhere to make the “no tread” and “no till” policies easier to enforce.

In 10 short days, you too could learn everything you need to know to transform your regular suburban garden into a fecund food forest.

HOW TO: RECONNECT WITH NATURE

  • Where: Terra-Khaya is 4 km from Hogsback, which is about a four-hour drive from Port Elizabeth. Map.
  • When: The next course is scheduled for Oct. 18–28, 2018. There are plans for two courses next year in February and October.
  • How much: The all-inclusive option ranges from R5230 ($435) per person (camping) to R8640 ($715) for a private room. Or you can do it for R3745 ($310) without accommodation, but including scrummy vegetarian breakfasts and lunches. Course info.
  • Hobbit country? While the longstanding rumors that J.R.R. Tolkien (who was born in SA) based Middle Earth on Hogsback’s otherworldly landscapes probably aren’t true, it’s easy to see why they came about.

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