The accidental sustainability fascist

Alastair Leithead living off-grid in Alentejo

It’s not like I’d always longed to live off the grid in remote rural Portugal. Like any reasonable person, I care about the future of our planet and environment, but I’d never dreamed of living the sustainable dream: surviving off the power of the sun and harvesting water from the earth beneath our feet.

Work took me on an endless number of flights a year and I had only ever made a half-hearted attempt at recycling. I’m not expecting an apocalypse, the collapse of modern society, or the rapture. And I don’t own a single semi-automatic weapon.

After years travelling the world’s war zones as a BBC foreign correspondent I wasn’t even longing for isolation, serenity – the space and time to confront my inner demons – and to forget. We just liked the view. (I’m not even sure I have any inner demons.)

One minute we were driving around Alentejo in southern Portugal tasting fabulous wine, staying in renovated pousada castles and looking for “a ruin to fix up,” and the next we’d given up our jobs and I was learning about solar panels and boreholes. Overnight I became a sustainability fascist who turns off the tap while brushing my teeth and switches off lights going in and out of rooms.

Over nearly twenty years as a foreign correspondent I was shot at by the Taliban in Afghanistan and by al-Qaeda in Iraq, was ambushed in South Sudan three times in one day, survived hurricanes, dodged Ebola and accidentally slept on a dead person. In Thailand, reports of my own death were greatly exaggerated.

But this off-grid living thing is something else. Just last week I almost died twice: felling a tree onto myself while holding a running chainsaw and then almost sliding off the roof while power-washing the tiles. Battling an alien plant invasion, I was bitten by a venomous centipede that ballooned my leg to twice its size.

I so regularly puncture, scrape or melt away my fingerprints with fire, glue and/or acid that my phone no longer recognises me. And even if it was fancy enough to do facial recognition that wouldn’t help, given my lockdown beard has transformed into a Rip van Winkle that now seems appropriate for my surroundings.

So how did it come to this?

It was the view. We were living in Kenya in 2018 when we decided to look for a place in Europe where we might eventually live. My Portuguese/Swedish wife Ana was a diplomat, I was BBC Africa Correspondent and we had spent many years bouncing from posting to posting. We created a treasure map of vineyards, nice hotels and property listings, flew to Lisbon and hired a car.

The boundary of our search was the borders of Alentejo – the largest, poorest and most rural province, which stretches pretty much from Lisbon to the Algarve. It was where Ana’s father’s family originated and after years abroad it seemed like a good alternative to Sweden, where the winters are harsh, or Britain, where the summers are winters.

First, we headed east to the wine lands around Évora on the Spanish border, but we needed ocean. Then we cut cross-country to the Atlantic coast of south-west Portugal and it immediately felt like home. After viewing some disappointing ruins, we stumbled across a piece of paradise: seven hectares of cork oak, pine and eucalyptus with a house and a guest house.

After six months of mortgage hell, we bought this solidly-built property on a hillside from a German woman. It had shiny solar panels and a lake and it was only a few minutes’ drive down a dirt track from a main road, a supermarket and the most beautiful wild beaches in Europe. The view over woods and rolling hillsides to distant mountains is so wide and spectacular that even a panorama lens can’t do it justice.

On our first night at the house, the Milky Way was so clear in the night sky we decided to rename our new home Vale das Estrelas, or Valley of the Stars.

We didn’t stop to consider the consequences of off-grid living. I’m one of those people who confidently knows milk comes from cows and not supermarkets, but who also thinks water comes from taps and power comes from a hole in the wall. They do – until they don’t – and that’s when the fun started.

We’d shipped our things from Nairobi and spent a year on a journalism fellowship at Stanford University in California, based around the virtual reality documentaries I’d made in Africa. I learned Portuguese; Ana studied sustainable agriculture. We did MBA courses on entrepreneurship and the global wine industry, plotted and schemed about starting a B&B, and dreamed of Portugal.

When we arrived from the US last June during a lull in the pandemic – after finally finding a flight that would take Simon the dog – the house had been empty for more than a year. Wild boars had moved onto the land, making nests in the vegetable patch, scratching holes in the pine trees and partying in what had become a muddy puddle of a lake. The plants had taken over and trees had collapsed a wall. But the beaches were amazing and the cost of living was somewhat more reasonable than in Palo Alto.

Then the romantic ideal of rural off-grid living evaporated. When I was a foreign correspondent we’d managed to get power to the back of an open military vehicle while filming with frontline troops in Helmand, charged our batteries in tsunami-ravaged Japan and powered a satellite dish from a car in hurricane-hit New Orleans. But at Vale das Estrelas when the taps ran dry and the lights went out I had to work out where water and power came from and why they weren’t coming from there anymore.

The German woman had left everything: furniture, cutlery, bedding, two stillboxed fondue sets and a rack of terrible sweet wine. Everything but an instruction manual. I couldn’t even Google-solve the problem from the house, as I had to climb up the hill to get a decent signal: off the grid apparently also means no wifi connection.

With the help of Radi, the German hippy who lives in the valley and used to do some work for the previous owner, we discovered a borehole on one side of the valley and a water tank on the other. To this day I have not found the pipe that connects the two.

The solar power system was an utterly incomprehensible line of large, gurgling red boxes full of lead and acid. The ancient diesel generator, caked in old oil, rattled into life with a thick cloud of smoke and despite making a lot of noise produced no electricity. An undiscovered leaking toilet was not only wasting water, but also constantly running an electric pump, which obliterated the old battery in two weeks. We had to buy new lithium ones.

When the weather started to get cold both boilers broke at once and I soon discovered you can’t just call Portuguese Gas. The boilers are so old even online instruction manuals are only written in German, and I still can’t tell a Verbrennungsluftgebläse from a Rückschlagklappe.

It’s fair to say off-grid living has been a steep learning curve and an even steeper spending curve. But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Having limits to your daily electricity supply makes you think about sustainability, moderation and how many times a day you need to run the washing machine.

We now collect rainwater and filter it for drinking and when the sun shines we’re carbon neutral. (We’re replacing gas with a woodburner next winter for when the sun doesn’t shine.) Our fantastic radio link internet connection streams Line of Duty.

We rescued a horse-sized dog called Garfunkel to scare off the wild boars, but not the cuckoos, owls and the nightingale. We’re learning how people help each other in the countryside and we’ve put together a business plan for our off-grid B&B, which has been backed by the tourism authority.

It’s hard work, there’s no such thing as a dull day, and we never get tired of that view.

You can sign up for Alastair Leithead’s weekly blog “Off-grid and Ignorant in Portugal” on Substack and on Insta @vale_das_estrelas


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