21 June 2014 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Life on the edge

My brief visit to Forest Edge, a green retreat with five self-catering cottages run by a former Johannesburg Stock Exchange executive, was an eye-opener. It is run on completely sustainable principles, while owner Ronel Pieterse’s warm welcome and incredible personal journey make this a classic #MeetSouthAfrica story.

Ronel Pieterse at work in her permaculture garden

'Living on less is not living less.' Ronel Pieterse reaffirms the truth of these words every day at her home on the edge of Millwood forest near Knysna. She moved here with her daughter, Robin, about five years ago. Her life today looks very different from the high-powered corporate life she left behind in Johannesburg. 'We live on about a 10th of what we did, but our lives are so much richer,' she says.

Ronel with her chickens and some of her fresh organic produce. Image Dianne Tipping-Woods

Wandering around her gardens at Forest Edge, it’s hard to imagine that a decade ago, when she first bought the property as an occasional retreat from her career, there were 'just some alien trees, struggling fynbos and three rundown cottages'. When she finally made the decision to move here permanently, she had a lot to learn – 'In fact, I’m still learning, every day,' she says.

Living on less is not living less.

That she’s still driven and ambitious is evident (see her list of planned and recent upgrades and the awards her cottages have won). And she still strategizes about business management decisions. Now, though, her business involves things like beehives and heirloom seeds, grey water systems, the cost/benefits of solar panels, and ongoing negotiations with the baboons that are so fond of raiding her gardens. In fact, she laughingly tells me, she’s just finished working out the size of the hole in the chicken coup that’s just big enough to let the birds in, but keep everything else out, so that her free-range chickens can continue to provide her and many of her lucky guests with delicious, omega-rich eggs...

Fruit and vegetables at Forest Edge

Close to the chickens, her permaculture garden is a study in nature’s ebullience. I count no less than 15 kinds of fruit growing on trees and bushes, and dozens of kinds of vegetables and herbs, all growing where an alien Australian blackwood forest used to be. 'Wormwood is a natural pesticide and so is tansy,' she explains, showing me various companion plants and the ways in which her ‘experiments’ are thriving. 

Her worm farm uses organic waste from guests, her chicken bedding goes into the garden as composting, and she makes her own fertilizer, a mix of donkey manure and comfrey, which traps micro-nutrients in the soil. We admire some globe artichokes, eat gooseberries from the bush, and pick tomatoes, sweet green beans and carrots. 'This is permaculture. You put things into the earth and you get so much more out than you can imagine; I’ve been neglecting this garden a bit lately but it keeps giving.'

An aerial view of the cottages. Image courtesy of Christopher van Zyl

Ronel also has two strong hives of about 10 000 bees in total, which yield about 10kg of honey a month in the flow season! The hives are partially sealed with propolis by the bees for winter. 'Imagine a rugby ball made of bees. They hum and vibrate to keep themselves warm; listen...' she says, showing me how to put my ear to the hive.

In her kitchen, seeds dry, soak and sprout. The moon calendar and growth chart show her when to plant what. She brings out a beautiful goblin squash for me to admire and a jar of pickled peppadews that Robin made. She adds a horned cucumber and a jar of honey to my bag of veggies, overwhelming me with her generosity and enthusiasm and joy in the life she’s created – and this after just a two-hour visit to check out her cottages while researching another story!

Ronel and Robin. Image courtesy of Christopher van Zyl

Of course it’s the cottages that attract most of her guests, 'a nice mix' of local and international visitors, many of whom keep coming back. 'I do this for a lifestyle and work hard to make sure the cottages and gardens are private, tranquil and nature oriented, so getting the right guests, ones that appreciate this environment and ethos, is important,' she says (check out the  awesome quiz on her website).

Each of the five cottages, built in the nostalgic style of the old woodcutter cottages from centuries gone by, is fully equipped for a comfortable, relaxed and self-sufficient stay. They each have two bedrooms, indoor bath, outdoor shower, fully equipped kitchen, open-plan lounge/dining area with TV and DVD, and fireplace and braai. You can hike or stroll through the forest, laze in a hammock with a bird book and binoculars, explore a local farmers' market, go mountain biking, or access everything else the Rheenendal and Knysna area has to offer.

One of the rooms at Forest Edge

'Some people worried about me getting bored out here, but I am more stimulated than ever,' says Ronel, who, like her guests, finds inspiration in the people in her community and in the natural balance and rhythms of life around her. 'I’m here on my own terms; when I make decisions or changes, I can implement things immediately.'

When she’s not looking after her guests or gardens, or spending time with her daughter, she still does some small business consulting, including helping community members with their businesses and driving business development projects with previously disadvantaged families. 'I helped people down the road with their intended holiday cottages. I gave them copies of everything I’d done and people thought I was crazy to help my "competition". But for me this is another big difference in my life now: in a corporate, Western world, everything is limited so you guard knowledge and resources. In my new world, everything is abundant.'

I was in Knysna at the invitation of Fine Places (a PR company) in anticipation of the Pick n Pay Knysna Oyster Festival (3 to 14 July 2014), and meals and activities were arranged at no cost to me. I didn’t stay at Forest Edge, but can’t wait to do so in the future.

All images courtesy of Ronel Pieterse, unless otherwise specified

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Category: Attractions, Responsible Tourism

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