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My experience volunteering at a forest retreat near Knysna, South Africa.
The last week at Pachamama Forest Retreat has been my first true off-the-grid living experience.
This little, self-sustainable community lies amidst the towering trees of indigenous forest outside Knysna, South Africa.
Through eco-friendly technologies and the dedication of each person here, Pachamama exists to create a nourishing relationship between humans and the Earth.
People work hard to live off the land without damaging it. Careful steps are taken every day to ensure that the land is always flourishing.
It’s an amazing set-up here. Everyone actually enjoys working and spending time with each other and with the forest.
First impressions of Pachamaya Forest Retreat
When I first arrived, I was surprised and skeptical about how a community could thrive using only rainwater and very minimal electricity. But it’s surprisingly easy.
Living so close to nature is such a pure and simple way to live. Especially once you detach yourself from your perceived dependence on modern technologies.
The respect for the Earth and all its beings here is so palpable.
Maybe it’s because “Pachamama” is the indigenous Andean name for the deity known as the “Mother of the Earth”.
Maybe it’s because the community runs on only eco-friendly living methods.
Or maybe it’s because every person here is very dedicated to protecting the Earth and upholding this sustainable lifestyle.
I found Pachamama on Workaway, and we exchange about 25 hours of work per week for free food and accommodation (with a small contribution for specialty groceries).
Every building on the property is built out of wood from the surrounding trees. So the infrastructure feels like part of the forest.
The full-time staff lives in bigger cabins. There are smaller cabins for guests and volunteers often bring their own tents to camp in.
We arrived in the middle of winter which is low season, so Matt and I sleep in our own little log cabin. We have a comfy bed to share, a few shelves, and that’s it.
There is no electricity and no heat. So we use flashlights to see at night and snuggle hardcore to keep warm.
The only place at Pachamama with electricity is the kitchen. So we can run the refrigerator and people can charge devices if necessary.
The fridge isn’t used that often though.
Most of the food is freshly picked from the garden right before meals or stored in the cupboard.
We cook using a gas stove. There are different recycling bins for compost, plastic, and glass.
Rainwater and Fire Showers
As for water, roof gutters catch rainfall and store it in tanks.
The plumbing sends the water through taps in the kitchen and bathroom.
Drinking water goes through a separate filter and comes out of one tap in the kitchen.
Because water is limited, everyone is very conscious of how much they use which leads to less waste.
Twice a week we have hot showers. This requires building a fire under the big water tank on top of the shower stalls.
After about an hour, the whole tank is heated and everyone can enjoy the luxury of a hot shower.
The property also has one compost shower, where the pipes from the water tank coil through the huge piles of compost.
The movement of the microorganisms in the compost actually heat the water, so it’s hot when it comes out of the shower faucet.
We also use a compost toilet. This is basically a wooden outhouse but you throw sawdust in the toilet after you go. The sawdust breaks down the waste and prevents smell.
These various methods of eco-friendly living help the community thrive without polluting or stripping the earth of its natural resources.
We even give back to the Earth through composting. Living this way really doesn’t feel that different from normal life at all.
The food at Pachamama is always delicious. All the meals are vegan and prepared using fresh produce from the garden.
For breakfast we usually have oats with fruit, seeds, and coconut then head to work at 9am.
Lunch is at 12pm, and dinner is around 7pm.
Some of the meals we have include barley and chickpea salad, vegetable soup, spaghetti with lentil bolognese, potato and pumpkin curry, rice and roasted veggies, bean chili, and much more.
Before every meal, someone runs to the garden to collect fresh greens and herbs.
Sometimes someone will prepare a specialty like chili sauce, sauerkraut, popcorn or oatmeal cookies.
I also enjoy picking fresh passionfruit off the vines in the garden and snacking on gooseberries while at work.
Everyone drinks tea consistently throughout the day as well, especially in the cold mornings and nights.
We work Monday through Friday for roughly 5 hours each day.
Sometimes the work is physically hard, sometimes it’s relaxing and easy.
After spending a couple hours on a task, you can actually see your progress and see how it benefits the community. It is super rewarding.
Some of the usual tasks include weeding the garden, chopping up weeds and old green plants to add to compost, watering plants, pulling out invasive tree species, and spreading wood chips and mulch over new soil beds to keep the soil moist and shaded so microorganisms can grow.
People often help out with making wooden planks for building. The process starts with sawing down the huge trees and loading them onto a trailer. Eventually they go through the sawmill.
My favorite task was planting new seedlings to prepare for the spring season.
First, we create rich soil by mixing together 60 percent compost, 40 percent sand, and a few handfuls of worm shit (There are two big bathtubs filled with soil and food for worms, which sit for months and eventually the worms make the soil super dark and rich).
After creating the compost mix, we pack the soil into seedling cups and delicately plant the seeds.
Some of the plants we prepped include African horned cucumber, New Zealand spinach, hot yellow banana pepper, mayan love pepper, wild rosemary, sweet basil, black brinjal (eggplant), golden chard, orange tamarillo, marjoram, coriander, and more.
Another cool task was pulling up big congregations of wild garlic from a shady garden.
Then we replanted it in small batches all around the perimeter of the big garden.
This allows the garlic to act as a barrier for pests because they’ll reach the garlic first and turn away because of the smell.
Making Garden Beds
My other favorite task was weaving wattle branches into little fences around soil beds.
We started by using machetes to chop down young wattle trees and clean off all their branches. Then we hammered wooden stakes into the perimeter of the garden, and wove the wattle in between the stakes.
The wattle is fresh and supple, so it’s good for weaving. Over time the wattle will dry out and make solid barriers for the soil.
When we’re not working, we’re all soaking in the serenity of the wilderness around us.
I spent lots of time practicing yoga in the spacious wooden yoga studio. A few times, we had group yoga classes and guided meditations as well.
We have campfires every single night, mainly because it gets really cold at night but also for the social experience.
Everyone huddles around the fire, and we sip tea, tell stories, make music, play games, and just have interesting conversations about random topics.
All the people here are volunteers and staff. Most of them are South African.
It’s been fun chatting with locals about their hometowns and learning about the country’s turbulent history and vibrant, diverse lifestyle.
Other fun activities in the area
On our weekends off, we make the effort to do some fun activities outside Pachamama.
One Sunday we hiked down a steep, rocky ravine to a nearby river and swimming hole.
The water was absolutely freezing but energized my whole body when I jumped in.
This past Saturday, we took a trip to Sedgefield Markets.
We browsed through the cool handicrafts and artwork, ate delicious wholesome food, and watched our friend play her music for the crowds.
Combining all the eco-friendly living methods with the interesting, hands-on work and unique personalities, I had a deeply immersive experience.
I loved living in the depths of the forest and I learned so much about permaculture and sustainability.
For more, in-depth information about this magical place, check out Pachamama’s website.
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To read about more of my adventures in South Africa, check out these articles: