In our journey to off grid living in South Africa, we have been looking at properties in different areas of the Western Cape. Along the way we have learned some valuable lessons! In Looking for Land – Part 3, we must re-evaluate our property wish list yet again, and contemplate what being FULLY off the grid will be like.
RECAP – THE JOURNEY SO FAR:
In Looking For Land – Part 1, we discovered that our friends who we’d planned to buy property with, were thinking on a time scale of several years and with much lower budgets than we’d estimated.
We also got to see some amazing properties full of different possibilities.
In Looking For Land – Part 2, we found out that buying an off grid piece of land out in the sticks meant it was likely going to be zoned “agricultural”.
This means we’d need to put down a 30-50% cash deposit down for the bank to consider approving our home loan application.
And once again we had to sit down and think about the way forward…
About Those Property “Must Have’s”
We were initially looking for a parcel of land between 1 to 2 hectares large. However, now that we know that the bank is going to need a big cash deposit to approve a home loan, it has reduced the amount we will be able to purchase at. I’ve spent ages raking online property sites, but haven’t been able to find anything that matches what is on our property wish list and our three times reduced budget.
There was one little area we had been meaning to go visit for ages, a tiny rural village 3 hours outside of Cape Town, in the Overberg. Friends of ours had been living there for a while and had extended a few invitations over the years to come visit, but the thought of a 6 hour round trip on a weekend had been putting us off.
How Much Land Do We Actually Need?
The properties available in this little village called (rather uninvitingly) “Suurbraak” are all tiny – like less than an acre tiny. But budget wise, more realistic. So how much land do we actually need?
One of my absolute favourite and most inspirational off grid living books is by John Seymour, “The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency” I’ve had it for years and always refer back to it. In one chapter in the book, he shows how you can live completely self-sufficiently on as little as one acre. But less than that? Well, our dreams would have to be trimmed quite a lot! And I don’t know if less than an acre could even work, to support off grid self sufficient living….
We decided to just go see for ourselves to get a clearer picture. So I contacted a few places we’d seen available and planned a weekend there.
Off Grid Accommodation
I found a gorgeous off grid cottage to rent for the weekend. Travelling with the doggos means that we are sometimes quite limited in places to stay. Marinda’s Se Veranda, which is coincidentally on the market, is perfect – a spacious fenced in garden, and we had the whole place to ourselves. A perfect base to view properties from, and an opportunity to experience a solar powered home in action.
We met with our host, who gave us a tour of the property before leaving us with the keys. She showed us that the house consisted of a large caravan that had an additional enclosed section added to it, and a nice covered veranda in front of that. It was interesting to see the patched-togetherness working so cohesively. There was also an outbuilding that housed the solar power batteries and inverter, as well as a washing machine.
There were ceiling lights and wall plugs in the main house all powered by the solar system, but also back up candles and lanterns for cloudy and rainy days.
In the kitchen was a fridge/freezer. She asked us not open the door too frequently or for long periods. Cooking is done on a two plate gas stove. Since there are no regular municipal services here, there isn’t a refuse collection truck.
In the bathroom was a shower, flushing toilet and sink. The water out the taps is not drinkable, she informed us, but is supplied free of charge by the municipality as “agricultural water”, pumped from the river to a holding dam, and then to the farmland plots. The toilet is a septic tank system, meaning that when you flush, the water collects in a tank underground. When the tank is full, you need to pay for the municipality to send a truck to collect it.
A small lounge with a huge fireplace, and another big firepit outside completed the amenities.
Learning a bit more about the town
I can’t believe how beautiful Suurbraak is! It took both of us completely by surprise as we drove in. It’s located at the foot of the Langeberg mountains at the southern end of Traudow’s Pass in the Overberg. The village was originally called “Xairu” by the Attequa KhoiKhoi / Quena tribe who lived there peacefully before the good ol’ European settlers rolled in. “Xairu”/”Xairi” means “paradise” or “beautiful” – and it certainly lives up to its early name.
In 1812, the London Missionary Society arrived and built a mission station which you can still see today in the main town. By 1922, the English had moved on and the Dutch Reformed Church moved in.
Suurbraak’s history is super interesting! You can read more about it HERE.
The town’s current name, Suurbraak, came from “Zuurbraak” (Dutch) or “Sour Brake”, an early nineteenth century term referring to the masses of “sour ferns” (aka bracken) that grow abundantly throughout the area.
Looking at plots
We’d arranged to meet with an estate agent in the area, Neels, owner of Trader’s Properties, the afternoon of our arrival.
Neels sat and chatted with us on Marinda’s veranda, with us outlining what we were looking for and Neels filling us in on what kind of plots were available to view.
TIP: It’s a great idea to schedule a bit of time to chat together with the agent before going to view properties. You can ask questions about the area and living style, if they know any of the locals, and generally get a better feel for the place. The agent, in turn, may decide to show you something he hadn’t initially thought of for you once he has a better idea of who you are and what you want.
In short, there were lots of plots to see – but all were much, much smaller than we’d been hoping for. We’d known this coming in, and had decided it was still worth seeing for ourselves before ruling the area out. And we were glad we had.
We were looking at the available parcels of land across the river from the main village. We came to learn that “Oorkant Rivier” is not just a direction, it’s also the informal area name. No roads, no electricity, no Telkom cables, just pure off grid plots.
Despite the small plot sizes (most are less than half an acre!), this place wooed us completely.
Neels took us around on a delightful bush tromp through overgrown plots of land with no discernible borders other than “It probably ends somewhere around here” (accompanied with wide arm gesturing at thick forested bracken).
Neels also educated us on the difference between “Suurbraak” the town, and “Oorkant Rivier”. Geographically, very easy to understand – here is the town, that’s the river, and that’s “over the river”.
The more important defining factor however is that the Swellendam municipality, under which the district falls, treats these two areas of Suurbraak very differently. In the town itself, one can expect normal municipal services. This includes connection to potable (drinkable) running water, electricity, refuse removal, sewerage lines, road upkeep, road names, street lamps, etc.
Not so once you cross the little Buffelsjag river. Over this side, according to Neels, the municipality provides no services, and has no interest in servicing in the foreseeable future. While this sounds absolutely perfect for our off grid dreams, Neels filled us in on a rather major snag.
Another Lesson, And Another Two Steps Back
LESSON (WE’VE LOST COUNT AT THIS POINT): In South Africa, banks are very unlikely to grant a home loan to purchase land with no municipal services. Regardless of the deposit. It’s just not something they do.
This means that even now that we’d factored in our friends not being able to come in with us immediately on the purchase (Part 1), and then factored in the need for a 30% – 50% deposit for any agricultural-zoned land (Part 2), we’d have to revise our poor budget once again.
If we seriously want to consider a plot “Oorkant Rivier”, we would have to buy in cash – or apply for a big extension to our existing Access Bond. The Access Bond is for a “retirement property” we have been diligently chipping away at back in Cape Town (the property we currently live in). The bond is still fairly new, and I don’t know if we would be able to extend it so soon. Are we EVER going to make our dream come true?!
With a deep breath, I resolved to shelve the new problem for now and do my best to enjoy the rest of our weekend in this beautiful place.
One Last Property For The Day
After saying goodbye to Neels, we took a stroll down the dirt road to see if we could find “Plot 94” before the sun set. It’s a plot I’d spotted on both Property24 and Gumtree in the lead up to our visit, and had responded to both ads (being my usual eager beaver self). The pictures showed a parcel of land that had a river on one end, and looked really lovely.
The owner of the property, based in Paarl, replied first, attaching a map of Suurbraak outlining where the plot could be found and inviting us to go take a look.
Following closely up on that, the owner’s estate agent Abrie from Chas Everitt, responded that he’d be able to take us to this plot, and the few others I’d emailed about, on the Sunday of our planned visit.
We weren’t sure at all if we had found exactly the right spot, but figured it to be “round about here-ish” (taking our cue from Neels). It was gorgeous. River frontage on one end, mountain views on the other, and empty plots on either side. Thick with wild brush, we followed a cattle trail down to the river bank next to three huge, ancient looking oak trees. Wow.
All I can think about
We rose bright and early the next day, having slept well after the previous day’s long drive and exciting bush adventures.
We munched on fire-toasted croissants smeared with strawberry jam (suuuuuch a delicious treat!) while drinking too much coffee. Lavishly drawing out the gorgeous early morning vibes, with roosters singing the song of their people, and the mist gently rising off the river. Glorious.
For day two, we would be seeing a few more plots with Abrie and Jacqui. Including, of course, Plot 94 which had been the only thing on my mind from the moment I’d woken up.
The very first plot we stopped to see (and again after seeing the others) (and again after we’d said goodbye to Abrie and Jacqui) was Plot 94.
Abrie gave us a (slightly) better idea of where the boundaries may lie, and we discussed the price and whether the owner was at all negotiable.
He’d apparently already received two offers for less than the asking price (they couldn’t tell us the exact amount), and hadn’t rejected or accepted them, waiting to see if he got any better offers. It hasn’t been on the market very long. We know, from the +-10 Suurbraak plots we’ve seen at this stage, that this is a truly prime piece of land on offer.
The price is right in the middle of everything we’ve seen, and when you throw in the river frontage and spectacular mountain views, it is an absolute winner.
Weighing it up
So how sold are we on Suurbraak?
We’d have to get a plot so much smaller than we’d originally been planning.
Plus, we’d either need to cash in the majority of our life savings, leaving very little left to build with… Or extend our debt on our current property that is meant to be our “retirement plan”. Which would create a whole different kind of financial strain.
Make no mistake – I know full well just how blessed we are to even have these options, but it is still a weighty decision.
And beyond the financial consideration, are we ready to be absolutely and completely off the grid with no backup should our grand plans fall short?
We had a lot to think about. But we both knew in our hearts that Plot 94 was something special.