Steps Progress November 2015
  The builders were back for the first weekend of November. But Leno had a family funeral on Saturday so wanted to work Sunday and Monday. They arrived on Sunday morning with a new helper - a nice enough guy but he had obviously been partying the night before and it showed. And then Monday Leno called the work off due to private problems at his home. So we managed to only get one day of work in on our steps projects.

  First job was to finish off the forest shelter steps. It was slow going as most of the work had to be done with a level instead of using building line.

I worked closely with Leno on the first side wall to get the roller course breaks (the top of the wall steps once for every two steps) correct.

We also built the steps side walls on the top up to the level of the walls that will be built around the entire forest shelter.

      First side done, starting on the second side

 
Steps completed, from the right side . . .
. . . and from the left side showing the access opening

  We had the job finished just after lunchtime and while we left one guy there to clean up, the rest of the team moved on to the veranda steps.

Even though the step was only two courses high between the two levels on the veranda, Leno set up some profiles so that everything would be nice and straight. After bringing some mortar and bricks around he had the step built in no time.

      Starting on the first veranda step

  Veranda Step Completed
 
New veranda step all cleaned up nicely      
With the builders cancelling work on Monday and half a wheelbarrow of mortar left over from Sunday's work, I spent Monday morning making a start on the next step project on the veranda which will incorporate a built-in braai (in the background of the picture) and cleaning up the brickwork on all the steps.

It still amazes me how much mess the builders leave behind them when a project is "finished" - and how much mortar is wasted by splashing it all around the building area.


  Summer Moths
  Summer is here and with it the abundant night insects. We normally have to leave the flood lights on outside until we go to bed to attract and keep the moths and beetles outside. If we don't, they all get attracted to our inside lights and we breathe, eat and drink moths and beetles all night!

Below left, found in the grass under a black wattle tree outside the pumphouse is the beautiful Emperor Moth, and below right, one of the species of the Adelidae family of Micro-moths. As there are so many different little moths, I've downloaded some Micro-moth identification documentation, but after a quick scan through I'm not sure whether I want to persue identification any further than the Micro- and Macro-moth level.

 
The majestic Speckled Emperor Moth
Micro-moth with long antennae


  Weather Report
   
The weather gods have gone mad. After three weeks of extreme heat wave conditions at the end of October, the first week of November had a big strong cold front pass over the entire country bringing snowfall on the higher peaks of the Drakensberg mountains. It was so cold we were bringing out our jerseys again. And now into the second week of November we're suddenly back to even worse heat wave conditions.

The wind has been howling through the farm almost every day for over three months now and there has been absolutely no rain here south of Heidelberg since the little bit we had in early October. The grass has already started losing it's summer "green" and it looks like its going into typical autumn mode.

And just in case we ever get rain again, we've decided to add a new item to the left hand menu of the website - Rainfall. We'll keep the statistics updated monthly.

 

  The Hunter
  Tess has now settled in nicely and we're getting to grips with her cute character. She really just wants to be around any human willing to give her some love - always snuggling up close for a petting or a scratch behind the ear.

She has given us a few tough weeks, though. We don't want to have our dogs locked into pens - they should have their freedom on the farm within the limits of the farm boundaries. The collies never drift off out of sight but Tess still has to learn to stay close to us. Initially she would just drift off "following her nose" and we would end up having to spend half an hour so a few times a day out looking for her. She's been across to Kallie's farm a few times and once she even ended up back at Che's farm where we had to drive over to fetch her after Che phoned us to let us know she was there. She still sometimes drifts off into the forest often but for shorter periods of time and now always comes back to her new home.

But she is a hunting dog. Just like the collie genes make collies herders, she has hunting genes. So those little excursions into the forest are not for sightseeing. She's continually on the lookout for something to chase and hunt. While we're up in the pumphouse bathroom we often watch out the windows at her hopping around in the long grass near the fence hunting anything that moves and rustles in the dry grass. And more than once she has come out with a little tail hanging out of the side of her mouth!

It's no use getting upset or scolding her - hunting is in her genes. We once took a walk up the hill for sundowners and instead of continually calling her back as we normally do, I thought I'd just let her be and try and keep an eye on her. Well, she drifted off to the edge of the slope, something caught her eye and she was off. I searched around the area I though she would be but she was gone. So nothing to do but sit with the collies and wait. Fifteen minutes later she was back with us and we all headed off back down the hill to the farm in the dark.

  Another evening while we were watering the lucern, she spotted a duiker on the foot of the hill. Off she ran at full speed towards it. It bolted and sped away with leaps ten meters long and three meters high. Calling her back was futile. Fifteen minutes later she was back and when scolded, got a puzzled look on her face as if to say "Geez, what you so mad about - I nearly caught us a bokkie!"  
      "Hey, what's that!"
 

Our answer to being able to "track" Tess is "the collar". We've fitted a reflective strip collar with mini cow-bells for her to wear. So now we can hear (when she's in hearing range) roughly in which direction she is in the forest and at night we can shine the torch in the direction of the tinkle-tinkle noise and the reflective collar gives away her location. The system also serves as a bit of a handicap on her hunting expeditions.



  Starting the Seedling Preparation Station
  Although there's lots of space out on the farm, work space for our gardening tasks is rather limited. At the moment the water station only has one tank in it so we can use that as a work area, but that's
 
Joining two scrap pallets      

Cutting slots in the log legs      

Supported by picnic table while fixing the legs to the pallets      

not what it was really designed for. The garden shed is a bit small and really intended for organised storage and It's just not comfortable working with seedling trays in the dust on the ground. Martie often puts the seedling trays out on the growing tunnel walls but with the constant windy weather we've been having lately, we've had a few blow off.

So, onto the projects list popped an outside garden workbench. It was always going to be very rough but functional and needed to be made up from some of the scrap stuff we had lying around on the building site.

For the workbench top I selected two old plywood pallets about the same size which we picked up from one of our computer suppliers. They were joined together by nailing some old twisted perlins across the underneath.

For upright support legs I selected four log poles left over from our fence project (we still have quite a few of them piled up near our front entrance gate - I must still get them off the ground and move them to the growing tunnel area one day).

I cut slots into the log legs with the circular saw at about workbench height and chiselled out the wood halfway into the log so that the pallet corners would slot into them. The workbench top was supported on one of our picnic tables and the legs were glued and screwed to the corners of the pallets.


  Veranda Braai Area Steps
  The builders were back for the second weekend of November. Leno's kids were writing exams so he brought the same guy that he brought out the previous weekend and another new helper.

The task for the weekend was to build all the little steps required for us to get up and down from the verandas on both sides of the house up into the house and out into the grounds.

First job was the big veranda braai area steps. The two steps on the inside of the veranda would integrate into the side of the built-in braai structure and there would be a single step outside the retainer wall to step out onto before stepping down onto the grass area outside.

A bit of supervision and guidance to get my ideas of integrating the structures through to Leno and he had the steps and a small section of the wall built in no time.

We stopped at the first side wall of the braai structure as it got above the level of the steps. Thinking about it carefully, I'll have to buy that steel braai unit before we can go much further there.

      Layed out and first course down for the veranda built in-braai steps

      Two steps done and a start made on the built-in braai side wall

  Digging Steps Foundations
 
Aviary moved out of the way and little levelling wall foundation dug      

One step from the kitchen courtyard down into the driveway      

Main stairway from the driveway up to the driveway veranda      
on the left. First batch of concrete being mixed.      
Although it was going to cost some building materials, we decided to take the time to do all the steps properly with good foundations.

And if Leno and the team were going to dig a foundation, they preferred to just get stuck in and dig all the foundations that needed to be dug.

Also, as we were working in the driveway area, we decided to level the area in the forest for the big aviary and put in a small foundation there for a small levelling wall.

All the digging was done by just after lunchtime, after which the first batch of concrete was mixed for the avairy base wall and the first step up to the driveway veranda. Those steps would be three steps up and would have to be done in stages as we would be filling each step with concrete and then building the next step on top of that one.

Two steps from the main veranda down onto the grass area


  Casting Steps Foundations
  More concrete was mixed through the afternoon and the avairy base wall and all the steps foundations were cast. And there was just enough time to start the brickwork for the first step for the driveway to veranda steps. Then, after cleaning up a bit and loading up some wood for their chicken braai business, the building team left on Saturday evening in the dark.

Driveway to veranda steps - foundation cast      
and first step brickwork being built      

Driveway to kitchen courtyard step foundation      
      Aviary base wall foundation

      Veranda to grass area foundation


  Building Steps
 
First step built and filled with concrete      

Second step built and filled with concrete      

Third and final step being built      
Sunday morning Leno got the team going early mixing some concrete to fill in the first step in the driveway up to the veranda.

Once that was filled it was left to dry for a while he started building the step from the driveway down to the aviary.

While we were down there we set up the profiles, double checked our measurements and he built the base walls for the aviary. The top corner was just above the ground and in just over two meters (the size of the aviary), the bottom corner required four courses of bricks. Everything we build on the farm is on a slope and the structure has to be built up on the downhill corner to get it level.

Building the aviary base was tricky. It was a relatively small structure and down there in the forest there's not much space to move around between the trees. But we got it built all square and level and then moved on to the kitchen courtyard steps down into the driveway.

The bricks we are getting now seem to be much lighter than the ones we originally used on the house. It may be just because they're new and the old ones have weathered a bit and been splashed with some red sand by the rain. We'll give them some time to weather and see.


Kitchen courtyard step built and filled

 
Step from driveway down to aviary in the forest
Building the aviary base walls in the forest


  Rain
 

Rain at last! The first thunderstorm to come through after all that heat and wind was obviously not going to be a gentle one.

We started off the third week of November with big lightning, big thunder and a bit of hail. But most importantly, we got rain - 26mm with the first storm. That was enough to give the soil a good soaking to the point that there was even good run-off down into the forest.

  Above: hail session finished and rain pelting down on the growing tunnels. Below left: No, Martie's not out shopping - she's checking that the tortoises aren't drowning. They now stay out in the number 6 growing tunnel, our "nursery" tunnel and the basket is for in case she has to bring them all in. Below center: some minor wind damage - broke a pvc pipe. Below right: Run-off stream washing a path in the leaves down into the forest. Bottom: ... and another storm rolls in.
    
 

  And perfect weather for us for the rest of week three: cloudy and cool early mornings, warm (good for seed germination) full sun (for charging batteries) days and a bit of rain every evening. But the wind was relentless at storm strength every day and every night.

With no need to irrigate the lucerne, maize or vegetable tunnels, by Wednesday all our water tanks were full and we were down to only pumping around 100 liters a day just to top up the JoJo tanks for our ablutions. Farm life is great, but when the weather is this good, farm life is just fantastic.


  Another Cold Front . . . and Crops Update
 
Guess the season - freezing cold early morning sunrise, clear deep blue skies and lovely green grass?

  And then the weather turns again. A cold front hits the Cape bringing snow to the higher mountain peaks. The cold air (and wind) gets through to us on the Saturday night of the third weekend of November - nearly our mid-summer!

All this eratic weather is not making it easy for our first growing season out on the farm. We're trying to get vegetable seeds to germinate (already a little late as we were waiting for the rains) and these cold spells aren't helping much.

Our lucerne seeds have sprouted well (albeit a little patchy) and our first four rows of maize plants are also doing well.

 
Lucerne sprouts
Our maize field


  Aviaries
  With the builders off for the last weekend of November, we could concentrate on getting our two aviaries into their positions and clearing the forest area around them nicely. The big aviary fits very neatly on it's little base wall with pavers now layed onto it. The little aviary is on a level spot but I think we'll have to also put it onto a brick base to prevent things digging into (and out of) it.

 


  Welcome Back
   

  Our migratory birds have finally started to return to the farm for the summer. It's so great to watch the Steppe Buzzard circling in thermals over the forest and hills and a few Spotted Flycatchers have been seen zooming down from their perches along the forest edges to catch insects in the grass.

We've also heard the first "piet-my-vrou" calls of the elusive Red-chested Cuckoo and heard the calls and seen the little weavers chasing off the Diederik Cuckoo as well.


  Gold Mining
  Early last year we heard rumours from neighbours that a mining company was interested in continuing gold mining operations in the area. From what I can make out the south east part of Heidelberg is the very end of the Wits Nigel reef and there are old shafts just across the road from the new shopping mall and on the farm next to the N3 highway (about 4km just over the hill from us). The hillsides in the area are also all pock-marked with mining tunnels, all dug manually a long time ago, with some caverns burrowed quite deep into the hills.
  In March last year we also noticed a drilling rig on top of a far away hill. It appears our farm is in the very southern outer edge of the prospecting rights area of Far East Gold. The mining company is based in Nigel where they have an operational shaft and they have made application to convert their prospecting rights area into their mining area.

Although they have the operational shaft in Nigel, they do not have any ore processing capabilities, so all their ore is trucked out to a third party processing plant at great expense. Their plan is to now set up a processing plant at the Nigel shaft. But then their single shaft won't produce enough ore to keep the plant busy, so they want to open up all the other shafts in thier prospecting area to feed ore to their new processing plant.

But that may be a long way off and the mining probably won't affect us much as they propose to only work the existing shafts.

      Drilling rig spotted up on the hill last year
  However, there are concerns, the first being that there may be big ore trucks running on the little Rensburg road in front of our farm. But the farmer on whose land the old shaft is on is adamant that he will not give them permission to use his farm road for the trucks to access the shaft from the Rensburg Road as the land is used for growing feed crops and grazing. In order to get the ore from the mining shaft to Nigel the mining company will need to build a suitable road between farms (along the boundaries) and somehow ramp onto the N3 highway. So, let's see how far they get with that!

Our second main concern is what effect the draining of the shafts will have on our water table. Speaking to the mining company representative, he says the water in the shafts is clean and would probably improve the quality of the Blesbokspruit river that runs through Heidelberg (that's where it will be pumped into). But what happens when they start pumping the water out is anybody's guess. He assures us though, that predictive studies by specialists will be done.

We had our first I&AP (Interested and Affected Parties) meeting on the evening of the 24th at the Jameson Park Community Hall where we were presented with the very comprehensive draft scoping report which included the beginnings of the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) report for the application. The presenter was from Umhlaba Environmental Consulting, the company commissioned to compile the reports and there was a representative from the mining company present.

A very entertaining affair. The presenter was very interested in getting as much feedback and queries from the meeting as possible (obviously the more information he was given to research, the more work and money he would be making from the project). The Far East Gold mining representative was a very nice, down to earth guy who knew all of the farmers that had land in the mine's prospecting rights area on a first name basis as well as all the relevant community leaders.

The attendees were definitely split into two main camps. The first and largest being the township community leaders and their numerous supporters who see the opportunity of getting something out of the project (employment, bursary funding, training, additional mining services and goods suppliers, support businesses, etc).

The second and minority camp were the farmers in the area who are concerned with the effects of the mining and related activities on the environment. Damage to road infrastructure, increase in rural activities and crime, damage to historical Boer War heritage sites, affects on the wildlife and water tables, etc.

The cherry on the top was at the end of the presentation it was announced that it had just been found that an application had been submitted for an extension to the township (which will include a school) adjacent to the mine property in Nigel. The proposed township extension area was right next to the mine's proposed tailings dam site. I wonder who overlooked that? If the township extension application goes through it's back to the drawing board for everyone to replan the entire processing plant site to relocate the tailings dam. We wait in anticipation for the next exciting meeting.


  A Bit of Nature
  I took a walk up to the foot of the hill early one morning and spotted a pair of mongoose and a dikkop interacting. I think the bird was too big for them to tackle and it knew it, but much to the dikkop's discomfort they had a good look around for a nest.

 

  A really large herd of eland came over the hill to visit. Lots of little ones. They stayed on the hillside and around the farm for a few days around the last weekend of November and then slowly ambled off over the hill back to where they came from.

 

 

A new visitor to the feeding tree, the Glossy Starling. There's a few of them on Kallie's farm and this looks like one venturing a little further out than usual.

  And then the weather. Nature is giving us the works and we're not too impressed with the show right now. We've had everything from a few beautiful warm windless days, regular heatwaves, lovely cumulus cloud formations, storm strength winds for days and nights on end and some really wild dust storms (a big one coming in above right). But very little of what we really need - precipitation.


  Spoilt Rotten
  Tortoises don't really make great pets, but they're ok to have around. Ours are just spoilt rotten. They huddle together on their soft straw beds under their little shelter and sleep all night, only poke their heads out and emerge when it's warm enough, get fed tortoise feasts (just look at that breakfast - lettuce, cucumber, watermelon and strawberries - and no, they don't eat carrots - that's my midmorning snack), and then just laze about in the sun all day. What a life.

 


  Pumphouse Bathroom Spider
  A nice big bark spider took up residence in our pumphouse bathroom doorway. A perfect spot for a spider as the light over the door comes on and stays on through the night every night and attracts an abundance of night insects.

 

So every night when we went up there to bath we had to dodge the big web she built across the top of the entrance doorway. Sometimes we could get through
  without disturbing the web but more often than not we had to break the bottom support strand of the web to get through. This got the spider into frantic repair mode and by the time we'd finished bathing and were ready to leave, she'd fixed her web by attaching the loose bits to the sides of the doorway to allow us through. Spiders aren't stupid?

In about two weeks from her first appearance an egg sac suddenly appeared in the top corner of the doorframe where the spider spent most of her days (bark spiders are nocturnal and clean up their webs before daybreak) and within days of that the spider was gone. It took another week for the spiderlings to emerge. They hung around for a day or so around the egg sac and then all flew off on their little silk strands to start their life adventures. And all is now back to normal for us for our evening bath times.


  Losing Another Big One
 

  It's the wind! One of our bigger trees in the front of the forest near the entrance gate came crashing down in the last week of November. The base was obviously damaged by one of the fires that came through a few years ago and what was left of it just couldn't support the weight of the tree with the howling winds we are having lately.

Not sure when we're going to get the chance to clean up all the big trees that have come down recently, but they'll provide us with more firewood than we can use at the moment.


  Highveld Thermal League Year End Event
  On the last Sunday of November a small group of model glider enthusiasts arrived at the flat field across the road from our farm for the last Highveld Thermal League contest of the year.

 
Well defined cumulus clouds developing midmorning in the south with strong thermal activity in the area taking the dust from the ploughing activities in the field nearby high up into the sky

  We host the contest annually and this year the weather was absolutely perfect for glider flying. Good thing as a few of the guys made the trip all the way from from Pretoria to be with us. Great flying, a good dose of fresh air and braai and salad feast afterwards made for a really enjoyable day.

 

  One of the purposes of the day out on Che's property is to donate Christmas provisions for the orphans. And this year the guys brought along bootfulls of groceries. Thanks guys.


  New In and Around the Growing Tunnels
  Final jobs for the month - firstly to get tunnel number 1 into production. The compost heap was "shuffled" over to the side and the first meter section cleared, levelled and prepared. Then I planted some root crops there: radishes, beetroot and carrots. Hope the soil will be soft enough there for them.

 

Second little job was to plant our mint bush that we nearly lost to the worms earlier in the month. Mint is traditionally planted under a tap so we planted ours on the side of the water station just next to the big tap.