Without the biggest fire of them all, that massive nuclear reaction that dictates all cycles and seasons on earth, the sun, we would not exist

I’ve spent a lot of time around fires in my life. From my first memories with my dad on the banks of the Breede River, cooking whole Kabeljou; to when I got married to my wife Eugenie and served up a spitted Greek style lamb with all the accoutrements (dips, salads and desert), prepared and cooked by friends, right down to filming contestants being put through their paces in 6 seasons of the Ultimate Braai Master

All these memories have a common thread. The river was where we renewed our family ties; our important day was more than a celebration of two newly-weds finding their feet with their friends; Braaimaster was about celebrating what we all love to do on weekends.  All of them were around a fire. All of them were social events.

Most of us have those fire memories, but I often ask myself why?  Why does the fire resonate with who we are?

If we look back on our time on Earth as a species, the use of fire was pivotal in allowing us to evolve. It represented safety from animals that had bigger and sharper teeth than we had; it allowed us to access food sources that were otherwise in-edible; it provided light on dark nights; protection from things that go bump in the dark; warmth…  and I believe that that those memories and needs are deeply ingrained in our DNA.

But what is it actually?

If we get down to the physics, Fire is a reaction between oxygen and some sort of fuel source. Add ignition, and there’s a combustion reaction that results in a couple of side reactions. The obvious one is heat, then incandescence (light) and there are a number of by-products, including ash and smoke. All can be defined by science, and all are critical for life on Earth.

Yes, there are a bunch of other questions posed by this combustion reaction; the difference between charcoal and wood, why one almost burns with no smoke; even the beauty and horror of fire in that it can be self-perpetuating as long as there’s a fuel source and oxygen (just think of the tragic fires that engulfed the George, Wilderness and Knysna areas).

 

Fire is essential for life on earth. Without the biggest fire of them all, that massive nuclear reaction that dictates all cycles and seasons on earth, the sun, we would not exist. Beyond creating the unique conditions that allow for all life on earth, there is a specific reaction between plants and this big fire. Plants convert the solar energy created by the sun into matter. It’s a magical process that give us the plants we eat, the oxygen we breath, the wood we build with and creates the soil that binds it all together.

In nature, fire is necessary. There are only three elements that break down plant matter and allow a phoenix like re-generation. The tooth and mandible are the obvious two. Creatures eat or break down plant matter into what will one day become part of a natural composting process that creates soil, but it is fire that is so important to release moribund matter that’s been converted by plants into organic matter. When fires burn, the minerals that are held in stasis, are released back to the earth for re-use in the form of ash. It’s a beautiful, harsh but necessary part of life on earth that I fully understand as a gardener and resident of Earth, but as a cook, I love what fire does to food.

The lamb chop that’s simply seasoned and kissed by smoke has an Umaminess that cannot be imparted to food in any other way. Like snowflakes, no two fires are the same, and like snowflakes, no two lamb chops and the ensuing social engagement around the fire are the same either.

Gathering around a fire and the ensuing braai takes us back to the cultural importance of fire. You can see it in the Rainbow Nation. We have 11 official languages and loads of ethnic groups, and we all gather around a fire. Whether it’s a Shisanyama joint in the townships, or in the heartland of the boerewors curtain or a mussel potjie on the West Coast, the cooking on fire brings our cultures together and allows us to firm up our friendship and family bonds, making us remember.

I often think that fire is encapsulated in the Afrikaans word kuier. Loosely translated it means visit, but it means so much more. It’s the word that describes how when we prepare food on the open fire, we create a social engagement that allows us to connect as a community and take a trip down memory lane to our forefathers of old.

So whether your man alone in the bush watching the African TV, are having a sunset braai with friends, are making stok-brood for the first time, are taking your children camping or are simply fighting the Winter cold with a roaring hearth, no matter where we’re from or our ethnic background – these fire memories remind us of who we are and where we come from.

I can only imagine that for our collective forefathers, fire represented a form of magic. What I do know is that this magic has translated across the millennia and is still true for all of us and is deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche.

We are a species that has a burn culture…

 

Recently I presented to a group of community members in the South Peninsula of Cape Town a plan to install a market garden on community land next to a school to both connect children to where their food actually come from and to service the community with fresh vegetables on a daily basis in their neighbourhood as part of the Neighbourhood Farm Pilot project

From the minute I arrived at the meeting, some uninformed and disconnected community members attacked me verbally.  They assumed, without facts, that I was there in a commercial capacity. That I had a secret agenda. That I was trying to hijack a public space for commercial gain. That my heart was rotten and greedy.

The level of distrust and lack of understanding was astounding and was a real test of my integrity and a lesson in how to bite my tongue. It was a sign of how broken the system actually is and critically how disconnected community members are to their own environment, where their food comes from and each other.

“The only reason people do not know much is because they do not care to know. They are incurious. Incuriousity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.”
― Stephen FryThe Fry Chronicles

My initial reaction was to be depressed. I came home to my wife and said that some days, I just feel like giving up. I couldn’t believe how a small minority of community members armed with animosity and no facts could leap to their own conclusions and whip up a frothy over their own lack of curiosity or need to know.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire those community members who fight for a better environment for their neighbours, who form action groups, neighbourhood watches and regenerate their neighbourhoods, but similarly, I also abhor those that are so narrow minded and so settled in their ways that they don’t see the tree’s for the woods.

For those community members who are incurious, I thought I should share the following piece I wrote for an American Magazine about the genesis of Neighbourhood Farms and why I think it’s so important.  Perhaps, it’ll help them to become allies.

 

  • Did you have an “ah ha” moment that sparked Neighbourhood Farms?

Neighbourhood Farm is the most important initiative I’ve undertaken in my life, and I’m afraid that there’s no short answer.

I was (and still am) filming a documentary about the last 350 leopards  that survive on the Cape Fold Mountains of Southern Africa. I kept coming across conflict between wild animals and domestic livestock farmers protecting their livelihood. The deeper I delved into the why, the more I realised that if I wanted to try and save the leopards from a regional extinction, my focus would have to be on that human created biome, the city, and her inhabitants for solutions.

A 100 or so years ago the earth had a largely rural population where the gap between farmer and consumer was minimal. In most cases, we were the farmer. Fast forward to current times and our mass migrations into the cities of the world for the perceived land of milk and honey and the gap between farmer and consumer has become so wide that it has created unforeseen and hidden problems for both the farmer and us.

We are no longer rural and no longer produce our own food. Farmers are the most important people in our lives, yet we don’t know who they are, and between them and us, there are a series of middlemen who’ve increasingly made the farmer so marginal, that farmers are being forced to use destructive short term solutions to deal with the threats to their financial wellbeing.

Farmers no longer have identity.

Instead of nurturing farmers, we’ve allowed the middlemen to turn these custodians of the land and its wild denizens into mass murderers on our behalf just so that we can tuck into a lamb chop or slather a slice of bread with butter.

There’s a cost to both us for this new arrangement that we don’t yet fully understand or comprehend.

Cities, the biome created by humans for themselves.

We now live in cities. But don’t know how to live in them. They’re a relatively new environment for humans and we haven’t evolved our thinking or implemented change fast enough to reduce their impact on wild and rural environments. To boot, we haven’t really looked at the cost to our wellbeing, nor how we maintain or regenerate  it.

Then there’s us. I’ve coined a phrase special phrase for us: The Forgetting Generation. The longer we live in cities, the more we forget. And it’s a terrible downwards spiral. Children grow up believing that food comes shrink-wrapped in polystyrene and can no longer relate to the living breathing animals that are slaughtered for the pot. We no longer bake our own bread or know our neighbours. We forget when we should be remembering, and as a result, we’re slowly losing our natural awareness and are increasingly becoming reliant on those that don’t have our best interests at heart.

If the city is the biome we’re going to choose to live in, we better learn how to live in them lightly, and fast, or suffer the consequences of a sterile and toxic future.

When I started looking at this multifaceted crisis there were a couple of epiphanies:  Whatever I did to help us remember would have to be managed, be financially sustainable, expandable, replicate-able, focus on children (and in turn their families and the broader community), create biologically diverse environments, regenerate the fringes of the urban landscape and most importantly, do good for all of us.

The rest was just connecting the dots…

Permaculture Draft plan for Kommetjie Primary

To best help children remember and become the agents of change for their communities, we largely  work with schools. We then use permaculture to design a short, medium and long term productive and regenerative plan for the entire school property.

Justin Bonello_Greenhouse

We must harvest rainwater, plant the rain, and plumb surplus rainwater back into the sanitation reticulation system.

Our first focus is water security. This is especially relevant to Cape Town as it’s become a food desert in the middle of the worst drought in living memory. It’s important to remember that wherever you grow food, there is a water cost, but only where you grow food, is their food security. Those naysayers that say we can ill afford to use water for agriculture in urban environments are truly short sighted. Instead of future proofing cities, they would prefer to jump on the water crisis bandwagon and imagine that using less water is a long-term solution. To mitigate our water usage, we use a number of proven techniques:  We harvest rain water for the permaculture plan, plumb the surplus rain water back into the school’s sanitation reticulation system and look at how to best plant the rain. Whether cities are in dry land environments, or are water rich – how we look at, use and conserve water should be an urban dweller priority.

Outdoor Classroom Design for Kommetjie Primary

Then there’s the outdoor classroom.  A space homed in a biologically rich environment where teachers can give children edible education. Where  an education syllabus can be brought to life. Geography, science, biology, even economics and mathematics – all have their roots in nature and the outdoors.

Finally, the project has at its heart market gardens that generate a small turnover to keep the project economically sustainable. This means we can pay for permanent employees from previously disadvantaged communities through the daily sale of nutrient rich, organic produce into neighbourhoods while re-connecting children to where their food actually comes from.

Myself and my daughter with the team at Metro Organics – a market garden in Noordhoek.

My hope… to claw back a balance between our needs and desires. That give children the tools and the right environment to break the cycle of disconnect and re-create a cycle of mutual respect and empathy  – where they can remember instead of forgetting.

That we get to know our neighbours and borrow that cup of sugar. That we re-create the cultural memory of our village. That we keep our economy local, and keep re-investing in ourselves and each other in our own neighbourhoods. That we change our urban living philosophy, and in turn, as we all start to remember and we re-empower the farmer, we might be saving the last leopards of the Cape Fold Mountains of Southern Africa.

  • Why is it important to bring working gardens to city neighbourhoods?

I don’t see Neighbourhood Farms as bringing working gardens into city neighbourhoods, so much as creating a network of urban farmers that re-create the village of our cultural memory. The trust and faith we’ve placed on the urban food supply chain is built on a disconnected system. We need to re-create a network of trust and accountability, that has as its primary focus the wellbeing of our neighbourhoods. Then there’s all the other positive spinoff’s: Social engagement, reduction in crime, nutrient dense produce available with a tiny carbon footprint, education of children… the list continues. I always say we need to learn to live in cities and believe that Neighbourhood Farms are key to this evolution.

  • What does working with soil, water, nurturing, growing and harvesting plants, etc., (the labour of tending a garden and seeing the rewards) teach you/help you realise?

Ultimately, growing our own food is primarily about sowing seeds to reap a regenerative future, but to understand the importance of growing my own food, of working the earth, I need to take a little trip down memory lane.

We spent hundreds of thousands of years being hunter / gatherers and by necessity, were very finely tuned to the natural flow and ebb of the ecosystems. A little over 10000 years ago, we domesticated animals and developed agriculture and this in turn allowed us to develop cities. The last 100 years of living in cities have made us un-learn that evolutionary IQ and made us the  forgetting generation.

Growing, nurturing and harvesting the fruits of your labour teach you about the intricate connections between what we eat and the natural ecosystems, the flow between the seasons, the importance of water.

At home, I have a 200m2 organic permaculture garden that not only provides my family with daily, nutrient dense produce (in the thick of the worst drought in recorded memory in Cape Town) – but helps me to remember, and more importantly makes sure that my children break the cycle, and don’t become the forgetting generation.

 

I’m finally proud to say that I became a Front Runner Pride ambassador earlier this year. Obviously, the Front Runner team wanted me to provide feedback and praise, but I’m always cagey when it comes to promoting gear! It’s easy to say ‘yes, I’ll be an ambassador…’ but does the gear actually work?

I drove to JHB to have Grunt (2011 Troopy Landcruiser, Diesel) outfitted. Some miracles from Jaco (fitting manager) and his team, and two days later, I was back on the road – heading for the Baviaans Kloof to collect some camera trap footage of Leopards – with roof racks, rooftop tent, awning, potjie pot holder, water tank and gas holder, sliding drawer system, nifty flat pack boxes and Fridge Freezer combo – all fitted and ready to be put through their paces.

 

What was clear from the get go was that the all the elements had been designed from years of overlanding experience. Firstly, there was no rattle or squeak. Might sound like I’m being obtuse – but if you do thousands of kilometers a year, that squeak, squeak, squeak, can drive you insane – and is a sure sign that something is wrong. Secondly, my new kit could take punishment. Mountain passes, corrugated roads, bad dirt roads, 4×4 routes – I might as well have been on tar. I stopped en-route (as you should), to make sure that nothing was shaking its way loose – to make sure that all the bolts and nuts we’re sitting solid and doing their job, 12023 kilometers later – I’m yet to have tighten a bolt. It’s those little details that make a huge difference to travelling….

The first trip, my mate, Richard Walker and I camped at Geelhout Bos (Yellowwood Forest) in the heart of the Baviaans. For those of you that haven’t had the privilege of doing the kloof –  it’s a must do bucket list item. Especially if you love the outdoors, and want to take your pavement hopper into the bush to do what she was built for.

That first night, I slept in my rooftop tent. Lots of people love 5 star experiences, me I’m more into million star experiences. To fall asleep at night surrounded by the cacophony of nocturnal creatures, the song of the frogs, the crickets, the leopards bark – to be so attuned to wild nature with just a canvas sheet between you, and the natural world is absolutely breath-taking.  In fact, if you can only afford two bits of gear when kitting out your baby – I’d go with the roof rack and rooftop tent every time. One, you get loads of extra load space. Two, to have a pop up roof over your head that can sleep two adults and two young children in comfort – is a godsend, not only for when I’m filming in remote places, but for when I take the wife and kids camping. I don’t mind roughing it up – but the missus likes to glamp. And you know what they say, “happy missus, happy life.”

Hooked and Cooked…

Next was a trip up the coast to film a pilot of a new show I’m working on. 8 guys, fishing gear, filming equipment, food – all the gear we needed – packed to the rafters in Grunt for three days of old school mates and fishing. The epiphany after this trip was that we no longer needed to have a base to film from. Grunt had become a mobile, self-contained filming machine. I could go anywhere, anytime, with all the whistles and bells, in style with all the creature comforts, and suddenly, those end of the road remote locations had all become possibilities without the slog of complicated logistics.

Recce…

Lastly, there was the 10 day recce for season 6 of the Ultimate Braai Master. Myself, Petarj (producer) and Andrew Faber aka slim Faby (director) travelled from Cape Town, through the winelands to Breede River, onwards to Wilderness and across to Uniondale –through the Baviaans Kloof up to Port Elizabeth, into the Wild Coast and back again. Besides a blow out on tar and having to deal with thieving monkeys at Rooihoek, I must add a very important note: If you want cold beer, plug in your fridge.

So there it is, 12023 kilometers and counting with my Front Runner Kit.

This is what I’ve learnt:

The lego-like mindset of the gear:  Add to, remove from, personalize. Front Runner’s kit is cleverly designed to make an outdoor experience amazing and is extremely user friendly.

Manuals: Might sound silly, but they now live in Grunt. So often, installers leave you in the dark and like that first time you take apart a watch and then try and remember how to put it back – the manuals make it easy to self-install or personalize your setup. In fact, I’d recommend that you install the gear yourself to get a proper handle on how clever the gear actually is.

The Braai Grid. What great idea! Just remember to clean it before hitting the dirt road, or it quickly becomes a greasy dust trap.

The campsite chairs: Clever, clever, clever. Solid. Robust. But initially took a while to figure out. My only bugbear is that they are quite heavy – and I’d love to see a water proof cover for them so that I can keep them on the roof rack and have more space for other necessities in the load space.

The fold out table. Love it. Except the wood used for the chopping board is lightweight, and being a cook, I’d rather see a heavier, less absorbent cutting board. Ply is good for weight, but not for slicing tomatoes.

The tables and washbasin: Part of my brief to the Front Runner fitment crew was that I didn’t want anything to go into the body of Grunt, so the tables were a revelation – they clip in under the roof rack and are easy to whip out for a quick picnic, or when you need a download station in the heart of the bush.

The awning: If you’ve ever been in the Karoo in mid-Summer – you know what I mean. To be able to sit in the shade, with a cool breeze blowing over you while the rest of the world is melting, is a god-send.

Aftersales service: One word. Legendary.

The sliding draw system:  Love it. Except that I sometimes want a go to box, of bigger items. So I’ve taken out two of the ammo crates and put my own go to box in. 

Thinks I’m still getting my head around:

Mainly from a space issue. I’ve got a great freezer fridge combo, but it sits in the back of the load space, and isn’t quite practical. This you learn after you try and get to those ice-cold beers after a long day of driving. I think what I’m going to do is take out the backseat, put in two single seats, and move the fridge forward so that it sits between the two back seats and the front seats. That way, there is always easy access to the goodies in the fridge.

Sadly, the cruiser has two wheel arches in the load space – this makes utilizing that space awkward. Front Runner has a great system whereby you can add shelving, to level off the space, creating a hold space, but I still feel like it is wasted space that could be better utilized.

The 12v system. Works a bomb, keeps the beer cold, provides light in the darkness, but doesn’t charge batteries, and when I broke a part – I had to hunt around for a replacement. Guess that’s my own fault though – I should’ve made sure I had spares…. Next, I’ll have to install a heavy duty inverter system for 220 volt power. Nothing kills the joy of being in a remote place like a generator running all night to charge camera batteries.

Locks. Travelling in Africa means there is always a chance of someone trying to help themselves to your kit. I found the that the holes provided for locking equipment off didn’t really leave space for a decent lock…. maybe something to work towards?

Suggestions to the Front Runner R&D team.

Some of the bolts and nuts were steel instead of stainless. I live close to the sea – and have had to use Q20 to loosen up the awning clips…

The Potjie pot mount: I found that over long trips, the potjie pot rusted, and some-times even got water in it. I’d love to see a waterproof cover for the potjie pot

What I still Need:

I’d like to extend the roof rack over the cab. I found that when you’re in the rooftop tent, you want a space to sit and admire the sunrise, without climbing down, and I certainly could do with the load space…

I’ve have another troopy, Donkey – a 1984 HJ47 ex-army ambulance that I’m busy restoring – and I know that the Front Runner kit would work like a bomb in her… but there’s a couple of months of painstaking work before this is a reality and that’s another story….