In the run-up to my final year exams at university, I thought organising my travel plans for the summer was the best idea since sliced bread. We’re talking about my Masters year at university. I spent my days slaving away in the basement of a library, surrounded by archives and aged textbooks, whilst my evenings were pre-occupied with scrolling through travel blogs and reading up on travel insurance and policies.
My original plan was to spend weeks trekking through Morocco, during the Ramadan period. A late-night browse through the Workaway website led me to an eco cornucopia nestled in South Africa. That evening, I decided to abandon my plans of a North African adventure, and I booked return flights a couple of days later in favour of the Southern tip of the continent. As I start to look back on memories from the last year, this one stands out most; it was the life experience that has changed me drastically, a change that I was most thankful for.
Did I mention that it was my first female solo travel experience, too?
I had already booked a single RyanAir flight to Marrakech when I stumbled upon Peace of Eden on Workaway. In May/June of this year, I was majorly hooked on the wellness culture. Peace of Eden seemed to be the perfect place to explore my interests and passions further; a fully vegan – it was only partially vegan during my visit – eco retreat in the Knysna forest in Western Cape.
The nature-oriented vibe of its Workaway profile screamed at me. I exchanged a few messages through WorkAway and e-mail with one of the owners, Jen, who appeared grateful for my enthusiasm for their slice of paradise. She also proved to be rather helpful – I planned to use Baz Bus throughout my whole South African trip, but she kindly informed me of the cost implications when using the transport service and offered more cost-effective alternatives for travelling around. It was a tip that I had been so thankful for to this day!
It was a mid-winter afternoon when my coach from Mosselbai arrived in Knysna. Howard, Jen’s husband and the co-owner, kindly picked me up from Knysna’s coach station. Unfortunately, by this time, Jen was away in London as she took on an adventure of her own – as a vegan chef of a busy restaurant in the capital.
As we drove along Rheenendal Road, the emerald green trees begin to thicken, and the crisp and cool wintry air welcomed me in Peace of Eden. Situation in an idyllic part of the Knysna forest, Peace of Eden has never failed to amaze me to this day. From the monkeys often seen greeting you from the towering trees above, to the organic vegetable garden by the paddocks, it was a green paradise if I ever did see one. The beautiful photos on the website does not do it any justice, at all. It was a shame that my visit did not coincide with the humid South African summer; Peace of Eden would have been the perfect spot during the summer months at the Southern hemisphere.
As for my volunteering experience, it was restless, fun and unpredictable. I was a marketing assistant volunteer for three weeks. I started my days anywhere between 8 am and 10 am, it was very flexible depending on the tasks for the day. My meals (breakfast and dinner) were provided, as well as my accommodation. I stayed at a cottage, one or two of the forest tents, and also in the main house; my residence depended on the accommodation bookings for the week. I did not mind where I stayed, but the mobility required at a very short notice may mean this part can be a little distressing for others.
I spent most of my days in the reception area-slash-office, helping re-structure the marketing strategies of the company, as well as carry out some general administration tasks. It was a great voluntary post as I was able to use the marketing experience I acquired from the three-week period in many interviews and job applications since.
It may sound banal, but it was far from it – from looking through wedding archives, collecting data to help set-up a volunteer scheme at Peace of Eden, to visiting a township where a Xhosa DJ plays me his latest house production, I felt very involved from day one. The different tasks I undertook gave me a refreshing outlook on South African culture and, as it turns out, life in general.
I also got my hands dirty on some housekeeping duties: one day, I was helping some of the workers set-up the cottages for arriving guests, and another evening, I found myself serving up a three-course vegan meals for marathon runners. I rekindled my love for hosting; it was very humbling to get positive feedback – and be mentioned – on the Peace of Eden Facebook page regarding the menu I prepared and services I offered during my stay!
Besides ‘work’, I had some very fond memories of Peace of Eden. I slept at the artfully-decorated cottages and a couple of the humble forest tents, showered outdoors in the middle of South African winter and brushed my teeth using rainwater. In addition, I met some of South African’s budding creatives during my stay and brushed shoulders with a band who share my love for Foals.
My one and only other qualm was that it was bloody freezing, as central heating does not seem to exist in many South African households – a concept so foreign to me living in the UK. This did not negate from the experience, however; I learned to properly set-up and light a fire. It felt a little nomadic, coming from a household with an electrical fireplace. It is a life skill I have gained and treasured, nonetheless.
As my first Workaway adventure, and the reason for my first female solo travel abroad, Peace of Eden made for a holistic and fruitful trip, which explored and enhanced my social boundaries, work ethic, and principles.
The people, the experience and the place itself opened my mind to spirituality, mindfulness, and a different way of life: veganism. To this day, I eat mostly vegan. I also have veered towards natural and organic beauty, and I started caring. A lot. About animals, the environment, and myself. And it feels goood.