Polly Greeks is a writer whose first book, Embracing the Dragon, saw her clambering along the Great Wall of China. After a year in Northern Iraq she now finds herself living in a stand of Northland forest, helping husband James build their own home.
Words: Polly Greeks
From Issue 47
LIVING IN A CARAVAN is all very well when it’s just two of you but, as our baby’s arrival date loomed, people began to question how we were going to fit a newborn into our off-the-grid existence. James and I airily offered our reassurances. We’d travelled through Tanzania and seen the dozens of freshly laundered children who could spill from a single postage-stamp hut. Allowing for a mere 40 centimetres of additional human in our four-and-a-half-metre Oxford would be a breeze.
Then Vita entered our world and James and I suddenly discovered ourselves unwitting masters in human origami as we folded our bodies around her vast accompaniment of accessories. Our caravan, once as neat and snug as a yacht’s cabin, was now an overstuffed suitcase on wheels, overflowing with baby paraphernalia.
Outside on the building site our mudbrick house was still just a series of poles in the ground. To add the roof, we needed the trusses which were being made off site. “They’re coming,” our rumpty bush builder kept promising but, as weeks turned to months, we lost faith in his words. It’s true that time is of a different elasticity in the Far North but, with his predilection for mishaps and disorganization, our old builder seemed to be stretching it out ad infinitum.
In the meantime, I transformed the construction site into a giant clothes-line where long strands of nappies fluttered like oversized prayer flags on every fine day. Bent over the outdoor bath, scrubbing at endless laundry, I began to understand why pioneering women appear so grim in those early black-and-white photographs. Anyone who says hand-washing is meditative clearly hasn’t done enough of it. Before severity became a permanent feature of my own face, we bought a generator and a washing machine that is lovingly wrapped under tarpaulins when not in use.
It was coming into our second summer on the land so we purchased a two-roomed tent and spread into that during the warm months, learning to unzip the canvas door so stealthily our sleeping baby never stirred as we came and went. In the coolness of dawn and dusk we tended our garden, marvelling at the prolific tomatoes springing from their bed of composting possum. The trusses finally arrived and were craned into place and our baby then learnt to sleep to the lullaby rhythm of James hammering in hectares of ceiling sarking.
When the roof went on, more than a year behind schedule, we stuck the tent under it and taunted the rain gods, grown bold now that we had proper shelter at last. But instead of rain we suffered an invasion of mason bees, vibrating like mini jackhammers as they built their mud nests in every crack of the caravan and fold of the tent. Then, suddenly, they were gone and we realized with dismay that the season was turning. A previously undetected population of rodents also noticed the autumnal chill and packed up its summer camp to shift en masse to the caravan. Their moving in confirmed our need to move out.
“Take my place for six months,” our friend Johnny offered, and so we emerged from the forest to shift into La Hacienda, a circus-striped house located behind the Bush Fairy Dairy. It was almost worth going 18 months without an indoor kitchen or hot running water for the gratitude I felt to suddenly have both, while baby Vita, faced with an ocean of carpeted space, immediately started to crawl.
From Issue 46
It sounded so romantic… living in off-grid self-sufficiency in the country, building their own house and growing their own food. But then it rained… and rained
THE OLD ADAGE to look before you leap is all very well, but I’m glad James and I didn’t think too hard before we plunged into our off-grid existence in rural Northland or we might still be ensconced in suburbia. Instead, happily oblivious to the reality of starting a homestead from scratch, we arrived on our 15 hectares of isolated native forest starry-eyed with the romance of a self-sufficient life amongst giant kauri and burbling streams.
Actually, we settled only partly at first, trudging in on foot for several months until we’d built a road and a ford, across which we dragged our creaking caravan at the end of the summer. It was parked on the corner of our designated house site, looking out across the forest, while we cleared a space for an orchard, rigged up a gravity-feed from the stream and built vegetable beds. At night we watched a billion stars from our bed as kiwi whistled down the valley. “It’s like a camping trip we don’t ever have to come home from,” I gloated to family and friends.
That said, we didn’t want to live in our four-and-a-half-metre Oxford forever and so, in a gust of great gung-ho, we designed a mud-brick house on a scrap of paper and set to pacing out the floor plan over the hillocky ridge, calling to each other through the neck-high kikuyu grass. As a result, our home is going to be rather large – it was hard to know quite where the other was as we hammered our stakes into the soil.
We found our snaggle-toothed old bush builder through a notice at the Bush Fairy Dairy. “It’ll take me six weeks to get the roof up,” he assured us but then he embarked on a series of elaborate macrocarpa roof trusses, each spanning nine-and-a-half metres, and it was more than a year before he and James completed the job.
In the meantime, we discovered how wet a Northland winter can be. Just as the Inuit apparently have words for 100 different types of snow, we hunkered our way through a thousand kinds of rain, watching miserably as matches, toilet paper and books grew damp, clothes became musty and mould fuzzed across every surface. There was no space to dry wet things in the caravan.
James constructed a lean-to from tarpaulins and bamboo but successive storms meant we cooked in the rain, did dishes in the rain; sometimes, half-maddened with cabin fever, I wept in the rain. “It’s like a camping trip we can’t ever go home from,” we despaired as the creeks flooded and trapped us in.
With the letter-box an hour’s round walk away, no internet and only occasional cellphone reception, we felt far removed from the outside world. In reality, though, a whole community of forest dwellers began to emerge around us. Our closest neighbours are artists and gardeners, a bee-keeper and a hermit. As we weathered the winter and still stuck around they turned into friends, arriving at our caravan with buckets of produce from their gardens and decades of off-grid experience to share. Most of them had done the hard yards too, starting off in house-trucks, buses or tents as they built their homes. Touring their kingdoms gave us our inspiration.
Recently James and I quietly celebrated our two-year anniversary of living on the land. While the house is still under construction and there have been many times when we’ve wanted to quit, I’m beginning to feel we’re not so different from the many fruit trees we’ve planted – constantly deepening our roots into the soil until now we’re too far in to be able to leave.