Our journey to living off grid in South Africa begins with us looking for land. We narrow our search in the Western Cape and decide what exactly we are looking for. In “Looking For Land – Part 1”, we learn about buying with your head, buying with your heart, finding the magic combination, and, well…how much we have to learn.
What Are We Looking For In Land?
To begin our search for the perfect piece of paradise, we have to define what ‘paradise’ means to us. What exactly are we looking for? And where are we looking for it?
At this point in our journey, we’re looking at buying a piece of land with a few friends.
We have two couples who are very close to us, who are as keen as we are to get off grid and out of the 9-5 city living. We’ve all done away camping trips together as well as a few Afrikaburns, so we’re familiar with each other’s comfort levels (i.e. we’re all fairly bush-smart, and willing and able to put in work and “rough it” outside of civilization). Being close friends, we share the same values in terms of living naturally, growing organically and caring for the earth.
Clubbing together means we’d have a bigger budget to work with, and we’d be able to share the work load in terms of building an off grid life from the land – our own little community.
TIP: Write down your list of property requirements. Consider the maximum or minimum size you need to do what you plan to do on it. Think about where you want to be situated – is it important to you that you are close to a major city, an airport and/or hospital? What else do you care about? Spend some time refining this list.
The First List
Writing Down Our Off Grid Land Requirements:
Our ideal property:
- Minimum of 4 hectares (1 hectare per couple and 1 hectare communal)
- Less than one hour to a decent town with a hospital
- Less than 3 hours to an airport
- Sufficient water sources, ideally its own river or lake
- Lots of trees and shade
- Mountain views
- Good, arable soil
- Safe area with low crime (major factor here in SA)
- Whether it has buildings, and how many, would depend on the cost of the property (so the higher the cost, the more infrastructure it’d need to have for it to work for us)
After a particularly enthusiastic chat with our friends, Russ & I are pretty excited to get this ball rolling! We have decided to start heading out to see areas ourselves and look at properties for sale to get a better idea of what is available.
We don’t want to be too far from Cape Town. So we are going to start looking at areas and properties that are accessible for us to drive to and back in a weekend. Since Russ and I are both working full time, we need to be back home by Monday. Sigh – le rat race.
Off To See The Wiz – er… – Agent In Montagu!
As a first (uber exciting) step, we’ve gotten in touch with an estate agent. The agent, Andrew, handles the Montagu/Swellendam areas in the Western Cape. Russ set up a weekend to go see some of the farms Andrew has to show us that meet the brief we compiled for him.
We took Friday off for a long weekend and packed everything (including the doggos, of course) into the car.
We left Cape Town at 8.30am and drove to Montagu. It’s a lovely drive!
We were to meet the estate agent, Andrew, at a coffee shop for a chat, before he took us to see some properties.
We had provided him with this brief in advance:
- Maximum amount we estimated we and our friends could potentially pool (must have existing buildings at max),
- Minimum size 4 hectares,
- Must have (non negotiable): Own water source (river/spring/dam),
- Ideally: At least 1 hr from hospital/town.
- Purpose: We explain that our goal is self sustenance, so we’d want good land to grow food, keep bees & chickens, and that we’d love to host retreats & getaways.
TIP: Provide agents with your property requirements list up front, so that they can show you properties that align with what you’re looking for (saving you both time and effort). They can also hold onto the list and contact you if new properties become available.
He was awesome – super honest & full of practical advice.
He had a folder prepared of properties within our budget, including extremely useful aerial shots showing the land boundaries.
As we looked through it, he let us know if a property had water issues, or had been run down.
Andrew keeps bees (and mentioned he could get me hives for R650ea and would be happy to teach and help!) & free range chickens himself, as well as growing lucerne (alfalfa, sold for hay but is also medicinal for humans as a tea). And he seems to know absolutely everyone in town.
TIP: Ask the agent if they can provide you with property plans (boundary lines) or aerial shots so you can see the lay of the land. And don’t be shy to ask about property issues – why are they selling, what were they doing with the land, where are they moving to, etc. The agent can also give you some useful insight into the town.
Very cool connection to make on our day one recce! We spent the rest of the day looking at 5 different farms with Andrew, and finally, we checked into our accommodation for the night around 8.30pm, exhausted!
Montagu the town itself is beautiful – very well kept, very clean, booming tourism (accommodation signs everywhere).
Big Spar, Shoprite, own hospital, fire unit with helicopters, etc.
No informal settlements with hectic poverty disparity like we see in the city.
Most farm labourers are housed on farms, and lifetime rights are not uncommon.
We didn’t see a single farm with burglar bars, security gates, barbed fencing – we literally just drove in to each of them (not even locked entrances to farms!). No crime & no land restitution claims.
One downside is that Montagu has been struggling with the drought, & water is a problem in places.
Rainfall has been much lower than usual (Andrew said last year he only got 16% of his usual annual).
There are lots of mountain springs & boreholes & a free shared irrigation scheme between farms where each farm gets free water for x hours on x days, so they have made strong efforts to counteract the effects of the drought.
Buying with your Head
The very first property we saw on the first day ticked so many boxes.
It was German owned and neat as a pin.
Being the first place we had seen, we were both a little overwhelmed with all the things to think about and take in – neither of us managed to get a single photo!
On paper, it was an excellent choice.
It already had solar, a borehole, spring water, crops being irrigated, two cottages being let out to guests – it really was ready for someone to walk in and take over.
But our hearts didn’t sing. We knew it’d be a low-risk, easy in – but it just didn’t feel right.
Buying with your Heart
Another property we saw that first day had every “no” you could think of on paper. We almost didn’t bother going to see it.
It was a dilapidated dairy farm which had run out of both money and water – the land was dry and rocky, the buildings visibly worn down.
What do you know, we fell in love.
It had the most incredible energy.
The mountains surrounded the property like a giant hug. There was a river bed (now dry – but the imagination filled it in) running through one part of the land, with trees and grasses outlining its path – we could so easily see a camping area.
We could picture it all – this place was perfect for an off grid healing retreat.
It was SO hard, but in the end we knew we would be heading for trouble with this property. It was definitely not a smart choice for us.
The Magic Combination
The next day, we set off bright and early once again, meeting Andrew at the Montagu farmer’s market. We took a stroll around the colourful market, grabbed hot cappuccinos from Andrew’s father-in-law’s stand and ate freshly made breakfast “roosterkoeks” (which the doggos also thoroughly enjoyed) to fortify us for the last property viewing.
As we drove out of Montagu and came around the other side of the mountain, we could see the land becoming greener. Such a short distance and such a huge difference!
We passed Andrew’s farm, which was on the same road as the property we were going to view. The road connects Ashton to Swellendam, and apparently properties here are like “hen’s teeth”. Looking online on my phone, I found organic farms and even a healing retreat – nice area!
TIP: Look online on Google Maps or similar to see what sort of businesses and farms are in the vicinity of the property you’re looking at. If you’re wanting to grow organic, you won’t want to be surrounded by commercial farm land that does regular pesticide spraying, for example. It can also show you if there are properties in the area on the same “vibe” as you – as in our case, looking for organic farms and other healing sanctuaries.
We pulled up at the property, and I couldn’t actually comprehend that THIS was the one we’d come to see.
Andrew had certainly saved the best for last.
It had everything we could have hoped for and was perfect for every dream we’d thought of.
Of course, it was at the very top of our imagined budget (actually, quite a bit over, but who’s counting when you’re in love, amirite?).
The First Learning Curve…
I am so damned excited about this place that I want.it.now.
Never mind the whole “let’s just go check things out” – I am ready to go to the bank and apply for the loan!
The very next day I bombard our friends with descriptions and photos, I’m talking offers and splits and registering for VAT – lordy, I do know how to rush into things!
When I make my mind up about something, I make it happen. I’m very lucky to have a partner who balances me out – Russ is much better with taking things slow and proceeding with caution.
Anyway, all my excitement turned out to be for naught.
“If planning on buying a property with friends, decide on a BUDGET and TIME FRAME upfront.”
As it turned out, none of our friends were quite able to match the budgets we’d imagined splitting – nor were any of them ready to make the move quite yet.
In fact, they’d all been thinking about a time frame of several years.
Back to the drawing board, then…
We learned so much in our first property recce. It gave us our first tangible taste of what was out there, and what just might be in store for us.
We saw places that were perfect on paper, but we just couldn’t love.
And places we loved, that would be a mistake to jump into.
We also found out we were missing valuable information from our planned partners in community.
And we realised, seriously, that we were very ready to do this.
If you’re ever in need of an amazing agent in the Montagu / Swellendam area, I really can’t recommend Andrew from Dries Barnard Properties enough. He truly goes above and beyond. Thanks for showing us your beautiful town Andrew, you’re one in a mil!