Much has been written about the righteousness of living ‘off the grid’ as it were: to be self-sufficient with regard to water and especially electricity. Architects have won prizes for designing such homes; residents have spent fortunes on building such homes; articles fill pages exclaiming the virtues of such abodes. In this final look at our sojourn in the Transkei, I turn to elements of ‘living off the grid’ which are a necessary reality for so many.

Thatched rondavels do not lend themselves the collection of water running off the roof. Some of the modern galvanised iron roofs have gutters that feed into a rainwater tank. The latter are expensive and are not easy to transport into the rural areas from the towns. Communal stand pipes exist, although these are not always conveniently situated for householders who then have to collect water for their needs in a container of sorts and carry it back for some distance to their homes.

This water is used for cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, providing water for the pigs and chickens: no pumps, no washing machines, no tumble driers – walking, carrying, and using the natural elements of the wind and sun for drying one’s laundry.

At the Swell Eco Lodge a generator provided electricity for certain periods during the day; gas cooking stoves are provided, and the outside cooking areas were lit at night by solar-powered lamps such as these.

Every rondavel had these solar-powered Consol solar jars, which provided perfectly adequate lighting once the electricity was switched off. The solar-powered lid collects sunshine during the day, which powers four built-in LEDs inside the glass jar at night.


A large rondavel built of local stone stood next to our farmhouse in the De Kaap Valley. My father used it as a storeroom for all sorts of equipment that is needed on farms. The interior was cool, even on the hottest of Lowveld summer days. I loved the musty smell of the thatched roof and the smoothness of the cement floor – as well as the moment required for my eyes to adjust to the dark interior. Our recent sojourn at Swell Eco Lodge not only provided an opportunity to stay in a spacious rondavel, but to observe the various structures of buildings that make up a rural homestead.

Traditionally, rondavels are built from locally available materials, which can include stones, sun-baked mud bricks, or a framework of sticks combined with a mixture of clay and dung mortar. I have already pointed out that modern rural rondavels are being constructed from either cement air-bricks or commercially produced bricks. Blue gum poles – or branches from other trees cut to length – are used to make the basic cone-shaped structure of the roof. Smaller branches are then woven through them to provide the framework for the thatching.

I wondered if my ‘bird man’ was bringing home this particularly long branch for such a purpose.

What rondavels have in common is a thatched roof. The roofing thatch consists of bundles of grass that are sewn onto the pole framework with plaited grass rope – as can be seen in this exposed section of a roof. Note the Cape Wagtail bracing itself against the wind!

Thatching starts at the widest part of the roof, the bottom, and gradually moves towards the narrow top. As each section is usually allowed to weather in order to create a waterproof layer, the process of completing a thatched roof can be a lengthy one. We also saw several examples of rondavels with corrugated iron roofs or have corrugated iron covering the traditional thatch for extra protection.

In either case, the roof extends over the sides of the circular walls to provide protection from the rain.

As you can imagine, being constructed from natural materials, rondavels require regular maintenance or they would gradually fall apart as this one is doing.

Once the thatching is complete, a clay or cement cap is placed on the apex of the roof to seal off the edges of the thatch and to prevent rain from seeping into the building. There happens to be a Redwinged Starling perched on top if this one.

If you would like to learn more, some interesting sites include: