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Imagine a place where fairies live. Where magic whispers on the wind. A place surrounded by trees. Where chickens are truly free. Where wild things grow. Where gypsies roam. Welcome to Treedom, a unique accommodation on the Garden Route in South Africa.
Treedom: A Dream Accommodation on the Garden Route
Somewhere on South Africa’s Garden Route, set up high up on the hillside, is an indigenous forest of milkwoods and cheesewoods. This is where you’ll find this fantastical place. It’s the brainchild of ex-chef, tour guide, and events director Debbie Nortje and her husband Marc Nortje, who has a background in the film and television industry.
Their dream of living off-grid in a remote wild space was first realised a few years ago. It was then that Debbie and Marc quit their jobs, uprooted their lives, and bought their plot of land on the Garden Route.
What followed thereafter was their first labour of love. They built their own home plus a unique treehouse-style villa on the property. However, it was always Debbie’s dream to bring a little bit of gypsy magic to the forest with traditional vardo style accommodation on the Garden Route.
From Dreams to Reality
It was artist Scott Waterhouse that originally brought Debbie’s wild and wacky dreams to some form of reality. Scott “dreams of making big craft things, writes bad poetry, hates shoes and hopes to start a punk band in his 60s.” He also managed to supply Debbie and Marc with designs that were just what they had hoped for.
“Scott’s designs were exactly what we were looking for. He understood the magic and enchantment and he gave us plenty of options to think about. He also pushed me to not make a decision too fast as I am quite impulsive and loved everything he drew!” says Debbie.
Debbie wanted the vardos to epitomise the values that gypsies hold so dear. Consequently, family served as the main inspiration behind the creation of the gypsy caravans.
Inspired by Gypsies and Dedicated to Family
The first two units are dedicated to Marc and Debbie’s moms. The story of family and what it means to them is evident in every little detail.
The owl, the spiritual symbol of both Debbie’s and her mom’s birthday sits proud of place on the one vardo. The space is also delicately decorated with iceberg roses, a feature Debbie always associates with her mom’s garden.
On the other vardo, the gypsy represents Marc’s mom’s travelling spirit. Additionally, an old pair of clogs Marc found in a second-hand shop hark back to his mother’s Dutch heritage. Inside, above the bed, a sign reads “whoopie”, a favourite saying of her late husband.
Artistic Wow Factor for Accommodation on the Garden Route
The Art Director on the project was Monique Morgan. She used these elements alongside a combination of colours, textures and dimensions to achieve a one-of-a-kind wow factor. Working with clay, silicone moulds and resin, she brought the 3D artwork on the exterior of the Vardos to life.
“Monique was my rock in this building process. She made sure my vision came to life. I chose her as my art director as she has been my friend for eighteen years and knows what my style is and how I want things done” says Debbie.
It’s these small details, and Debbie’s larger-than-life personality, open arms and warm heart, that immediately makes you feel like you’re part of the family when staying at Treedom. But the vardos here go beyond just a romantic accommodation on the Garden Route. They are a true architectural and design marvel.
Bringing the Vardos to Life
To set the wheels of her vardos in motion, Debbie roped in family-run business Pikes Construction to create the structural shells of the units. However, a typical construction crew wasn’t going to cut it when it came to bringing her fantasy to life.
So she turned to Africa Burn, South Africa’s equivalent of burning man. This is how she searched for craftsmen that could create what she and Scott had conceptualised.
Enter Lisa Von Brandis, sculpting and painting extraordinaire. Lisa has a knack for using recycled media to make interesting, beautiful, functional items. Inspired by nature, especially indigenous forests with magical light, Lisa began to bring the vardo shells to life with her surreal, interpretive drawings, and paintings.
It is Lisa who brought the character to the vardos with her quirky and unique paintings of gypsies and intertwined moons. But it’s her signature bedroom entrance pieces that really add that enchanting element to the interiors. Features such as the larger-than-life owl that guards the bed.
Exceptional at her craft, Lisa would show up every day covered in paint. With a steady hand, she would then turn the blank wooden canvas into a work of art.
“She took Scott’s designs and gave them color and life. Everything her paintbrush touched turn into magic. Her freehand work on the swooping owls on the exteriors is so special, while she added on to Scott’s designs on the gypsy vardo with her own fantastic flare. The front door and the window designs also add such an inviting explosion of color and we are so in love with her creations” says Debbie.
Creative Building and Furnishing
Alongside Lisa, another artist Monica Steenkamp, used her incredible knowledge of building, to make sure that the interiors, painting, and finishing of the vardos were top-notch.
With incredible attention to detail, Monica became Debbie’s building inspector. Her job was to ensure that not only were Debbie’s dreams coming to life but that they would last for years to come.
However, Monica proved that she also had a creative touch, especially when it came to furnishing the vardos. For Debbie, store-bought furniture items weren’t going to cut it. She wanted novel pieces that matched the uniqueness of her creations.
So, countless hours were spent scouring second-hand shops and antique stores. She even turned to dumpsters and her friend’s gardens in her efforts to give new life to old things. For example, fashioning an unused wooden bench into a unique headboard and turning ancient furniture into quirky items from a Tim Burton-esque wonderland.
According to Debbie, it was Monica who was responsible for turning these items, “from ugly granny to magnificent one-of-a-kind furniture pieces.”
Monica was also responsible for painting a pair of ‘forest wings’ on the back of the Owl vardo. This item has become a talking point and the highlight of many a visitor’s Instagram story.
Similarly, it was Monica who came up with the idea to add a signature wall to each of the Vardos where guests can write a note when they leave. An original visitors’ book.
Whimsical Woodwork for Accommodation on the Garden Route
But what really makes the vardo experience special, is not only the accommodation on South Africa’s Garden Route itself. From the minute you enter Debbie and Marc’s piece of heaven you are transported into a magical space from another world.
This is largely thanks to the custom wood pieces that greet you at every turn. From lattice entry tunnels to wine barrel outdoor baths. A moon-shaped swing and a larger-than-life owl that comes out from the tree, reminiscent of something from Pocahontas. These are just a sampling of the whimsical wood details.
It is master joiner maker Gordon Rattey who is the mastermind behind using the forest itself to create such wonder. In 2000, Gordon lost 90% of his vision in his right eye. During his long road to recovery, boredom forced him to start playing around with wood.
The lattice style which is used all around the Treedom property comes from his always having to scrounge around for wood to fuel his hobby. Meaning he always landed up with odd sizes to work with. This odd selection of wood challenged Gordon to create one-of-a-kind works inspired by nature’s forms.
“Gordon is a true wood genius and his ability to turn sticks into art is incredible,” says Debbie.
The Magic of Laughter and Love
Gordon also brought more than just artistic skill to the project. He became a shining light during the building. Always bringing a word of encouragement or a healthy dose of humour even when things weren’t going as planned.
“He was so much fun on-site with many ridiculous antics, making building with him an absolute delight,” says Debbie.
But at the end of the day, while it may be one of South Africa’s most up-and-coming romantic accommodations on the Garden Route, it’s the love of one amazing couple that has made this place more than just somewhere worthy of a quick story on social media.
It’s Debbie’s and Marc’s love for one another, what they do, and the visitors they welcome onto their incomparable property that make this place truly memorable. It’s Debbie’s unique personal style and Marc’s practical grounding that really brings this project to life.
If she dreams it, he makes it happen. Just look at the pink heart-shaped pool if you want to see what love really looks like in the wilderness.
Book This Trip
Ready to lose yourself in the freedom of Treedom? Find reservations for Treedom here and all your transportation booking needs, from flights to rental cars, here. Check out more sights along the garden route, tips on how to get around, where to eat and more through TripAdvisor and Travelocity.
Be sure to make the most out of your trip to South Africa by booking some expert-guided tours and exciting activities through GetYourGuide. Find fun for everyone with trusted guides and if your plans change, cancel anytime for a full refund. Browse tours and book your dates here.
Author Bio: Janine Avery was born and bred in Cape Town, South Africa, and says there is nowhere she would rather call home. She is a lover of all things nature and loves to explore new places, enjoying any form of travel from basic tenting to lazing in luxury lodges. She also loves to dabble in digital marketing, spread messages on social media, and take audiences on a journey through her travel stories.