Category Archives: Permaculture

Cascades, Bombies, Graves and a Wat

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Luang Prabang

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Vientiene

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4000 Islands

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Phnom PEnh

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My words cannot compare with Nina’s beautifully written accounts of our times in these places so for a more interesting and detailed blog of our visits to these incredible sites you can view Nina’s blog here

Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang

Into Laos

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It’s been nearly a week since Nina and I dropped down from China into Laos on the bus. The difference in the feel of the country was instant. China was developed and overpopulated right up to the border and as soon as we crossed into Laos small thatched shacks on stilts started to appear in the landscape with only a sprinkling of people in ramshackle villages along the main road.

First stop was Luang Namtha, 60km from the frontier. Seems that many tourists come here for the jungle adventures that northern Laos has to offer and we were subtly shocked by the amount of “felang” (foreigners) in town.

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We found ourselves a cheap place to stay and grabbed a feed at the night market. We’re into sticky rice territory now, along with new and unusual tropical fruits. The next morning we stockpiled our fruit stash at the market and treated ourselves to pink custard apples, bananas and pawpaw. The array of fruit was incredible, laying side by side with dead bats and songbirds, all local delicacies.

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In the afternoon we hired bikes (80p per day) and cycled a loop to explore some local villages and the old and new stupas. The original 1658 stupa had been bombed by US planes during their epic airstrikes of the 60’s and 70’s. Laos is the most bombed country in history with more bombs landing here than in Germany and Japan put together. Today a new stupa stands next to the remains of the old. For a more in-depth insight into the CIA led tragedy The Most Secret Place on Earth is a must watch.

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Later on Friday evening we booked ourselves onto a 3 day trek and kayak through the Namtha National Park. A kind of treat to celebrate 1 year on the road, 10,000 website hits and a new country all rolled into one.

We chose a joint Laos/Kiwi adventure specialist called Forest Retreat Laos who assured us that at least 32% of our money goes directly to the village who will host us on our first night. They have used recent donations to build a new temple, clinic and school. £51 for an all inclusive 3 days trek/kayak with food, drink, guides and accommodation seemed very reasonable to us.

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We set of early on Saturday morning in a tuk-tuk. 3 Brits, an Italian, a Spaniard, an Ozzy and a Dutchy plus 2 Laotian guides and a roof full of kayaks. A 40 minute drive brought us to a small village on the banks of the Namtha river where we off loaded and filled our rubber kayaks with air. The locals looked a little bemused but we were soon out of their way and off down the river on a 20km paddle. Lunch was prepared on the banks half way along and after an exerting but satisfying day we rocked up at a riverside village and a purpose built shack for sleeping.

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It gets dark around 6pm here. Pon showed us around the village then a boiled fish dinner came at about 7pm and I think we were pretty much in bed by 9pm.

A day and a half of trekking followed with a overnight stop in the jungle. We were told that the bamboo structure we slept in along with the toilet shed and guide accommodation was built by a team of locals in 2 days. The whole structure built from bamboo and vines… it made me want to learn more about how to construct with this extremely versatile material.

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Our group had been joined by 2 ladies from the village for the trekking. Along the way we were shown various plants that locals use from the jungle. Joy even scraped bark from a particular tree when he heard Nina’s tummy was a little dodgy. Within an hour 2 days of discomfort were cured – amazing.

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On saturday night we had a beautiful jungle meal which included rattan starch, banana flower, jungle mushrooms and wild greens – so so tasty! A similarly good breakfast set us up for the final trek to the river, trousers rolled high, boots around the neck and across the water for the tuk-tuk ride back to town. Even a puncture on the way home couldn’t bring a frown to an amazing 3 days in the jungle.

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The Patch – Remote Permaculture Maintenance

Greetings from a far

One of our big concerns once our food forest was planted, and knowing that we would be leaving the country for an unknown amount of years, was how would our little fruit trees and bushes survive the encroaching grass, blackthorn and volunteer plants.

We had no idea at the time. There was no design element that we could think of, other than expensive, non natural sheet mulching techniques. We didn’t give that a second thought. Here’s where I believe design can happen organically, not necessarily at the offset, but when an idea comes to mind due to necessity.

Winter was fast encroaching and so was my 35th birthday. I am in China. I thought everyday about how our mulberry, cherries, apples, pears and sea buckthorn berries needed tucking in for winter. A cosy, thick bed of mulch to keep them roots warm and stave of the early grass growth of 2013.

I plucked up the courage and boldly requested my family to help with the “M” of OBREDIM – Maintenance. “If we can get a farmer to drop off 20 big bales of straw I’m sure it can be done in a half day” I asked squeamishly. Mum was keen and she asked that I email through some detailed instructions…

On my birthday, December 17th, I woke in China to check my emails. Not only had Mum written a great account of their “beautiful day” at the Patch but Clare had attached a whole photo album of the proceedings. We were so happy to see that the food forest had been mulched but more importantly Mum, Dad, Clare, Ethan and Phoebe confessed that they had had a really fun and enjoyable day.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR ENTHUSIASM TOWARDS OUR ONGOING PROJECT AT THE PATCH. PLEASE FILL YOUR BOOTS WITH FRUIT IN 2013

The Family on there way...

The Family on their way…

Clare checking out the walnut

Clare checking out the walnut

Ethan on the pile of bales

Ethan on the pile of bales

Keen niece and nephew

Keen niece and nephew

Greetings from a far

Greetings from a far

Couldn't ask for a better birthday present

Couldn’t ask for a better birthday present

Dad handing out instructions

Dad handing out instructions

Phoebe loads a bales

Phoebe loads a bale

Relaxing in the sun

Relaxing in the sun

They're on it now!

They’re on it now!

Mum shifts the bales around

Mum shifts the bales around

A beautiful day at the Patch

A beautiful day at the Patch

Tea break

Tea break

Hot elderberry cordial

Hot elderberry cordial

Birthday message

Birthday message

Bit of maintenance on the tanks

Bit of maintenance on the tanks

A well earned rest

A well earned rest

Mulch it!!!

Mulch it!!!

Nice and thick!

Nice and thick!

A winter bed...

A winter bed…

Mum mulches the native hedge

Mum mulches the native hedge

In full mucling swing...

In full mulching swing…

Clare looks satisfied

Clare looks satisfied

Spread it about!

Spread it about!

Perfect job

Perfect job

Native hedge mulched

Native hedge mulched

Ethan relaxes (in mulch)

Ethan relaxes (in mulch)

Phoebe joins him

Phoebe joins him

Beauitful

Beauitful

Nearly done..

Nearly done..

Perfect, thank you so so much

Perfect, thank you so so much

Chengdu to Dali in Pictures

Funky new circle thing – click on one of them to see a slideshow…

Farewell Kazakhstan…

When we finally walked from the embassy with our China visa in hand we’d been in Astana for 13 days. Some would say that’s an unlucky number and we never planned to be in the bland and sterile capital so long but we had been very fortunate. In our final opportunity to acquire a visa for China we managed it independently – travel forums had suggested it was not possible but we persevered and with the kind hospitality of our adopted Russian/Kazakh family our stay was extremely pleasant.

They took us in when our strange landlady turfed us out. We were treated to cooking lessons of all the Russian and Kazakh recipes they knew and on our last weekend we did a spot of fishing. Whilst I showed Sam the basics of lure fishing with a spinner Andrey had his own way. He donned a scuba suit and strapped on a harpoon! Half and hour later he emerged from the near frozen broad like a Mad Max swamp hunter with a bunch of pike hanging from his waist. Definitely a more efficient way of doing things. Sam and I stood gobsmacked still trying to untangle a knot from the reel whilst Andrey was supping warm tea preparing to descale the fish.

We devoured them, gently fried with onions, later that evening before the family served up the Kazakh speciality, Beshbarmak. It was our last evening with Andrey, Anna and the boys and they were not going to let us leave without eating horses arse! Yep, literally. We’d accompanied Andrey to the market a couple of days before and after tasting fermented mares milk he marched us around to his favourite meat lady. He picked a monster horse sausage and also a funny tubular piece of meat which he explained he would have to cook separately as not to taint the flavour of the other cuts. It wasn’t until the meat had been boiling for 3 hours and the whole house stunk that I asked what part of the horse it was… the answer explained the very strong smell, the nearly inedible taste but apparently desirable choice cut…Horses arse!

The next morning we dropped the kids at kindergarden and Andrey and Anna took us all to the train station for our 20 hours overnighter to Almaty – origin of the famous apple.

We had hoped that the majority of our time in Kazakhstan would be spent in the wild apple forests of the Tien Shan mountains bordering China and Kyrgyzstan collecting seed of the father of all apples to disperse to our friends in various parts of the world, doing our part to save the genetic diversity of the worlds most eaten fruit. Easy to say all that when you didn’t do it. To my disappointment by the time we arrived in Almaty, because of our China visa hold up, we had only one day before our Kazakh visa expired and so immediately boarded an overnight sleeper bus into the the north west of China…So long malus sieversii. Farewell Kazakhstan…

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Overland Travel Check-in

This week Nina and I completed our monthly travel check-in here in Astana. We departed England back in January and on the 23rd of each month we try to complete our check-in. An important part of permaculture design is to accept and respond to feedback. For a land-based design this involves observation of your garden or farm and making changes to things that can be improved to benefit the whole system. It’s no different with our travel design really, just that our tweaks may be behavioural or logistical…

We use the four questions taken from my diploma guild meetings and talk to one another for a short time whilst the listener scribes some notes to refer back to. It’s very important that the listener does not respond, we call this active listening, so that the talker gets the opportunity to voice all their thoughts. Here are the four questions;

What’s going well for you?

What are you finding challenging?

What are your next achievable steps?

What are your long term visions?

Answering these questions really helps to celebrate great times, grumble about what’s getting you down, understand some actions to get the next thing done and also dream about the future. It sounds a bit geeky but we find it’s been a very valuable part of our overland trip.

We also tagged on another element to our check-in which involves understanding whether one another’s needs are being met. We have a big list of our needs and ask each other if we feel they’re being fulfilled. If the answer is “no” then we may give a suggested tweak to make sure that need is met going forward. Some of our needs are… music, nature, solitude, spontaneity, warmth, community, intimacy and the list goes on….

So it’s 9 months since we left England. Geographically we are around half way to Australia. We have spent time in Morocco, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Georgia, Russia and now Kazakhstan. I feel it’s a good time to refer back to the goals we set out in our travel design. Are we walking the talk? Are we doing what we set out to do? This is another important part of permaculture design. Observe and interact. Accept and respond to feedback…

Our goals as set out in January…

  • to get to Australia in the most environmentally responsible way – well we could walk or cycle but we never really considered that option. So far we have taken buses, boats, trains and hitch-hiked along the way. On arrival in Australia we will calculate our carbon footprint and sequester it using new techniques we have learnt.
  • to have fun, enjoy the experience and remain healthy – there is absolutely no way that this journey cannot be an enjoyable one. There have been challenges but every day is a new and exciting experience.
  • to learn about other cultures and people’s way of life – living with families and working on farms in different countries is helping us gain a greater understanding of this.
  • to gain new practical skills and traditional understandings – building in Morocco and teaching on a PDC in Romania have been my practical highlights. Communicating with no local language is also a great new skill that I’m enjoying.
  • to use skills and resources as a gift or exchange – help in the gardens of our hosts and swapping seeds along the way is a great way to remember the people we have met so far.
  • to engineer opportunities to incorporate my diploma – this is certainly one of the more challenging goals but so far I have made designs in Spain and Italy with more work to follow in China
  • to express creativity – playing at the Beglika Festival in Bulgaria was fantastic and having the time to experiment with music and writing is a real privilege.
  • to Wwoof in each country we pass through – we didn’t manage it in the countries that we transited through but have in all the rest, learning new skills and making new friends.
  • to connect with wilderness and natural surroundings – Greece has certainly been my wilderness highlight – trekking through the Vikos Gorge was spectacular.
  • to inform and report on important and interesting topics – hopefully my blog is doing that and I also like to add useful info to the Lonely Planet travel forum to help others along the way.
  • to remain within our allocated funds – it’s a squeeze doing this journey on such a shoestring budget but we are just about on budget. Couch-surfing and hitch-hiking have been essential for that.
  • to spend some time with friends and family – one day with my parents in Venice, the PDC in Romania, travelling with Sam and meeting folk in China…
  • to support one another, honour ourselves and harmonise our needs – I feel this is the most important goal and one that so far is making the journey a full and rich experience.

I am thankful that I was introduced to these processes through my permaculture tutor, the PDC’s that I have attended and the co-creation of this life with Nina.

Another Day in Tbilisi

I woke this morning to the sound of a crying baby and her yelping mother. These two have been relentless since the day we stepped foot in “Katuna’s Homestay”. The cheapest place in the city, use of wifi (important whilst searching for new information on how to apply for our Kazakhstan, Russian and Chinese visa’s), a comfy bed and access to the stove (essential to Sam’s coffee needs).

We are here in the Georgian capital for our third bed-down since leaving the relaxing city of Batumi 10 days ago. It’s visa application time and so far it has been a mixed bag. The next few countries on our journey require differing types of visa’s and application processes. Throw into the mix that we cannot get one without the other, erratic embassy opening hours, chinese holiday closures, Georgian election day, payment in different currencies, language complexities and a general lack of information on the internet. We’ve read the advice about getting visa’s in our home country but due to the nature of our journey it was not possible. So we are here in Tbilisi at the mercy of the above.

We submitted our Kazakhstan visa last Monday with a 5 day wait for collection. I had prearranged for us to do some volunteer work at Georgia’s only registered Wwoof host during our waiting time. A welcome break to spend 3 days in the gorgeous Georgian countryside with Jean-Jacques and Inken on the Momavlis Mitsa (Future Earth) farm. A couple of hours by minibus from Tbilisi, Jean Jacques is growing his own biodynamic wheat for sourdough bread which he will sell in the city markets, along with ample veg and animals.

Sam and I spent the first day helping to build the new bread oven, emptying tonnes of sand from the inside mould and building a supporting wall. Nina worked with Inken in the garden, biting her lip, hoeing weeds and breaking cracks in the soil created by sun and lack of mulch. Day 2 saw us all making new raised beds for the commercial salad crops and our last day was more building for me and Sam, a new chicken run, while Nina and Inken made jars of jam and compote for most of the afternoon and evening.

We returned to Tbilisi on Friday and collected our Kazakhstan visa. It seemed quite straight forward once we had it in our hands. We returned back to Katuna’s Homestay knowing that on Monday we could now make our way to the Russian embassy. Our Kazak visa is proof enough that we will only be transiting through Russia. Nina and I went to the puppet theatre to see an interesting performance about Soviet Georgia. The weekend was hotting up in the streets. Voices eager to be heard before election day.

On Monday we headed to the Russian Embassy and were surprised to find that Nina’s form had to be submitted in Russian (because she’s from Australia – figure that one out) but there were plenty of administrative staff on hand to help (20 Georgian Lari). After some misunderstanding about the costs and some disappointment at hearing that processing time would be 10 days (more time back at the farm) we were surprised to hear the gentleman ask if we would like to keep our passports while they process the application.

“Maybe you want to go to Armenia while you wait?”

“No thanks we don’t really have the money for that” we responded.

We left the embassy happy that another application had been handed in and we could return to the farm for another weeks volunteering and some free living…

“Guys. Hello. He just offered us back our passports! What does that mean? Chinese visa!”

We walked to the Chinese embassy for more information, forfeiting our minibus back to the farm, thinking we could go back to the Russian embassy, ask for our passport back, apply for the Chinese visa in time to get back our passports ready for presenting them to the Russian embassy on collection day next week (a 2 hour window). The Chinese Embassy was closed – National Day. Open again in two days. Another stay at Katuna’s Homestay. We returned back yesterday with our tales between our legs, another 2 nights stay, a bit more screaming and yelping with the added excitement of street celebrations on what is now voting day.

Today we will try to gather information on applying for a Chinese visa here in Tbilisi but it doesn’t look so good – we are not Georgian, nor do we have a Georgian resident ID card – two of the requirements. I will be glad to rejoin work at the farm tomorrow.

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Heading East


I write from a shared room in Batumi, Georgia after crossing through 4 countries in 4 days with our new recruit – Sam. After veering north into Romania, a slight diversion to our projected route to Australia but well worth the detour, stacking functions with DJ sets at the festival in Bulgaria and our first permaculture teaching experience, we are back on track and more east than we have been so far.

I think we proved that travel can be cheap(ish). I’m not sure what it would have cost to fly from Romania to Georgia but we certainly managed it on a shoe string; Beclean to Bucharest on the overnight train (no bed) for £15. We killed a few hours in Bucharest then hopped on an overnight bus to Istanbul for £28.60. Not much sleep on that one and a strange sense of being persecuted for being smelly! Enough time in Istanbul to stock up on dried fruit and lukumi before departing to Ankara on a five hour bus ride – £8.50. We learnt a good lesson in Ankara and made our train by a matter of minutes. We boarded the Dogu Express for a 22 hour journey along the Euphrates river at 7pm two days ago – £16.00. Our last night in Turkey welcomed a full on slap up meal – tastey – before bus, bus, minibuses all the way to Georgia!!! £13.70.

So all in all our 4 day, 2538km journey cost a total of £71.70. Not sure if a flight would be cheaper but we have had a great time so far. Georgia has been kind on entry and the food is fantastic…

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Ermitaj

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A few days ago we finished a two week Permaculture Design Course at the Ermitaj in North West Romania. I have experienced this course as student, host and now as part of the facilitating team. It has been a very rewarding, challenging and eye-opening experience. Nina and I joined Pascale, Sam and Judith to form a teaching team in a friendly and supportive environment, the perfect place to start my teaching in Permaculture.

The Ermitaj is run by Philippe and Adriana in a lovely valley. It’s the third PDC they have hosted and we had a full international crew and students along with a healthy Romanian contingent. A jammed packed two weeks full of Permaculture ethics, principles, methods and practical sessions including building a synergistic garden, rocket stove, 18 day compost, jams, tool care, natural plastering, contour mapping, soil tests, pizza night and plenty of design time.

The course was finished off with a talent/no talent night and we received some great feedback before certificates were handed out and fairwells to new friends. Many thanks to a great team, great students and a great host.