My environmental journey to HOUT BAAI FARM in South Africa and the birth of SOLARA ORGANIC WINES began in 1927. The Ninety years of my life, has encompassed a vast variety of experiences while living and working in India, England, South Africa and America, too many to record in this limited account, some are selected as background to the SOLARA ORGANIC WINE story.
INDIA," THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN " in the era of the RAJ was the pride of the BRITISH EMPIRE in it's days of glory, when it was said that the sun never set on it's possessions. This was the place of my birth in the cantonment of Meerut, 1927, where my father LESLIE. F. W FARMER, a subaltern, commanding Indian troops, a KING GEORGE V 'S Commissioned officer in the British Indian Army, was stationed at that time.
Soon after my birth, my father was transferred to what was a war zone even in those days, a military station named BANNU in THE NORTHWEST FRONTIER PROVINCE of India now PAKISTAN close to the TRIBAL TERRITORIES OF WAZIRISTAN. This army cantonment was protected by wide barriers of barbed wire & constantly guarded. Military patrols with armoured vehicles set forth routinely to RASMAK an outpost in Tribal Territory to supply the regiments there, which included the famous Gurkhas, stationed to guard the borders, particularly from incursions from AFGHANISTAN.
The terrain was typical of those regions, mountainous semi- desert with wadis that would occasionally deliver rushing torrents of water but mainly dry, the climate very hot. The few family members of the military would be sent to the " hills" to evade the blistering heat, usually to KASHMIR or the HIMALAYAN foothill stations such as MURREE, where my family owned a summer house, normally shutdown during the winter when heavy snowfall covered the mountains.
The Life of white military personnel & families in that era & those regions was dangerous, spartan, disciplined and somewhat primitive but relieved by a sense of duty to be performed, the comradeship and also the ability of the community to devise their own amusements. These were mainly Polo, riding horses, hunting, golf & tennis, as well as social activities at the Officers Club, bridge & mah jong mornings, cocktail & dinner parties.
All this was the surface of an existence that was darkened by the harsh reality that at the time, India was not a healthy country for Europeans. Disease was a constant killer, specially of children, the heat was enervating & youngsters did not thrive. Most parents including mine, sent their children back to England to boarding schools, only to have limited contact throughout their school life. I was six years old and saw my mother once a year, and father rarely. My understanding head mistress allowed me to keep a pet rabbit & have goldfish to care for which alleviated the homesickness. From birth I had formed a lifelong connection with animals and developed my concern for them as well as Nature in general. This harsh existence away from my parents and the India I loved, moulded my independence and solitude became a positive factor to be enjoyed.
At boarding school, I was in the Kindergarten stage and was fortunate to be at a small private girl's School with a Head Mistress of intellectual excellence & liberal views, whose guidance was geared to laying down a balanced foundation for any career that her pupils would choose to pursue, whether art, science, medicine, or commerce. At six years of age my first lesson was to memorise the Solar System, all the planets as well as to understand nature in general
From birth to present date I made eleven ocean voyages of over three weeks’ duration, mainly in the famous P& O liners as they travelled between England and Australia, calling at BOMBAY en-route, and in due course twice to South Africa. After which I took to the air for business travel between The USA, UK, EUROPE & SOUTH AFRICA.
In 1940 during the battle of Britain my father took me out of my English school and I travelled to India with my mother & brother from Liverpool in one of the largest convoys of ocean liners to set forth during the intense bombing raids by the Germans, when invasion was expected. We journeyed to India via the Cape of Good Hope, this was my first sight of South Africa, made memorable by the week spent there & the generous hospitality we enjoyed from total strangers.
At this time my father was stationed in JULLUNDER in the PUNJAB, a remount depot for the supply of mules for gun carriages and cavalry horses for the British Indian Army. Here I was able to pursue my passion for horses, as well as acquire other pets which was always a necessity in my life. My father was ordered to join the Allies in North Africa, where he was captured by Italians forces, sent to Italy where he escaped and spent months walking from north Italy in an attempt to join the allied invasion but he ended his fighting days as a German prisoner of war, having suffered great hardship and starvation, which destroyed his health.
From 1941 to 1944, after my father went to North Africa with his army unit, my mother, brother and I stayed in India, we lived in MURREE, the hill station some distance from RAWALPINDI, fortunately we had our summer house there, however the conditions were very primitive no running water, telephone or other services. No motor traffic, transport was by horse, donkey, camel or rickshaw. Here I connected with nature as if born to wander or ride alone in the forested mountains, with seldom any thought of being molested by the rare human encounters, enjoying the winters when only a skeleton staff of army residents remained. There the teeming wildlife in the virtually unspoiled forested mountains existed in large numbers, leopards, bears, fox, mountain sheep and goats, jackal, monkey and others too numerous to mention lived all round us and ventured nearer us in winter. The stunningly beautiful NANGA PURBAT, Himalaya’s notoriously dangerous peak visible on one horizon, the HINDU KUSH, AFGHANISTAN, on the other and Kashmir along the Jhelum further north.
In summer, when life returned to the seasonal routine, I was able to attend a small teaching facility, but my education was seriously interrupted, from a student who achieved awards for highest marks in both my boarding schools, and was heading for a medical degree at Oxford University, I was now downgraded to virtually educating myself. I decided to volunteer as a paramedic to serve in the MURREE British Military Hospital, so I took a correspondence course from ST. JOHNS AMBULANCE and qualified with a medical diploma. The fact that I was still in my teens was not an issue in wartime.
In 1944, with my father still a prisoner, it was decided to return to England to enable my younger brother Peter to attend his Public School, the exclusive HAILEYBURY COLLEGE, an establishment specialising in educating the sons of those serving the British Empire overseas.
We left our home in the Himalayas to board a troopship & travelled to England through the hazardous Mediterranean in convoy. This was limited protection and we were attacked by German submarines near Gibraltar & watched horrified as ships were hit & burning as we attempted to escape into the smokescreen, which fortunately we did, although to add to our fears we ran into extreme weather and our vessel shipped so much water that night that we were ordered to the lifeboats as a precaution, this with water cascading down the stairways and into our cabins.
On arrival in England, after working as a volunteer in various army canteens, I joined the AUXILIARY TERRITORIAL SERVICE ( ATS ) as a signals operator, teleprinter/Morse code, worked tracking escaped prisoners of war. I was stationed close to a ROYAL AIR FORCE bomber station, where at night their impressive take of and staggered return was a constant reminder of the sacrifice of these airmen, so many died.
When the Second World War ended I went back by sea to India to join my father in RAWALPINDI, soon after my arrival, I met and married a ROYAL AIR FORCE PILOT and returned to England with him in 1947.
England did not fit my desired lifestyle and motivated my move to South Africa. There I divorced the pilot, who much older than myself, was conditioned by the war years to becoming an irreversible alcoholic. After this I had a period when I farmed in the Natal Midlands with livestock, which in due course converted me to becoming a vegetarian. I operated this business for my absent step father who was stationed in the MALAY STATES during the post war communist emergency.MY second marriage lasted till I started my business life in JOHANNESBURG as single person in 1966.
With no tertiary education, I had to adopt entrepreneurial skill & build on my natural aptitudes to fit the circumstances of having no resources, as in my last marriage, I left with a sleeping bag & my clothes, all my assets unclaimed. Fortunately, at the time I was employed by a company operating a decorating & painting service to both the domestic & building industry. I quickly expanded my role in sales of wallpaper and painting contracts, to providing fixtures and fittings, infrastructure & building construction. I Setup a woodworking factory and was made a shareholder.
From there, being somewhat unique as a female in an all-male sphere of business, I had a high profile, was featured in DINER'S CLUB MAGAZINE & the press generally. I qualified as a member of the MASTER BUILDERS ASSOCIATION, I had now entered the world of the large Civil Engineering and construction companies, because of my reputation for high quality work standards, I was often a nominated subcontractor in large developments, bypassing the tender process.
During this period, due to my involvement in the very controversial 1960s CARLTON CENTRE development in JOHANNESBURG, via a tenant for whom I was installing structures, I met the inventor of a unique world patented process designed to replace type setting in the printing industry. The inventor had offered his invention to the Reed Paper Group in Britain but the time spent haggling over price & royalties resulted in the patents lapsing and the deal being cancelled. This connection came at the right moment for my business and I was able to seamlessly slot the technology into my factory which ultimately led to major developments. I devised the name SOLARA from the sun, art transferred by ultraviolet light.
One important event was an introduction to ANTON RUPERT'S GROUP and his connections, one of which was the SOUTH AFRICAN NATURE FOUNDATION (SANF) affiliated to WWF, a result of his close friendship with PRINCE BERNARD. I did some high profile fundraising for the SANF during the Apartheid era and remain involved. I used the SOLARA photo-polymer-uv- curing process to produce resin engraved etchings in signed limited editions, drawn by six of South Africa's famous wildlife artists, sold to raise capital to purchase land for the KAROO NATIONAL PARK in Beaufort West.
Eventually the licensing of the SOLARA process to a number of international manufacturers was accomplished, including a subsidiary of TEXTRON, FUSIAN SYSTEMS CORPORATION of Rockville MD. in the business of radiation curing polymers & paints who undertook to set up a joint venture company with myself with a manufacturing plant in Highpoint, North Carolina to use this technology for coating textured designs on a variety of products such as furniture components ( in particular DEXEL HERITAGE who became my licensee in 1985) signage, trophy plaques etc.
I named this company SOLARA DESIGNS Ltd. And became its president in 1982. I bought a small ranch in Trinity, HIGHPOINT, shipped my belongings, including my family of six dogs and seven cats to America for what was intended as a permanent move but Africa inexorably called me back in 1985.
Another important licensee was the large South African AFCOL furniture group, who used the SOLARA process when it was contracted to produce furniture for the well-known SOUTHERN SUNS - SUN CITY HOTEL, owned be tycoon Sol Kersner.
On my return to South Africa, after some years in business, I decided to semi - retire, engage in formal ANIMAL WELFARE ( the SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS ), as well as write a book & take up art again. I had of course engaged in ongoing informal animal rescue all my life, but now was able to give it my full attention.
In 1995 I settled in MCGREGOR, a village in the ROBERTSON WINE VALLEY. I purchased vacant land, drew my own plans for a small house and converted the extensive area on the village outskirts into a bird sanctuary of such note that it earned the local Heritage Society award for creating a wildlife haven of considerable beauty.
From here, as a SPCA chairman and paramedic I organised my animal welfare operation. My clinic and kennels were not located at my house but I did have five resident dogs who occasionally barked enough to irritate one somewhat distant neighbour who was so persistently threatening that I decided to buy a small farm and operate all my welfare services from there.
This was achieved in one day! I bought HOUT BAAI FARM in 2003, 27 Hectares of neglected, disease and pest ridden land, saturated by the usual careless application of chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Almost devoid of birds and wildlife. It was however, a farm had to be cared for as such, so while I set to work converting a barn into kennels for dogs and cats, made a paddock for larger animals, I also started learning about viticulture and how to put organic agriculture into practice immediately.
I was assured that I would be welcome to send my wine grapes to the local wine cellar in McGregor. From November 2003, I had visits from various experts to my farm who shook their heads in disbelief when I refused to heed their advice and stubbornly pursued my policy of no chemicals and determination to qualify as certified organic grower. They were too polite to frankly declare that both my age & sex was clearly the factor to explain my stupidity. Harvest time approached and I had done much to prepare my crop for delivery to MCGREGOR CELLAR, when I was told that my grapes would not be accepted by them.
This was devastating news to have so late in the season. The only solution was to find another cellar close enough to be viable. The ROBERTSON VALLEY is home to dozens of Cellars but my efforts to find one in reasonable distance failed, I became convinced that in this conventional community I was rated unsuitable and a risky supplier, an old female, eighty plus and English, a bad mixture.
Almost despairing I looked further away and found ROOIBERG WINERY ( RED MOUNTAIN ) quite a Long distance to travel but feasible nevertheless. At the time I did not realise how extraordinarily lucky my fate was, that in all probability my failure with McGregor Cellar was opening the only door to the possibility of success. This due the enlightened attitude of their management, not only regarding to my age and gender but more importantly the conservation philosophy. The brilliant young CEO JOHAN DU PREEZ, already busy establishing The ROOIBERG CONSERVANCY, was not dismissive regarding my convictions and readily accepted my grapes.
My relationship with ROOIBERG WINERY could be the subject of many more chapters but suffice to say, I owe them much for the 12 years of association, the learning curve I have been able to benefit from and the comradeship enjoyed along the way. We remain connected although our wine is produced now by our new partners ARENDSIG HANDCRAFTED WINES, and the genius wine maker LOURENS VAN DER WESTHUISEN, who consented to have our GERMAN ORGANIC CERTIFIER LACON impose their conditions on his operation.
As for my own ORGANIC journey, 12 years of faithful adherence to all aspects has culminated in establishing a NATURE SANCTUARY where wildlife abounds in harmony with our vineyards allowing us the benefit of creating a unique wine of the utmost purity.
The Werdmuller family is recorded from 1300 AD and their castle still exists in Elgg, a small town near Zurich in Switzerland, where it is open to the public. The title Von Elgg was bestowed for services rendered by a member of the Werdmuller family to the ruler of that domain at an early date. There are still old leather bound volumes of the family history in existence, which include the story of William Tell of “apple and arrow” fame, who actually existed and was a family member. The Werdmuller clan is very small and the senior members exert control of the inheritance. When Patricia Werdmuller von Elgg married into the family, she had to spell out her credentials to their satisfaction – a requirement before acceptance of any progeny from the union
For additional information see: www.swisscastles.ch