Mar 27

Waking up in HEPA – our first week

It’s cold and wet here.  Unusually so I am told.  Floods in Qld before we left, earthquakes in NZ and Japan, it feels like the planet is trying to shake us off like a fleas off a dog.

But I woke up this morning to the sound of gurgling water.  After arriving at HEPA in the dark of night what a surprise to see a river not a stones throw from out hut.  It may be wet and cold, but this place is truly beautiful.  One of the goals of HEPA is to allow people to live in harmony with nature and they have chosen a great place to do it.

To a degree we are guinea pigs here as we are the first lot of foreigners (other than Dave, Joni and Robert who have been here for a while) to come and stay for an extended period.  As such it has been a learning process for the SPERI/HEPA staff about what to tell people to bring, what to expect etc.  For example gum boots and raincoats are a necessity here at this time of year, as is winter clothing, and I mean like going to the snow winter clothing!  Well it’s not that cold but as it is quite humid it feels colder than it really is.

My feet were soaked and cold for the first few days until we had some boots brought in.  Nights are particularly cold so some thermals and probably a good quality sleeping bag would have been great.  But we have plenty of blankets and we built a fire in the hut – yes, an open fire that is pretty much just a slab of clay in the middle of a timber hut.  But the locals seem perfectly comfortable with this and have been doing it for a long time so who am I to argue?

There is no chimney, the smoke just goes up and out the ventilation in the roof except if the fire isn’t lit properly, it can then get a bit smoky in here.

Around the fire inside the hut

Living in a community is an interesting experience.  Our house is still being finished (no toilet yet).  So, meanwhile we are sharing space in House number 2 (there are 3 houses in this compound so the imaginative names House 1, 2 and 3 are used).

Some partitions have been constructed but they are very thin and only about two meters high so there is very little privacy.  But everyone is very nice and everyone gets along fine.  In our hut we have Cassy and Sai in one room, Tia and me in another (the twins alternate between me and Cass).  Then we have Paula and Tyo her son in another room, and one room was used by Lawry and Jessica but they have now gone to Simacai (another farm near Chinese border) where they will be teaching English so Djit gets her room back.  We also have Ryan, Vin, Djit and Huong living here in house 2 with the occasional ring in, for example Anong (Lao student) has been crashing here lately.  Jasmine is in House number 1 with Eva.  Eva is like the queen bee of HEPA.  She is from Spain and has worked with aid organisations such as Geenpeace and other intentional communities for a very long time.  She is the organiser/manager/instigator of song and dance, and just an all round awesome person.  She is the one on the far right in the photo above.


   Mar 27

The Road to HEPA!

On March 11, 2011, Cassy, Tia, Sai and I left Australia heading to Hanoi, Vietnam.  We left our comfortable life in sub-tropical Queensland to live in the forest near the Laos border south west of Hanoi.  We are here because I am working as a volunteer for an NGO based out of Hanoi – Social Policy Ecology Research Institute – SPERI.

SPERI have a 400+ hectare property of mostly protected forest about 15ks from the Lao border in the Ha Tinh province not far from the provincial city of Pho J.  This property is called the Human Ecology Practice Area (HEPA) and is home to a number of Farmer Field Schools (FFS).  These farms are home to a number of minority ethnic groups such as Hmong, White Thai, Khmer, and others.  The students learn to farm ecologically (eco-farming) using Permaculture principles.

The girls and I flew from Gold Coast to Kuala Lumpa where we spent the night and the Concorde hotel near the airport.  4:30am saw us rubbing our eyes as we headed back to the airport for the flight to Hanoi.  We landed in Hanoi and took a taxi to SPERIs office, arriving around 10:30am.  SPERI has organised a very cheap local hotel a few hundred meters from the office which is on one of a number of small lakes that are scattered around Hanoi. The hotel was pretty average, rock hard beds, dark rooms but clean and the girl who ran the place was very friendly but couldn’t speak a word of English!

You know you're in Vietnam when...

We spent a day exploring Hanoi and hit the crowded tourist part of town known as the Old Town, probably because it is the old part of town (do you think?).  Lots of people selling stuff, there’s a street for shoes, other streets for clothes and so forth.  There is a nice lake that this area surrounds called Hoan Kiem Lake which means “Lake of the Restored Sword”.  When we were there a huge crows had gathered around one end of the lake so we pushed out way in to see what all the ruckus was about.  They were all watching a ginormous turtle that had surfaced.  I found out later that the lakes name was in reference to a legendary fifteenth century Vietnamese hero, whose magical sword was swallowed by a golden tortoise. On a tiny island in the middle of the lake stands  “Tortoise Tower,” an ancient three-tiered pavilion in memory of the famed tortoise.  So I guess seeing the turtle (they are saying tortoise and I’m saying turtle because tortoise are land animals – but who am I to spoil a good story).

We found a nice vegetarian restaurant next to our hotel for dinner that night.  They did some pretty funky food presentation.  Check out the meal Sai ordered!

Yummy spring rolls

On Sunday we went looking for jackets for Tia and Sai as we were told it can get pretty cold at HEPA (an understatement, its freezing here as I write this!).  We decided to walk from our hotel back to the Old Town which took about 2 hours.  It’s only about 5ks, but of course the girls had to stop in every shop along the way.  Needless to say we caught a taxi back!

Hotel in Hanoi

Our hotel

Monday morning we went to the SPERI office and had a meeting to get a better idea of how the organisation works and to meet the other volunteers.  There were 10 of us newbies in total, the four of us, four English teachers (Jasmine, Ryan, Jessica and Lawry),  Paula and her son Tyo.  We took lunch together after which the girls and I went back to the Old Town to see the water puppets.  This is supposed to be a ‘must see’ in Hanoi, so if you ever find yourself at the ticket counter buying tickets for this show, don’t.  It was pretty dissapointing.

One more night in the hotel and Pho (pronounced Fur in Viet) for breakfast before getting on the SPERI bus for a 9 hour ride to HEPA.



Pho for breakfast - Yum

We arrived at HEPA about 9pm in torrential rain.  Where HEPA starts the road turns to hell so the bus had to stop at the boundary and we had to hoof it in the pitch black and pouring rain to the hut we were to sleep in.  After a welcome meal and sorting out the beds we all collapsed for the night without having a clue of where were were.



   Jan 27


Well I finally took the plunge and did my Permaculture Design certificate last month (October 2010).  I was taught by Bill Mollison (co-founder of the Permaculture movement) and Jeff Lawton (Director of the Permaculture Research Institute).

I held off on doing the course for a long time as I knew this course was coming up.  To be taught by ‘the man himself’ was an honor and delight.  Bill was 82 at the time of the course and like the grandfather I never knew.  He has so many funny stories, but each story also teaches a permaculture principle. If you get the chance to attend a PDC taught by Bill and Jeff I highly recommend it!

It has been quite a while since I posted here (I am so lazy!) and I bet you are all wondering what has been going on.  Well, hang on to your socks because this is going to be exciting… well maybe not, but we have been busy.

My daughter Bec, married her fiance Sam on our property last Sunday.  Leading up to this we were hoping to finish building a pavilion large enough to hold the 90 guests that were invited.  Of course, as with all elements on a permaculture property each element should have multiple functions, so this was also intended to be used for Kung Fu training, yoga, teaching permaculture (one day!), acting as a trellis for grapes, kiwi fruit, and so forth.  But we have had nothing but rain for the last 3-4 months putting everything on hold. So, alas, it was never finished, and costs have put it on hold indefinitely.


Also considering the ‘multi-functional element’ we have created a new driveway using the lower dam wall.  This allows easy access for delivery of materials, particularly in dump trucks or tray backs as they always struggled with the main driveway as it is quite steep and hard to turn.  I’ve had some pissed of delivery drivers trying to negotiate the old driveway so this new one will make it much easier to receive a load of soil or mulch.  At this stage we still need to get some brought in as we are not advanced enough here that we are generating our own soil and mulch yet.


Our fruit tree orchard is coming along nicely, and we have re-engineered the vegetable gardens to be raised beds using logs from a couple of old eucalyptus trees that were dead but still standing.  Chainsaw and tractor saw them turned into something useful.  The beds are built ‘on contour’ and paths have been created between then to act as mini-swales.  The old gardens were more like swamps with all the rain we have had so raising them some more by having the higher sides created by the new logs, and adding some more soil, compost and mulch should see them retain water without becoming boggy.  We will see how the next crop comes along once we get it in.


   Mar 01


Just a quick post to say, Its Raining Again! And poor Kevin, my pig, is once again washed out.

I have him under the house again where he can at least stay dry. Here he is with not much room left to move with the rising water in the creek.

Kevins dilema

Kevins Dilema

   Mar 01

The Birds and the Bees

Remember that talk your parents gave you when you just hit puberty?  No?

Me, neither.  It either didn’t happen, or I buried it deep down in my sub-conscious.  So, we’re going to have that talk now.  Except without the birds.  Be warned, his tale does involve swollen body parts, and a sticky ending.  Of course, I’m talking about extracting honey from my bee hives.

This being my first time I called on my friend Matt to come help as he has done this before.  Matt seems to be there the first time I do lots of things, I’m not sure what to make of that.  Anyway, honey extraction… This is the process:

Smoking the hives


1.  Make sure you are fully covered and wearing two layers of clothing because the bees can stink you through one layer…. yep, found that out about four times, including one on the neck.

2.  Wear gloves and make sure they are sealed at the top… lots of lessons for me today.

bee stung hand

I am not an elephant, I am a human being!

3.  When bees do get into gloves, do not run away screaming like a little girl trying to rip gloves off… whoops

I have a bee book here with photo’s of beekeepers just wearing shorts and a shirt, with only a veil to protect their face, while they pull frames out of the hive.  I now no longer believe these photos, they must have been  photoshopped!

Phat hand

Phat Hand

I was also told wearing white stops the bees stinging, but they will attack dark clothing (something to do with bears being dark).

Well, here I am dressed whiter than a bride, and being stung. Eight times!  Something tells me the bees don’t like having their house broken into and their food stolen.

Anyway, lets move on as this hand is still swollen and itchy as hell, so I don’t know how much more I can type.

The first hive we opened was so full that the bees had started to build honeycomb onto the underside of the lid.  Once we get the frames out of the hives, the honeycomb needs to be decapped in order to extract the honey.  The normal method is to use a heated knife which will make removing the wax caps easier.  But we found that the wax was quite soft and just needed to be scraped off.  Another advantage of living in the sub-tropics.

Hive lid

Hive lid with honeycomb

The wax that is scraped off is dropped into a bucket of water, this is so the honey stuck to it will dissolve, and we can then salvage the wax to use later.  My girls are looking forward to making candles so we’ll see how that goes in another post.

Once the frames are decapped, they are put into the honey extractor.  This is a large stainless steel drum with wire frames inside fixed to a rotating shaft.  This is used to hold the hive frames, which are then spun to extract the honey using centripetal force.

Decapping the honeycomb

Decapping with a knife

This is done with a hand crank, and you can see the frames spin and the honey being thrown out and oozing down the side of the tank.  The frames are double sided so once one side is done the frames are flipped over and the honey on the other side is also spun out.

Honey extractor

Honey extractor

All of this is more manually intensive than it sounds, so, being the good dad than I am, I let the kids experience cranking the extractor handle for while.

Once the honey settles on the bottom of the extractor it needs to be drained off, or else it gets too high and impedes the spinning frames.  A plastic bin is placed under the extractor with a wire mesh to filter out any wax.  We used fly screen wire for this, which is probably a bit course because some fine pieces of wax did sneak through, but not enough that would ruin your honey on toast in the morning.  I am told pantyhose is probably a better option but I didn’t want to part with any, I mean, Cheryl didn’t want to part with any.

Filtered  honey

Honey being filtered

As the frames were emptied we put them back into the hives for the bees to start filling them again.  Getting them back was nowhere near as traumatic as pulling them out.  The bees were still mightily pissed off, but we had wizened up and taped up the top of the gloves so the little buggers couldn’t get in.

At the end of the day we ended up with a 25 litre bin full of honey.  Along with two swollen hands (Matt also was stung – reminds me of a Pink Floyd song… my hands felt like two balloons…), a swollen neck, lots of itchiness, and a mess to clean up.   I’m sure we will do much better next time.  Well, I say we, but the chances of getting anyone to help after this little episode is probably quite slim.  In fact, I shouldn’t really be posting all the bad bits on here should I?  Now I’ll never talk any of you into helping me.

Free honey anyone?


Namaste with swollen hand


Yes, it hurts!

   Feb 11

Chicken Food

After loosing another 3 chickens last night to snakes I have come to the conclusion that we are raising snakes and breeding chickens for their food.

   Feb 08

Blow Out!

So, how about this rain?

According to the local rag we had 400mm dumped on us here in the Gold Coast Hinterland on Saturday night.  This is apparenlty, “the worst dunking in at least 25 years”, to quote the GC Bully.

Swale blowout!

Our property faired quite well considering the deluge.  However, we had one swale ‘blow out’, and the wall of our second new dam did not cope with the sudden onslaught of water rushing down the hill.

The swale with the collapsed wall was the one we were capturing water from the road with.  The original idea was to bring in water from the road into the swale to help with the soil restoration, rather than let it run down the hill and go to waste.  But we did not (could not) anticipate anything like the amount of water pummeling down the road on Saturday night.  The swale filled as it should, but the constant pounding of the water rushing from the road, and the torrential downpour from above, teamed for a two pronged attack, that became too much for the swale mound to handle.  GUSH!

On top of nearly a weeks worth of rain, the flood gates of heaven opened up about 1am on Saturday night when we had the aforementioned 400mm start to fall.   The photo here was taken the next day in the afternoon and you can see the water is still gushing through the gap in the swale.    All of that water runs a short distance straight into the dam below.

water rushing downhill

Down to the dam

We have a short swale that is kind of part of the dam.  The idea is to feed water into the dam, and then when it is full it acts as a spillway out the other end, where the water would rund down to the lower dam.  Unfortunately, the top of the dam was too weak from the pounding rain and sudden on-rush from the broken swale.  So, the top of the dam wall gave out before the water level was high enough to take the designed overflow course.

Dam fault


The photo to the right shows how the top of the dam wall collapsed and the gush of water has eroded a valley into the dam wall.  All the debris from this breach ended up across the road below the wall and into the community garden area below.  What a mess!  Luckily the breach in the wall only happened at the top of the dam, so we still have a dam full of water.

Full dam

At least it is full

Funny how a few weeks back I was thinking it would take months to fill this dam!  DAMN!

The swales on the other side of the property faired much better.  They did what they were supposed to do, captured the water and slowed down the flow.

Below are a few photos of our main dam, and the “summer creek” that now looks like a river!

Once this rain stops and we get a few days of dry,  it will be time to clean up and fix the dam wall and swale.  I’ll be sure to keep you updated with how things progress.  Now, where did I put my gum boots?

over the wall



Where's my raft?

   Feb 06

More Snakes

We have caught 2 more snakes and lost 1 duck and several chickens.
We keep catching the snakes and taking them for a long drive, but there are just too many of them. I think next time we wont get chickens in the summer when they are so active. I like them in the roof keeping the rodents away but that is about it.

   Jan 31

New Growth

Over the last 2 weeks we have not had a drop of rain but Marty continued with planting trees.  The average temp was 35 Celsius which required us to water the new trees every day.  Finally we are back to our usual daily rain showers which takes care of our newly planted trees for us.

Tree planting

Coffee Tree

Left is a coffee plant which was really important to get in first so we can keep up our energy with a good ‘ol home brew asap!  This was planted on top of a Swale because it doesn’t like wet feet.  Most of the land we are planting into is clay.

Clay to breakdown


You can see what we are up against in the photo of the clay.  Using Mother Nature in the right way we will be able to over come these obstacles.  When we plant anything we mix into the soil a handful of worm castings mixed with manure, then place another handful of the mixture on the top to keep the plant feed for a while.  Then cover it all in Lucien.


Yummy Bananas

Marty has also planted a banana circle or 2.

With all the rain you can now see evidence of the system starting to w

ork.  We have swales collecting water, trees and plants thriving and sprouts from all the seeds we sowed coming to life in as little time as a month.  We did however, have a hand from Marty’s sisters that decided they wanted a holiday with us but little did they know they were then put to use everyday slaving away with Marty and me planting sweet potato, lemon grass, various seeds were sown and Lucien spread everywhere.  I think they had to go home to have a real holiday.


We have action on the swales

Active Swales

Swales being useful

Just a last sad note, we had another chicken taken from us last night by another python that consequentially has taken a trip to Cunungra for a long vacation.  RIP little chicky.