The start of a new adventure


It sounded so romantic… living in off-grid self-sufficiency in the country, building their own house and growing their own food. But then it rained… and rained

The old adage to look before you leap is all very well, but I’m glad James and I didn’t think too hard before we plunged into our off-grid existence in rural Northland or we might still be ensconced in suburbia. Instead, happily oblivious to the reality of starting a homestead from scratch, we arrived on our 15 hectares of isolated native forest starry-eyed with the romance of a self-sufficient life amongst giant kauri and burbling streams.

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Actually, we settled only partly at first, trudging in on foot for several months until we’d built a road and a ford, across which we dragged our creaking caravan at the end of the summer. It was parked on the corner of our designated house site, looking out across the forest

, while we cleared a space for an orchard, rigged up a gravity-feed from the stream and built vegetable beds. At night we watched a billion stars from our bed as kiwi whistled down the valley.

“It’s like a camping trip we don’t ever have to come home from,” I gloated to family and friends.
That said, we didn’t want to live in our four-and-a-half-metre Oxford forever and so, in a gust of great gung-ho, we designed a mud-brick house on a scrap of paper and set to pacing out the floor plan over the hillocky ridge, calling to each other through the neck-high kikuyu grass. As a result, our home is going to be rather large – it was hard to know quite where the other was as we hammered our stakes into the soil.
We found our snaggle-toothed old bush builder through a notice at the Bush Fairy Dairy. “It’ll take me six weeks to get the roof up,” he assured us but then he embarked on a series of elaborate macrocarpa roof trusses, each spanning nine-and-a-half metres, and it was more than a year before he and James completed the job.
In the meantime, we discovered how wet a Northland winter can be. Just as the Inuit apparently have words for 100 different types of snow, we hunkered our way through a thousand kinds of rain, watching miserably as matches, toilet paper and books grew damp, clothes became musty and mould fuzzed across every surface. There was no space to dry wet things in the caravan.
James constructed a lean-to from tarpaulins and bamboo but successive storms meant we cooked in the rain, did dishes in the rain; sometimes, half maddened with cabin fever, I wept in the rain. “It’s like a camping trip we can’t ever go home from,” we despaired as the creeks flooded and trapped us in.
With the letter-box an hour’s round walk away, no internet and only occasional cellphone reception, we felt far removed from the outside world. In reality, though, a whole community of forest dwellers began to emerge around us. Our closest neighbours are artists and gardeners, a beekeeper and a hermit. As we weathered the winter and still stuck around they turned into friends, arriving at our caravan with buckets of produce from their gardens and decades of off-grid experience to share. Most of them had done the hard yards too, starting off in house-trucks, buses or tents as they built their homes. Touring their kingdoms gave us our inspiration.
Recently James and I quietly celebrated our two-year anniversary of living on the land. While the house is still under construction and there have been many times when we’ve wanted to quit, I’m beginning to feel we’re not so different from the many fruit trees we’ve planted – constantly deepening our roots into the soil until now we’re too far in to be able to leave.

In the next post, Polly and James discover their rumpty caravan shrinks further when a baby arrives.

Polly Greeks is a writer whose first book, Embracing the Dragon, saw her clambering along the Great Wall of China. After a year in Northern Iraq she now finds herself living in a stand of Northland forest, helping husband James build their own home.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.

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