Solar makes cents, and Boschendal becomes a significant producer

About two years ago, the V&A Waterfront commissioned 4,207 solar panels (7,000m²) installed on the roofs of the main Waterfront buildings, with a total electrical output of 1,093.8 kWp at a cost of R20 million.  It conserves about 1,721,956 kWh annually, significantly reducing the Waterfront’s environmental footprint.  At the same time, Boschendal commissioned its first, small rooftop solar installation at the Rachelsfontein complex.

Then in October 2017, Robben Island launched its R25 million, 666kWp solar farm supported by 828 kWh battery storage, to reduce reliance of diesel which was shipped in for the island’s generators.  Just based on the cost of fuel savings, the Robben Island installation will pay for itself within five years.  The micro-grid on Robben Island is the largest combined solar and lithium-ion storage micro-grid system in South Africa.

Boschendal solar farm

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Bucking the trend in the drought

The Western Cape has faced its worst drought in a century, and this is the third consecutive year of that drought.  Cape Town’s mayor has been at pains to point out that — with climate change — “This is the new normal.”

With dwindling water supply to farmers, crop productions have been slashed and, across the Province, between 35,000 and 50,000 jobs are at risk, excluding an even larger number of seasonal workers.  I asked for the provincial department of agriculture’s stats for produce under threat but received no response!  I am underwhelmed!

Minister Alan Winde’s speeches, however, paint a dire picture which are just a tip of the iceberg.  A month ago, Alan visited the West Coast.  “There’s thousands and thousands of hectares of agricultural land below the Clanwilliam Dam which produces a lot of produce and revenue for our country that’s now under severe water restrictions. They’re going to produce 50% less,” he said.  “Farmers are being throttled and are forced to use 60% less water, with the Clanwilliam Dam level at around 36%.  There’s an 80% decrease in potato crops and a drop in wine and export quality citrus.”  With commercial farmers struggling, one focus for Province is supporting backyard food gardens for workers’ food security.

“In places like Ceres, 80% less potatoes and 50% less onions will be planted resulting in about R40 million less paid out in salaries and wages.  In Lutzville the tomato paste plant will not even open this year.  Some 30 000 animals have been sold as farmers battled to feed their core herds.”

Against this backdrop, Boschendal started out at the beginning of the drought with a massive planting of 600,000 new fruit trees over a period of three years — which has just been completed. Permanent jobs in farming operations alone has grown from 70 to 287.  Their dams are full and Jacques du Toit, Boschendal’s general manager, said the dams started overflowing on 20 August and he counted 15 streams on the farm running into the Dwars River, on to the Berg River, and out to sea…

A rare sight for Capetonians who have become accustomed to seeing photographs of parched dams: York Dam on the slopes of Drakenstein mountain looking across to Simonsberg mountain.  The photographs of the dams were taken on 30 November 2017.

Normandie Dam is alongside York Dam.

Rhodes Dam on the slopes of Simonsberg mountain.

Upper Vineyards Dam

Mountain Vineyards Dam on the slopes of Simonsberg mountain.

Rachelfontein Dam

Rachelsfontein Dam, the overflow dam for Mountain Vineyards Dam, with the Matroosberg mountain above Worcester just peaking through in the distance.

Cleaning dams

At the end of last summer, the dams were cleaned and silt removed. Farmers may not increase the size of their dams.  (Crazy, huh?)  At York dam, they found underwater mountains of rubble that had never been removed from the dam when it was constructed.

Boschendal dams (and just some of them are shown above) hold 3½ million cubic metres of water — 3,500 megalitres.  Boschendal relies entirely on its own dams for all agricultural water. It doesn’t draw any water from the Theewaterskloof, Berg River or any State dams for farming operations.

Filling the dams and making the water last is achieved by careful and effective custodianship and management of the land — alien clearing does make a very big difference to water flows from the mountains and nurturing soil quality in the vineyards and orchards sees water use reduced by 30%.  Jacques du Toit keeps repeating: “Soil health is everything.”

Jacques and former CEO, Rob Lundie, spent hours discussing and debating innovations to improve the management of the land.  Rob encouraged all managers to research and innovate — and YouTube is full of inspiration for farmers.  They trialled new orchard blocks where cover crops were planted before and after the new trees were planted.  Planting cover crops after the new trees were established won.  The cover crops are a mix of rye grass, turnips, ciradella, radishes, vetch and red & white clover Boschendal’s Black Angus beef herd grazes on the cover crops… leaving their own goodness behind.

Apart from reducing water usage, the good soil quality also reduces the need for fertilizers by 30%.  Using biological fertilizers, although more expensive, is also better for the soil.

Jacques started soil tests at Rob’s insistence and the orchards gave a reading of only 2.  He went up to the Viewpoint to fetch some topsoil for comparison. “One needs a non-disturbed reference as yardstick.  It was rich and full of earthworms,” he recalls.  “The reading from that soil was 21!  Better than good.”  In the following six months, he managed to improve soil quality in the orchards by 400-600%.”

“Healthy soil holds rain water — the statistics show that 300,000-500,000 litres of water per hectare per 1% increase in humus is saved. You need less irrigation and the land seeps for longer, amongst many other benefits,” says Rob.

Computer screen in the office showing the status of the probes measuring moisture.

Computer screen in the office showing the status of the probes measuring moisture.

Boschendal is micro-managed.   There are 300 precision probes in the soil measuring moisture every 10cm to a depth of 80cm — one per hectare in the orchards and one every three hectares in the vineyards — with repeaters to the office.

There is an irony to the “bad” alien vegetation… it is being recycled to improve the quality of the soil in the orchards.  It all goes into a chipper — at a rate of 50m³ a day — and 200m³ of wood chips/hectare goes into the topsoil on the orchards.  It’s going to take another two years of chipping before there will be enough for the whole farm.  Distributing the wood chips was a time-consuming process so Jacques designed a machine to do it more efficiently.

Some of the alien vegetation is used to create biochar, which is added to the farm’s composting operation, using waste from the restaurants and winery.  The worm farm on the Estate has become a dedicated operation.

The beef herd, which peaked at nearly 800 cows, has been reduced to 600 — the number best suited to the farm.  Farmer Rico’s pasture-raised chickens also fall under Jacques’ ambit now and will soon have 4000 lay hens and 2000 broilers.  But it’s the pigs that must be the envy of pigs everywhere!  There are three forested camps each of about 2½ hectares in forests where they roam free.

Boschendal's new solar farm

With Eskom’s future looking increasingly bleak and electricity price hikes almost assured, Boschendal’s massive second solar farm producing almost 1 megawatt of electricity has just been commissioned, reducing the farm’s reliance on the national grid.

Stellenbosch dam above Ida's Valley, with Simonsberg behind

Stellenbosch dam above Ida’s Valley, with Simonsberg behind, was 97% full last week.

What are the lessons from Boschendal?  The most important is that preparation for the drought should have started over three years ago.

The Stellenbosch dam above Ida’s Valley on the other side of Simonsberg was also full and stood at 97% last week,  This has less to do with Stellenbosch municipality and everything to do with the farmers of the Greater Simonsberg Conservancy — who cleared alien vegetation in the catchment area and watercourses above the dam.  Take a bow Tokara and Thelema Estates, for over five years they have continuously cleaned up all alien vegetation.

Cape Town’s mayor is correct when she says “this is the new normal”.  But the City has been preaching Climate Change for nearly 20 years… so why wasn’t it prepared?  Why is the City building temporary desalination plants if this is the new normal?

The mayor recently added alien clearing around Wemmershoek dam to her list of interventions — that’s going to have no impact in the short term because the rains are long past.  Had they started five years ago, clearing alien vegetation in the catchment areas of all Cape Town dams, an expert speaking on CapeTalk radio said the impact would have been the equivalent of building a new full Wemmershoek dam.

The City has failed its citizens, and national government… well… they have neither the competence, the political will nor the funding to make a difference.  The national Department of Water & Sanitation is bankrupt.

Politicians are playing Russian Roulette with the Province’s future.  They focus on politically-expedient decisions rather than long term plans.  I asked one politician what will happen if the drought… the new normal… doesn’t break next winter.  “We’ll all resign,” was the answer.  Now that’s cold comfort!  Maybe a few really good farmers would do a better job of running the City and Province.

Related content:
The Boschendal story
Even the cows have happy lines

A new, ‘must-stop’ on the R45 between the N1 & Franschhoek

For many years, there’ve been two sad old buildings full of potential on the R45 between the N1 and Franschhoek.  One of them used to house the old Groot Drakenstein post office.

Landscape architect Danie Steenkamp bought the property recently and has given it a new lease on life, selling the one building to Vicki Bell for her antique and collectable shop and keeping the other building for his, an architect’s and lawyers offices… and the Ou Meul Bakery that will become a new compulsory stop on the R45.

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The old Groot Drakenstein Handelshuis, and one-time post office, is now the grand old lady on the R45 from the N1 to Franschhoek.

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Pniel’s home-grown entrepreneur

Elrico Pietersen was born in Pniel on the slopes of the Simonsberg and went to Pniel Primary School and then Kylemore High School, a few kilometres up the road.  “I wasn’t one of the lucky ones to go away to school — my mother is a baker with two children,” he says.

Elico Pietersen and Sammy of Bikes at Boschendal

Elrico Pietersen and Sonny of Bikes at Boschendal.  Elrico is the entrepreneur and Sonny is a bike mechanic/tour guide who has done the Cape Epic and rides for South Africa in MTB cycling.

Elrico ran two businesses while he was in high school, both game shops which sold other necessities in “The Scheme”, the part of Pniel where he lived. “Game shops?” I asked.  They offered video games for kids with little else to do.  Elrico started identifying opportunities early on.

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Snoozy snake survives to slither in the mountain reserves

I wasn’t too thrilled to find a snake in the outbuilding that houses my solar batteries and inverter yesterday afernoon.  And since I know nothing about snakes, I posted a photo of it to find out what it is.  Well… everybody on Facebook seems to know far more about snakes than I do and I was bombarded with suggestions… like “coaxing it into a bag”. Yeah, no thanks.

And then Adele Toua who manages the Simonsberg Conservancy put me in touch with someone and he offered to take it away this morning.  And that’s how I met Kobus Smit of the Cape Reptile Institute.

I don’t know what I was expecting but I think some drama was at the top of the list.  But hardly a minute later Kobus had it in the tube and it was all done.

South African Puff Adder

“A nice big boy” was Kobus’ first comment. But this big boy needed to be prodded to wake up.

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Spectacular Sunday morning first light

If there’s one thing this south-western corner of the African continent really has going for it, it is the quality of light.  Add to the that the confluence of two oceans and spectacular mountains, and one has light displays that are hard to beat.

These were my views from home yesterday morning before the sun had even properly risen… it was at first light.  The first view is across three mountain ranges to the Matroosberg on the other side of Worcester.  The second two are towards Franschhoek.

First light on Boschendal First light on Boschendal First light on Boschendal

What a great little village Pniël could be!

When CapeInfo was deciding on the most beautiful drive in South Africa, Helshoogte came up tops for every reason — the ever changing views in every season, the dramatic mountain vistas and the things to do on the route.  On the Stellenbosch side of the Pass, there are views back to Table Mountain.  From the top and on the eastern side, there are views across four mountain ranges (and all the way to the other side of Worcester.)  The attractions are anchored by Delaire Graff, Tokara and Thelema on the one side and and Boschendal and Solms-Delta on the other.

And in between there’s Pniël — a delightful little village with a rich history… but little to offer the traveller.  Yes, there is the historic church as well as the fascinating Pniël Museum with its peaceful tea garden, but you need to check that they are open if you’re planning to visit — their opening times are erratic.

Pniël Congregational Church

Pniël Congregational Church — the heart and soul of the village.

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It’s time to really start promoting small entrepreneurs

I live close to the villages of Pniel, Lanquedoc and Kylemore outside Stellenbosch.  Now that’s not an area where you find a booklet advertising local services — which is what I really needed when I arrived there.  If there was, the small businesses there are probably so small they probably wouldn’t be able to afford the advertising costs.  So, I ended up using services in Paarl and Stellenbosch.

Then, when my bakkie needed new front disk pads and I really didn’t feel like trekking into Stellenbosch, leaving the bakkie while the repairs are done and collecting it later.  So I asked the security company on Boschendal which seems to know the local community if they knew of anybody. Continue reading

The biggest party in Africa… and a tribute to a legendary party-maker

Have Cape Town’s First Thursdays become the biggest monthly party on the African continent?  On the First Thursday of every month, shops in Cape Town’s CBD stay open till 9pm and the city is taken over by partygoers.  Peak-hour traffic starts at 5pm into the city; pavements are jam-packed, traffic regulations are bent and there is a festive spirit second to none.

Cape Town First Thursdays

Sidewalks are thronged with people enjoying Cape Town’s CBD

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The best gift for your laptop… and yourself!

It’s the best spend I’ve ever made!  For just on R2,000, my 4½ year old laptop is far, far faster than it’s ever been.  Replacing your old hard drive with a Solid State Disk (SSD) is the best thing you can do for any computer.  And you won’t have to hold your breath waiting for things to open.

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What is your favourite Drive in SA?

Deciding on the Most Beautiful Drive in South Africa is no easy task!  Clarence Drive – between Gordons Bay and Rooi Els, alongside mountains and ocean – should be on any shortlist. And so could the Long Tom Pass and Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga, Magoesbaskloof in Limpopo, and… well, why don’t you let us have your suggestions?
Bartinney

View of Simonsberg mountain from Bartinney Private Cellar on the slopes of Botmanskop

We’ve decided the Very Best Drive in South Africa is Helshoogte Pass between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.  You can’t beat the drama of those iconic mountains and row upon row of vineyards and fruit trees – which change from season to season, day to day, and hour by hour.

There are incredible places to eat and stay, wines to taste and mountain bike routes to delight.  It is a gastronomic and visual feast.  Click here to read more

And what is yours?

What’s in a name? Everything!

Only politicians, bureaucrats and the foolish think that when they choose a name to brand a destination, they have the makings of a successful brand. They usually choose what they regard as a “safe” name, catering for all interests, ignoring everything that is already well-established.

And without the budgets of Unilever or SA Breweries, or  a carefully created brand strategy, they believe their new brand will take root just on their say-so.

For some time now, I’ve driven Helshoogte Road (R312) between Boschendal and Stellenbosch almost daily, and I’m convinced that this is one of the most stunning drives in South Africa. It passes the villages of Pniel, Jacobsdal and Kylemore through the Banhoek Valley.  With the anchors of Delaire Graff and Tokara at the top of Helshoogte Pass and Boschendal at the Franschhoek side of the road, and much in between, it is a destination in its own right.

Banhoek Valley from the top of Helshoogte Pass 5km outside Stellenbosch.

Banhoek Valley from the top of Helshoogte Pass 5km outside Stellenbosch.

This area has been named Dwarsrivier Tourism from the name of the river that runs through the valley.  It’s yet another case where tourism is not aligned to the destination.

Dwarsrivier is hardly unique in South Africa and is definitely not the area’s best known feature.  The old Bangehoek (anglicised to Banhoek) and Helshoogte are what most people still refer to when talking about the area.

Helshoogte Pass

Stellenbosch's outgoing mayor, Conrad Sidego, gave me this book yesterday as a thank you gift.  It is a stunning book, and just reinforces our thinking about this area.

Stellenbosch’s outgoing mayor, Conrad Sidego, gave me this book yesterday as a thank you gift. It is a stunning book, and just reinforces our thinking about this area.

CapeInfo has added Banhoek Valley over Helshoogte Pass as a new destination, ignoring Dwarsrivier Tourism as the area’s name.  We have written to the manager of the tourism organisation explaining what we’re doing but haven’t received any response or acknowledgement.

We decided to use Banhoek instead of the old Banghoek or Bangehoek since the conservancy covering the area has been named Banhoek.  And we’ve included the use of Helshoogte for it’s uniqueness and the memory of the old winding pass planted with bluegum trees to stop cars driving over the edge.  (Does anybody have the story of how those trees came to be planted?)

Some people have suggested we should be using the original Bangehoek as the name.  What do you think?