Cottages In The Air


By Susan Roberts
In a rare moment of forethought about seven years ago, I bought a piece of land in the Drakensberg. Okay, that sounds grand, but let me explain: it’s a steeply sloping square on the side of a hill, in a complex in which there is a huge, impressive gatehouse, a fenced boundary, regularly burnt firebreaks around the perimeter, plenty of theoretical rules about architectural styles, and not a single dwelling.

Why did I buy it, I hear you ask. Apart from the price (which was about half what I would have expected), the biggest attraction was that there were no time limits in which to start building. Consequently there are now twelve owners all figuratively sitting on their windblown nest eggs, waiting for someone else to lay the first brick so that the rest of our property values can skyrocket. That way, if we don’t build, we can at least sell them for triple what we paid…

Dream on, Susan!

I used to have a small flat in Johannesburg which I sold when I moved back to Durban thirteen years ago. Well, I moved thirteen years ago, but the flat was on the market for another two before I found a buyer to take it off my hands – for less than what I had paid. Within a few months of my celebrating the sale, property values in that area doubled, then tripled and I have been kicking myself ever since. Thus I could never quite afford to buy an equivalent place in Durban.

Around the time that I arrived in Durban, I began to take regular breaks in the Drakensberg. Renting different cottages for short getaways led, in time, to fantasies about one day having my own cottage there. As with all fantasies, they tend to remain just beyond what is attainable, but there’s no harm in dreaming. Everyone needs a castle… er… cottage in the air, a little piece of Cloudcuckooland for those times when the real world treats you less than kindly.

My friends and I stayed in beautiful cottages. Our favourite was stuffed with Oregon furniture and stacked to the thatch with books. It had a fantastic fireplace against an inside wall, which warmed the bedroom on the other side. Built at the end of a short farm drive, with a view across a small  lake, and a river gurgling out of sight nearby, it was the ultimate fantasy cottage in the Berg.

And then the owner sold it without telling anyone!

So that’s when I bought my little plot of dirt and grass – so that I could custom-build my own cottage and no one could take it away from me. I had to sign an agreement to work within the architectural guidelines, and the list is endless: single-storey; wide veranda; roof that slopes enough to allow the snow to fall off, but is not allowed to be too steep or high; and definitely no thatch.

All houses must be painted in muted colours which don’t jar against the natural colouring of the surrounding landscape. The building style is not allowed to be ostentatious in any way. This includes a ban on log cabins, Spanish plaster, Mexican Adobe, Dutch gables, Bollywood Bling, Victorian wrought iron and any broekie-lace finishes. In other words, all must be simple and in basic settler style.

Settler? Ooh, nasty word, that. Not very PC, and just a bit ambiguous too. Take Pietermaritzburg, for example, where Settler = Victorian. The reason there is so much Victorian wrought iron and broekie-lace there is because that’s what the nasty, hated colonials added to their new homes when they built them, to remind them of the homes they had left in England. In the case of the poorer Byrne and Willowfountain settlers (who moved into Pietermaritzburg when their farms failed) it served as a reminder of the castles in the air back home that they could never afford, so they fantasised about building something similar when they might one day have their own places…

Oh dear – rather like I’m doing now. And since I’m a descendant of one of those struggling Willowfountain settlers, how fitting it is that I don’t have the money for all those extraneous finishes either.

So what will my Berg cottage be like? Based on my current data collection, this is what I have so far. I plan on starting with a thick-walled, single room structure covered by an insulated roof that will be supported by pillars. Rooms will be delineated by trellis screens, curtains, stained glass panels and other hangings; in fact, anything that I can find to drape which will save me the price of a brick wall and another door. If there’s one thing I can do after a lifetime spent in the theatre, it’s drape. Give me a bolt of pongee lining and watch me go!

My fireplace will be in the centre of the house with the living area on one side and the single bedroom on the other. The only solid inside walls will be around the fireplace because pongee lining flapping next to a fire is just asking for trouble…

Other things I have learnt the hard way: thin metal-framed windows don’t fit so well between rustic walls – a little gust of wind and all the windows start to rattle and whistle as the freezing night air belts through the gaps around them. Consequently my cottage will have double glazed windows –  like houses in cold countries are supposed to have. All plumbing will be centred in one area so the heated water doesn’t have far to travel, and all exposed water pipes will be heavily insulated.

Electricity will no doubt be too expensive by the time I build, so all energy will have to be provided by solar power or gas. I’ll probably need some kind of generator for my laptop because the battery doesn’t last longer than five minutes when the power goes off. Oh yeah, and for cooking and light too. Might need those while I’m writing…

On second thoughts, with all this insulation needed, why don’t I just build an underground bunker and live there? The architectural guidelines don’t forbid the inclusion of a cellar, although I’m not sure they mean it to be the only structure. Or I could just stay in Durban where it’s warm, and get ready to move into my sister’s spare room in Australia. They have central heating…

Anything can happen. I did say this was a fantasy, didn’t I?

Photo: Suat Eman –


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