Thursday, February 25, 2010

I had a Farm in Africa

Cara’s question about fixer-uppers inevitably reminded me of the fixer-upping I was involved in with my partners last year.

It was like this. Three of us share a thatched house with a deck overlooking the Olifants (Elephants) River. The bungalow is one of eighty such units which are scattered throughout a private game reserve which borders the Kruger National Park. Since there are no fences, it essentially is the Kruger National Park as far as the animals and other creatures are concerned. Thatch is a beautiful and clever roofing material widely used from Cape Dutch times and still common today. The high peaked roofs allow hot air to rise which keeps the house relatively cool. Often there is a loft with windows to let the hot air escape. Thatch does have its disadvantages however. One is that it wears out and has to be replaced every twenty years or so. Another is that insurance companies don’t like it.
                                The view from the deck
The house used solar power for lighting. There is plenty of sun in that part of the world and solar is attractive since it is both free and green. Unfortunately it couldn’t run appliances like stoves and water heaters. For this we used gas. Any cook will tell you about the desirable features of gas, but it has an undesirable aspect when in close proximity to thatch.

No one is quite sure what happened, but we know one partner left the gas bottle switched on when she left the unit to come home to Johannesburg. This was a mistake, but it shouldn’t have been a disaster. But one of the appliances must have been left on also. Such things have pilot flames. And cooking gas is denser than air so it sinks to the floor and forms a gas lake. If the bungalow had been open, the gas might simply have dissipated. But in the closed up house, the lake slowly filled until it reached the flame...

People in a bungalow across the river heard the explosion which was followed by a fireball rising from the thatch. And thatch is really just dry grass. The staff at the game reserve did their best to save the house, even taking risks to save a few pieces of furniture and the like. But by the next morning nothing was left except ash and the bare, burnt walls.

I remember hearing about it while at dinner meeting. I thought it was a bad joke or some confusion with a minor accident. But on receiving a second call, I realised it was true. The bungalow that had withstood two record floods was no more. It wasn’t really a fixer-upper; we had to start again from scratch. A new design, new features, a new fight with the insurance company, and NO gas. But the new house rose. I think we’ll call it Phoenix.

                                                        The new bungalow

                                                       Sunset in the river
There is a sequel to the story. When we were there last December a unit was struck by lightning. The owners were in the reserve but not at the house. We knew just how they felt as they heard of exploding gas bottles and a brand new land rover consumed in the flames. Two houses burning down in a year was extraordinary.

And, oh yes, our insurance premiums went up.

Michael - Thursday


  1. Oh, that's sad! But the replacement looks wonderful.

    SA is ramping up solar hot water companies and has one of the first (of not the very first) companies to manufacturer roofing tiles from recycled plastic bottles.

  2. Thatch was the roofing material of choice in Ireland at a time when peasants and the poor, the absolute majority of the people, had no other choice. Straw was one thing that was always available.

    Now, or at least before the economic debacle that killed off the Celtic Tiger, the Irish went back to simpler times when they built their getaway homes in the countryside. The interiors were odes to conspicuous consumption but the exteriors suggested the days of the one room shanty with the pig in the parlor.

    (I am not being derisive of the Irish. The term usually suggests that the Irish were only one step above farm animals. However, if anyone was rich enough to own a pig, they kept it inside to prevent it being stolen and the animal provided extra warmth to help the family survive. Later, the Lace-curtain Irish, mindful of their ancestry and wanting to hide it, suggested that keeping a pig in the parlor brought good luck. Perhaps they were referring to the fact that the "pig in the parlor" could become the pig on the kitchen table).

    Another connection from your story to Ireland is phoenix. Phoenix Park is less than 2 miles outside the center of Dublin. The home of the president of the Republic of Ireland is in Phoenix Park. There are two stories of how the park got its name. In the 12th century the land was given to a religious order who built a hospital there. Then Henry VIII took all land away from Catholic organizations and the land reverted to the crown. It was given back to the Irish with the establishement of the Irish Free State in 1922. The name suggested the rise of the nation from the ashes of the old country that had been destroyed by the English.

    The second story, equally possible, is that "phoenix" is a corruption of an Irish Gaelic term meaning "clear water". That, as anyone who has seen the River Liffey knows, is a misnomer in today's Dublin.