Living off-grid with a baby
INTERVIEW SOFIA FORTUNATO
Can you tell us a bit about you, and how did a “city girl” end up living off-grid? It’s funny when I tell people in my new local community where I used to live. “I’m new to the area,” I say. “Oh yes, where did you come from?” “Glebe in Sydney.” “Oh, well, that’s a bit different from here!” Where I used to live was about 20 minutes walk into the centre of Sydney. It was 3.5 kms to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and a four-minute walk to local shops, which included every kind of cuisine you could imagine. In walking distance there were about five chemists, three newsagents,100-ish cafes, parklands, regular buses, a library, two galleries, a bookshop, doctors surgeries, and universities (yes, plural). It was the definition of metropolis. And now I live at the bottom of a paddock, next to thick bushland, off a dirt road, 20 minutes from any kind of shop. Without any mains electricity, communication lines and water, or even a rubbish removal from the council.
Despite loving city life, I’ve always loved the bush too. I grew up in a rural area and enjoyed being out in nature from a young age. Life, family and work in the arts drew me to the city but I craved trees regularly and was making plans to buy a home and convert it to solar.
When I met a man from the bush, I felt all was falling into place. I could work in the city and be with him on the weekends on his developing offgrid farm, but a surprise baby came along and now I’m here full time.
The bambino is 4 months old and I am still adjusting to an offgrid life with a home in production. The baby doesn’t care if we have enough power in our batteries for a lamp to
read by, or to charge our phones, or enough gas to power the stove for food, as long as I am there with him. Life has become about the simple things.
What has your experience been so far while being on maternity leave? Maternity leave is a special time and I want to give as much attention to the wee one as possible, while also doing the things that nourish me – like writing, painting, gardening, yoga and going for walks and picnics in the Australian landscape. I do miss my work in communications and the ease of everything in the city, but I am writing about building our offgrid home with the baby wriggling along next to me, and I am slowly getting used to how things are without conveniences. It’s a gorgeous spot where we are and I like to go for walks as often as
possible. There are blue wrens, kookaburras, peacocks, lizards, wombats, wallabies and yes, snakes! The build has been delayed and delayed and delayed mostly due to the fires and floods over summer….so
instead of starting maternity leave with gas hot water, a kitchen, a washing machine and a toilet, we have had to evacuate a few times from a half built construction site that has only a bucket toilet, a camp kitchen and water from a hose. If it’s a hot day, the water is heated in the sun and we are able to do a good wash of clothes – oh and nappies galore!
Are there any challenges with your new lifestyle? There are so many challenges to having a newborn on a half built, off-grid arrangement. Isolation is difficult though that is the new norm due to coronavirus. So I’m not alone there. It takes a good long while to properly set up a household offgrid the way we are doing it. My partner is the gem there. He has knowledge of off-grid technologies and is sourcing materials that would otherwise be thrown away to landfill. We thought the whole home would be done by now, but alas we are still fiddling and have had to adjust our (me especially) expectations on comfort.
The elements are a big force to overcome if you’re after a comfortable living arrangement akin to living “normally”. We fight the sun's heat and try to utilise sunlight for power; we fight the cold with as little energy as possible so we're often so rugged up we can't move our limbs easily; damp is a major factor to consider – how to keep things dry and not turn mouldy when you live in a place that is misty regularly; and conversely: wind. There is so much wind here! With lots of building materials stored outside currently, we are always checking BOM for when to batten down. It takes about 5 days to hand wash and dry cloth nappies, even with the wind. I've taken to spinning nappies in a salad spinner (yep!) and Luke has discovered putting them in the car to help them dry off! Sometimes he puts them next to the flew in the caravan chimney. You have to be creative to do washing without a machine and dryer. Lucky we are artists!
Can you share with us any funny experience about living so close to wildlife? Oh -- there have been a few wildlife encounters. The first night we were home with the baby from hospital, my partner spotted a little black snake. He picked it up with his hands (I know!!!) and took it away. What was going through his mind, he says, was, “Must not let Alex see snake. She will panic!” His baby brain then panicked that he could have got venom on his hands and passed it onto the baby. He totally couldn’t have, and he knows, but when you’re sleep deprived and anxious about caring for a precious little human, your mind does funny things! Wombat encounters are regular here.
One of the funniest moments was when my partner went outside the cabin in the middle of the night to investigate an ominous sound. He walked into the half-built shower and turned on the headtorch. There right in front of his face was a hairy thing. I heard a manly scream! Wombats are so very cute but they are a menace here. They have a knack for finding important buildings like our cabin and
digging away their foundations. Seemingly for fun. We are lucky though to have a sweet wallaby who regularly visits us. Wallabies have been around less since the rains so it’s a good sign animals are in less distress.
In the long term, do you think living off-grid is beneficial for children and why? We are doing the hard yards on this build now, knowing that when our baby is older, it’ll be worth it. I have to remind myself this often. Living in the bush will have its benefits: a quiet, cleaner environment for him to grow and learn; he’ll have old-fashioned playtime outside getting muddy and lost amongst the trees; and an understanding of alternative options for energy away from the traditional way of things. Plus, following his Dad’s vegetable growing, he will gather skills in food production and regenerative agriculture practices. The zeitgeist suggests that kids of the future will be much more open to these ways of living any way, as they are attuned to the issues of the planet like no other generation. We’re hoping our son learns these skills firsthand and has experience with a way of living that has less environmental impact but is as rich and joyful as any.
Alex Christopher is a writer, new Mum and communications professional. Follow the journey of building a home made from salvaged materials offgrid or join Seaside Writing online -- a community of people who utilise the power of writing to inspire and relax.