Sustainable Life Down Under: Compost toilets, naughty ponies, and fire sacrifices

I've just spent a month living on a tiny sustainable farm in Hunter Valley, Australia.


Sustainable living has always been high on my interest list — from survival tactics, to leaving a low footprint on our earth, to simply being knowledgable in understanding how to best use the resources around me. The idea of being independent and capable has always appealed to me.

So when the opportunity for Emma and I to try our hand at sustainable farming came up, I was more than happy to take it!

Sure, according to my bucket list I was supposed to start in New Zealand, but I couldn’t really complain that I’d find my beginnings in Australia instead.

Kylie picked us up from the train station in Maitland. The timing was perfect, against all the odds that day.

A drive out into the countryside with one ambiguous turn after another, and suddenly Kylie announced that this particular turn was home.

At the time, I couldn’t have told you the difference between that turn and any of the other hundred turns prior to that. Now, I could pick it out of a million similar turns: From the developing garden, to the greenhouse, to Aaron’s custom designed forest growing as a shield around the property… this truly was to become home to us for the next month.

“Could you hop out and get the gate?” she asked.

Before we knew it, we were pulling into a quaint dirt driveway next to several varying sized sheds.

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Aaron and Kylie had been developing the land together for about 6 months. It was already a fairly impressive setup, considering it had grown out of almost nothing.

The only thing brought in from The Grid was electricity; everything else on the property was self-produced and self-managed.

We were introduced to our studio. It was about 12 feet by 14 feet in size, holding a futon bed, a wooden bench, and a tiny kitchenette in the corner. The kitchenette had a small burner, 2 plastic buckets to act as sinks, and a modest (though comprehensive) array of foods for us to cook with.

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“I’ll be cooking you lunch on your work days, but we thought it would make sense for you to prepare your own breakfast and dinner? We will provide the food of course,” Kylie informed us.

The studio had been transformed from an old stable that the ponies used to have access to, and was still in progress. It needed insulation, there were plans for a more permanent kitchen setup, and they generally seemed uncertain about whether it was truly livable.

I felt it was perfect.

We got to know all the animals of the farm pretty quickly. Bobby and Snowy the miniature ponies, Georgie the attentive pup, Kitty the elusive cat, Patty the friendly baby goat, Babe the wild baby sheep, and all 17 chickens along with the 2 roosters.

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It also took us about a week and a half to finally get into the rhythm of our schedule:

6:15am, first alarm. Boil water, have a bowl of oatmeal. Get dressed.

7:00am, meet Kylie and Aaron out front. Begin the day by feeding the chickens, and feeding Bobby his special breakfast to aid the healing of his leg.

After our starting chores, there was always a good selection of work for us to do. It varied from digging holes, fertilizing soil, weeding, tearing old trees out of the ground, mulching the garden, creating compost piles, putting new trees into the ground, cleaning the chicken coop, watering trees, spending time with the babies, rescuing trees from overgrown honeysuckle, hunting down spiky plants, and always building up the bonfire pile.

That’s not even an all-inclusive list of our activities, but provides a bit of scope for the type of work routinely called for on the farm.

9:45-10:30, break for morning tea. We got to try a wide selection of teas, including rosemary, lemon myrtle, and rose hip. We were also often treated to some sort of snack — such as oranges slices, almonds, coconut shavings, raisins, carrot cookies, or polenta-based cake.

If it wasn’t too hot yet, we’d tackle another hour or so of work before resting till lunch.

1:00pm, lunch! Kylie cooked us famously delicious vegetarian meals. I never knew you could do so much with so little.

4:00pm, we would return to work. By around 5:30-6pm, we would finish off the day by collecting the eggs, and feeding/watering all the chickens again.

6:30pm, I would cook us something for dinner. I invented a few variations of curry soups, fried rice and veggies, and pasta creations that both Emma and I enjoyed. I’d never cooked with so many vegetables before. (My cooking class in Cambodia also really helped me out with ideas!)

8:00pm, we would already be about ready for bed. I caught up on so much sleep the first few weeks that I almost felt human again.

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We got to go “into town” about twice a week, usually coinciding with our days off. The internet was incredibly limited out at the farm, with no wifi and just the trickle of a satellite connection through their personal computer that we preferred not to use except for anything urgent.

Town could mean Cessnock, a small city about 20-25 minutes away, or Wollombi, an area that consisted of one main road with a general store and a few small restaurants just 10 minutes in the opposite direction.

Emma and I quickly become known at our usual haunts in both locations. It’s not difficult to attract attention when you’re new in small areas.

In Cessnock, we would usually start off at Polina’s Cafe, where the food and drinks were quite excellent, but the wifi would cut out after a couple hours of use. We would make our way down to the library until the timed connection ran out, and then venture down further to yet another cafe that sported another open wifi from across the street.

In Wollombi, we loved to torture Bruno, who ran a small cafe and restaurant next to an winery that doubled as an inn.

“What are you guys still doing here?” he’d sigh in exasperation, “Where are you staying that you don’t have electricity?”

It took a minute before we could point out it wasn’t the electricity, but the wifi we were after. We just also happened to need to plug in when we were sitting there all day.

“Don’t kill my customers,” he would grumble, worried about the tripping hazard.

Some notable moments throughout our stay:

Learning to use a compost toilet. It’s not complicated, but it does take some getting used to when you’ve never done anything of the sort before.

Picking fuzzy green caterpillars off of kale. The first time we did it, I was pretty weirded out by the whole process. I didn’t want to touch them, I didn’t want to deal with it. By the end, I was somehow adjusted to it and was picking them off just fine — not even using gloves (usually)!

Showering by black bag, or not at all. Admittedly, neither Emma or I really showered as often as we should have. And when we did, it was a matter of remembering to set the black bags out early enough in the day to warm it up, and then standing under the trickle and attempting to scrub the whole first layer of your skin off to feel clean again.

All of Snowy’s shenanigans. Snowy is a naughty pony who enjoys escaping, eating your food, and generally causing trouble in her spare time.

Preparing a rabbit and tanning the skin. We helped skin and prepare some rabbits for the carnivorous pets. This was a process I’d never been exposed to. Disgusting? Yes. Useful knowledge for survival situations? Absolutely.

Sleeping, or trying to sleep, through rooster calls. I’ve complained about roosters before in regard to my road trip through Key West, but this really took it to the next level. They always start around 3:30am, and don’t generally stop until 5pm or later. Every day. Every night. For the whole month.

A big ol’ goanna. We spotted a pretty big monitor lizard running around the property a few times, but I never got the chance to snap a good photo. In related news, we also found a blue tongued lizard hanging out under our bed one day.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. There was a nearby farm run by a Hare Krishna group. We visited for Sunday lunch, which meant we also sat through a very interesting chanting ritual before we could eat.

Bugs. Reptiles. Spiders. Everywhere. Granted, they weren’t ever dangerous. I don’t think.

The most epic bonfire of all time. We finally burned the bonfire, and it was big, and it was brilliant, and we baked the most delicious potatoes in it.

Please enjoy 34 seconds of slow motion bonfire beauty:

Beautiful bird calls through the morning, but also… what the hell, kookaburras? It was truly magical to wake up to the enchanting, sometimes eerie bird calls through the morning. But have you ever heard the kookaburra before? It sounds like a monkey mated with a hyena and the creature that came forth can’t stop laughing at your face.

Cleansing sunrise fire rituals. One day we drove out to sit in on an Agnihotra sacrifice at a nearby farm with some friends of Aaron and Kylie. Definitely a new and fascinating experience I had never been exposed to.

Catching a wild bird stuck in the chicken coop. I’d been catching chickens through the month, so the idea of catching a bird wasn’t so scary when I found a wild bird stuck in the back of the chicken coop when we went to clean it out. It had exhausted itself by attempting to fly out the back where there was no escape, so I managed to catch it while it took a rest and set it free outside.

Earthbag building. Aaron is wildly knowledgable about alternative living, and we got to help put down a layer of earthbags for the new stable they’re building for the ponies. I now have a desire to learn more about SuperAdobe structures and building one of my own for a home one day.

The roos! How could I forget the roos? We saw fields upon fields of wild roos hanging out near the farm. They tend to just stand there adorably in groups and stare at you with timid curiosity.

Health benefits of eating cleanly and exercising daily. Did you know that eating sugar-free, dairy-free, organic, clean vegetarian food and doing hard physical labor almost every day is really good for your health? Finally being in an environment where this was my usual day in and day out, I lost about 3-4 inches around the waist during my stay. Not to mention, I’m much stronger than when I arrived… if my ability to lift a full shower bag of water up on its hook is any indication.

All in all, our stay at the newly dubbed Sweet Valley farm with Aaron and Kylie was quite splendid.

Unhooking from regular access to internet, having our first experience with sustainable living, getting to know our beautiful hosts, learning so many new skills, enjoying so many new experiences, having time for self reflection and regaining some long lost health was incredibly rejuvenating.

It was our first time using the WorkAway network, and Emma and I both agreed that this was exactly what we were looking for.

We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the bush down under.

P.S. Bonus thought of the day: Why does Australia have so much slang? And why make so much of it so suggestive?

P.P.S. New vocabulary I’ve found myself using: “Full on”, “loads”, “reckon” (or alternatively “figure”)

P.P.P.S. More information about Aaron and Kylie: They are turning their farm into a retreat for learning about sustainable and organic farming, environmental and survival training, as well as cooking, more earthbag building, and learning to live with a minimal footprint.

They are launching their site soon at SweetValleyRetreat.com

Meanwhile, Kylie also runs a cooking site (which, based on her cooking, I highly recommend you investigate) at KyliesWildKitchen.com.au