Tag Archives: Natural Building

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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Them troglodytes knew…

When I first heard Bill Mollison mention the subterranean dwellings in central Turkey and when Nina first talked about the fairytale houses of Cappadocia from her “must see places” list I hadn’t put two and two together. It wasn’t until we were winding around the eroded landscape on our bus entry to Goreme that it clicked. Two and Two suddenly became eighty four!

Ancient volcanic eruptions blanketed this region with thick ash, which solidified into a soft rock—called tuff—tens of meters thick. Wind and water then went to work on this plateau, leaving only its harder elements behind to form a fairytale landscape of cones, pillars, pinnacles, mushrooms and chimneys, which stretch as far as 40 meters into the sky.

So erosion shaped the incredible landscape of the Göreme valley, but thousands of years ago the troglodyte people used what Mother Nature created and began carving an amazing chamber and tunnel complex into the soft rock. Beginning in the fourth century A.D. an urbanized—but underground—cultural landscape was created here.

In caves and below ground are living quarters, places of worship, stables, wineries and storehouses, all dug into the stone. The underground city that we visited yesterday is only 10% excavated and is thought to be 10km long with eight subterranean levels and enough space for 30,000 people. It was a little claustrophobic but we got a great sense of what it would be like to live down below.

Evidence shows that every household kept pigeons using dovecotes, also carved into the rock. The droppings from the birds were vital to the viticulture and allowed them to maintain the fertility of their gardens, with apricots, mulberrys, pears and melons grown around the vegetable patches.

This has to be one of the finest examples of natural building in the world. It goes one step further than using local materials. The templates for each house were created naturally with zero human effort. The people then had to chip away at the insides to hollow out a home for themselves, similar to permaculture’s holy grail of harvesting as maintenance. The temperature inside remains a constant 16-18 degrees, perfect when it’s plus 42 degrees above ground.

We’ve been searching for examples of “working with nature and not against it” on this journey and we certainly found it here in Cappadocia.

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La Premier…

So here’s my go at a little documentary.  Part 1 of our Wwoof to Oz adventure.

Next stop Spain…

Bouthrarar Tabout

On leaving Marrakech we travelled for a day over the Atlas mountains south east and arrived in El Kelaa Des Mgouna, the gateway to the valley of the roses.  We passed through our original WWOOF hosts town as we’d heard nothing from them to confirm our arrival.

Part of my third diploma project involves Nina and I having a monthly travel check-in with each other to establish whether both of our needs and expectations are being met.  When we went through our list it was obvious that our journey so far was missing some vital elements – time in nature, live and loud music, being effective, exercise, some meaning and more learning and celebration.  We decided from that to head into the valley and see what we could find…

An hours minibus ride brought us to the beautiful hamlet of Bouthrarar, a collection of tiny villages on the banks of two converging rivers.  It was obvious on arrival that the locals were making good use of the available water as there were lush green fields of broad beans, lucern, wheat and clovers.  Surrounding each small plot were fig, walnut, almond, peach and olive trees.  The hedgerows are all made up of roses, hence the name of the valleys.  They are harvested in May and made into various products like rose water and soap.

On closer inspection we found that the abundance in the valley was down to careful use of water and the ingenious irrigation system not dissimilar to those in Ladakh.  Small sections are diverted away from the river upstream and held high by hand built channels.  By the time they reach the next village they are way above the crops in need and can be carefully directed downwards using more channels and small sluices which are opened and closed by rocks or soil.  The excess water then rejoins the river below.  A great design for catching and storing energy, using minimum effort for maximum effect.

On our first evening in the valley we asked our host if there was any chance we could see some of the local building techniques in action.  Our hopes of exercise, learning, meaning and community were answered in a flash when we were offered the opportunity to join the local building team the next day.  It turns out that our host Youssef is in contact with Unesco to have the valley recognised for it’s local traditions including the building practice which they call Tabout.  We jumped at the chance and spent the following week completely immersed in Berber life.

The technique involves constructing a wooden frame, ramming earth into it and then moving the frame on to the next section whilst the previous one is being rendered.  The team made it look easy but Nina and I found it pretty hard work, carrying baskets of soil on our heads up ladders and ramming earth into the frames with a heavy tool made from walnut.  I think we surprised them with our enthusiasm and I don’t think they expected us to show up for more hard graft the next day.

As the week progressed we were not only fatigued by work but also by the amazing hospitality that we enjoyed.  Being part of the team also seemed to earn us the privilege of being part of the family and we were welcomed into each and every home for the remainder of our time in the valley.  Brahim, Moha, Abd Hamane, Said, Mohammed and their families were by far the most hospitable people I have ever come across.  Each night after work, and all the following week, we ate with them, sang with them, danced with them and enjoyed the type of days off they would only normally spend with their families.

It was always midnight or later before the evening festivities of song and homemade fig liquor had finished and Abdul or Youssef would insist on walking us home.  On day ten we managed to break away from the village and enjoy a neighbouring hamlet, of course joined by one of the team who wanted to make sure we had a fulfilling experience and were safe.  From the nearby village of Almdoune, and after being taken to another families home for tea, we set off on a walk to take in one of the many gorges of the valleys.  A spectacular trek that took in not only a beautiful gorge but more picturesque villages and a magnificent kasbah too.

It was late when we arrived back to Abdul’s house and there he and his wife Sadia insisted on dressing us up Berber style for a final ho down over at Brahim’s house.  We shared family photo’s and exchanged gifts and seeds before some emotional good byes and hopes of seeing each other again some day…Inshaalah

There was no way possible to summarise in a blog what an amazing two weeks we have had with the tabout team but I have made a small documentary which will be here on the website when we come across a better connection for uploading.

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Read more about our journey and see more pictures at Nina’s blog typotraveller

Planning Granted!!!

Today we received the long anticipated news that our planning application was granted.  We’ve been checking almost daily to see if there has been any change on the online application and what a relief to see that it has all gone through ok.

Nice to see a reference to key design considerations and a special mention in the permission details for “Sustainable Development in Rural Areas – The Council was particularly mindful of the following matters: – scale, design and materials appropriate to use and location – impact on landscape. The simple form of the building is considered appropriate to its use and location on an agricultural holding. The site is well screened and remote from residential properties. The proposal will not impact on the wider rural landscape.”

The full application form, design statement, neighbour comments and decision status can be found here

Patch Packdown

I’m writing this post from a blue washed rooftop in Chefchaouen, Morocco.  We arrived a week ago after a fairly hands on last week at the Patch in England.  We managed to do everything we felt we needed to do to leave it in a good place for the future.

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The Main achievement was turfing, sealing, tidying and guttering the roof and setting up the water tanks.  With the help of Dad and a few days graft we should now always have water on site to help keep the young fruit trees nourished in their early years.  Still no news on the planning application however the water tanks are essential to good harvests in years to come.  With more help this time from Mum and Nina’s tireless shit shovelling efforts we managed to sheet mulch every single tree and section of hedging that was planted last year.

Two or three soft fruits were planted around each fruit tree, and many interplanted with nitrogen-fixing shrubs, mostly, seabuckthorn berry.  We laid thick sheets of cardboard and then dumped on a good load of old horse poo and mulched around each one, joining to form islands or guilds.  Next went in comfrey root cuttings and on top we sewed a mixture of beneficial insect/bee plant seed, mineral miner seeds, herbs and basically anything we had from the seeds saved last year .  For minimum effort and a few minutes sewing we produce the possibility of plenty of beneficial plants popping up.  The alder hedge, elaeagnus hedge and the edible hedge all got heavily mulched that will hopefully kick start a growth spirt this year.

Nina put the veggy garden to bed under black plastic weighed down by tyres.  This should ensure a weed free experience when we next want to use it.  We had a general clear up and an all round nice “Bon Voyage” bonfire with Woody to mark the end of a massively productive year at the Patch.  Here’s hoping friends and family can enjoy some fresh fruit soon…

Nimby nature

Recent objections to our planning application reviewed in a few short videos…