When Almarie Stander’s husband got appointed as a rhino monitor for Peace Parks Foundation in 2015, she had to give up her career and life in the city, and move to a secluded wildlife reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Changing from a duplex in the city to a tiny, off-the-grid cottage, Almarie had to let go of her modern day luxuries like drinking tap water, cell phone signal, indoor lavatories and express shops. Living rooms and dining areas were replaced by huge rocks and tree stumps around a camp fire.
Early in January, Almarie took me to her favourite spot int he Winterhoek mountains where we chatted about her adventures in the wild and how living so close to unspoilt nature has given her a different outlook and a new perspective on life.
DESCRIBE TO US WHAT YOUR HOME IN THE WILD WAS LIKE?
“I lived in several wild places. One of the most special homes was a tiny cottage on top of a hill, called Mhlologhazane. It was situated in the wilderness area of the Mfolozi Nature reserve in Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal.”
“I remember the first time Herman took me there. I opened the wooden door and when I saw how tiny the house was, I started to cry. I thought, “how am I going to raise a baby in this tiny house? What if a leopard jumps through the window and eats him!” Ha ha! That was before settling in, and falling in love with the place.”
“Our tiny cottage was entirely off-the-grid.
Two solar panels provided just enough electricity for charging our laptops and turning the lights on at night and some other odds and ends.
We collected rainwater for washing, but we had to bring drinking water from the main camp, which was 40 kilometres away on the other side of the park. The stove and refrigerator ran on gas. We bought a 4×4 vehicle just before moving there, since the road up the hill was quite a challenge.”
“The little square house looked like a Lego house. Built from huge bricks that were painted green. It had a veranda in front, overlooking our boma (outside fireplace), and a cliff on the North Western side. At night, you could hear the tribe of lions on the banks of the White Umfolozi river in the valley down below or the hyenas laughing towards the South. When we had to move to another spot on the reserve, I cried for two weeks straight, mourning the loss of that special place. It was as if a part of me had been lost forever.”
DESCRIBE TO US WHAT A NORMAL DAY WAS LIKE IN THE BUSH VELD.
“Life on that hill was much slower. I loved starting my morning routine watching the family of baboons setting out on their daily excursions. They had a surprisingly consistent daily regimen. Some bigger ones would jump from tree to tree, keeping a watchful eye while the rest of the pack scampered up the hill, past my window. They were so used to the house on the hill, they didn’t even pay attention to me staring at them. At about five in the afternoon they would all come “back” past our house and settle on the cliff for the night, which was about 500 meters from the house. You could literally hear the family commotions.
Little ones being ushered on, some adults scowling at naughty young ones… They seemed to also experience suicide hour like human families do.”
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY HAS BEEN THE BEST THING ABOUT LIVING THIS WAY?
“Living in complete wilderness and experiencing an ecosystem as close to nature as it gets. Getting to know all the plant names and starting to recognise birds by their song. Having such a small footprint and needing so little…
When you live like that, you don’t care about material things, like what your house looks like, what type of car you drive, the brand of clothes you wear… Life is simple. You don’t need much. There’s not much you can or want to spend your money on. You really become mindful of daily things like preparing a meal, how long the fresh groceries will last, having enough drinking water, is there enough battery power for a quick vacuum or machine cycle… Grateful for the direction of the wind (wonderful when blowing in a northern direction, when it creates a drag inside, but less so when coming from the South-West when sitting on the little veranda was impossible and the house became too hot.) I remember one day during March or April.
I had to flee indoors to escape the hot wind.
Inside it was so warm, I took off all my clothes and sat naked on the bed, working. The fact that I was 4,5 months pregnant, didn’t help much either.
HOW HAS LIVING REMOTELY LIKE THIS, CHANGED YOUR PERSPECTIVE?
“The most humbling part of this living experience was taking a “bath” at night. Herman would heat a pot of water on the gas stove, and we would bath in a 10 litre bucket. Me first, and then him. I was surprised at how little water one actually needs to get clean and quite ashamed of the amount of water we used back when we used to shower or bath in the city. Whatever was left, I would take outside and give to the Malvas flowering under the bathroom window.”
“We had to get used to buying in bulk and living off whatever lasts, as shopping happened only once about every three to four weeks in the town of Ulundi, which was 80 km away. Suddenly, I realised how ironically “safe” I was living in the wilderness versus living in the city. We never once locked our door… although it had to be kept closed at all times to keep snakes and scorpions out. Today, whenever I see a pipe or hose lying around, I get a bit of a fright, thinking that it might be a snake.”
“Instead of killing insects and spiders, you get to know them quite intimately. You become grateful for the critters who keep the mosquitos under control. Even the rare poisonous spider is ushered off with a feather duster. You’re very much aware of the “balance” within this ecosystem. Taking or using only what you need and respecting where it comes from.”
WHAT HAD BEEN THE HARDEST ADJUSTMENTS FOR YOU, IF ANY?
“The hardest part was not being able to see friends or other human beings on a daily basis. Living remotely can be quite lonely. One also finds oneself walking up and down your fence line, hoping to spot something interesting. This is where I learned to look closely. I started recognising the smallest things, like the little ant high-ways and new Tamboti tree saplings growing amongst the Natal red grass and red bush willows. I also realised that the elephants don’t talk back, and neither does the sac spider on the window sill. Perhaps I just didn’t yet know how to really listen to what mother nature was whispering to me.”
“Sometimes the silence was so overwhelming that you could hear yourself talking to yourself inside your head.
I found it weird at first having a curfew at 5pm & 6am. All daily excursions had to be planned around gate opening and closing times. The whistling nightjars calling one home at sunset… You become very much aware of what time the sun says goodnight and when the Impala ram snorts at his harem. I didn’t leave the reserve much apart from travelling to Johannesburg once a month for work. The city visits gave me some well-needed social interactions, but it also made me very aware of the big gap between nature and human settlements.”
HOW WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE OF LIVING IN SUCH SECLUSION AND SO CLOSE TO NATURE IMPACTED YOUR LIFE TODAY? DO YOU LOOK AT LIFE A LITTLE DIFFERENTLY NOW?
“Most definitely. Living like that has changed me in so many ways and for the better. Even though I had always loved nature, I somehow felt removed from it. Living in the wilderness has re-awakened the wild within me. Not only did I become more aware of the impact I had on planet earth, but also what impact wild places had on me. How it feeds the soul and revives the spirit. Mother nature has always been welcoming and non-judgemental. She loves unconditionally, gives in abundance and asks little in return. This is the kind of mother I wish to be for my children. This is also the mother I want to protect and preserve for my grandchildren.”