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Charl’s House of Fun

By James Dicks

A short while ago, a friend contacted us about constructing a spacenet for his new house. This may seem an odd task to be asking a unicycling company to undertake, but naturally there is a back story. A mutual friend of myself and Donna, Sylvain Burki, passed away tragically at the end of 2015. As a memorial and honour of him we held a Park Play Session and constructed a massive spacenet reminiscent of those constructed by Andy Lewis and the Moab Monkeys. The spacenet resembled a glorified dream-catcher design. Based on this, we were apparently the most qualified team to take on the task of building Charl’s net.

The Moab Monkey's "Mothership Space Net Penthouse"

The Moab Monkey’s “Mothership Space Net Penthouse”

Park Play Sessions Spacenet for Sylvain Burki

Park Play Sessions Spacenet for Sylvain Burki

Many nets are constructed by using a bend or knot that does not isolate each mesh of the net, the dream-catcher design for example. This was unsuitable for our purpose, as we wanted to ensure maximum safety and even spacing between each mesh. It was clear that children would be the predominant users of this net, so small mesh sizes and safety were absolutely imperative (not that safety isn’t imperative for adults too!). It became a toss-up between a reef knot net configuration and a traditional fisherman’s netting knot. Both are aesthetic knots, and suitable for our purpose, but would create a slightly different weaving pattern. In the end we chose a traditional fisherman’s netting knot.

We managed to find samples of each colour we intended to use. We chose a Dyneema Super Lite rope for a couple of reasons. Dyneema has a wonderful specific strength, and in combination with a resilient polypropylene sheath allows for a small diameter rope with sufficient strength and durability for the task at hand. We chose 5mm as it retains a good strength, whilst not being too thick and cumbersome neither too thin and painful under foot. Luckily Southern Ropes makes this rope in a number of vibrant colours.

OddWheel Unicycle HQ went on a road trip out to Grabouw to investigate the much anticipated space we would construct our net over. The house is situated in a stunning location, overlooking the Grabouw mountain range. The house is modern and industrial in its architecture, yet elements of playfulness are apparent throughout the house. Getting to business, we measured up the space for the net at 3050 x 1900 mm, and mentally measured up the task we faced.

In order to give a rough approximation of the length of rope required for the project, some simple algebra could be implemented. If our length is seen as the hypotenuse of each triangular block of the mesh, then by dividing the total length by the root of the sum of the square of the other two sides (mesh size) c.f. Pythagoras’ theorem, we can work out how many blocks the length and width of the net will comprise of. Furthermore, we can then work out how much rope is required for each block, and “hey presto” we have an approximate length. In this calculation I incorporated the length of a knot for each block when dividing by the total length to ensure we didn’t make too many blocks. Likewise, the length of rope necessary to make each knot was also included into our rope length calculation.

In our endeavor to get rope with pretty colours, we went on quite a wild goose chase around Cape Town. In the interim time between our telephonic enquiries and actually procuring the rope, someone seemed to have bought out all the 5mm Dyneema Super Lite rope! After a trip into the CBD, whereby a shop owner gave me a false promise of ocean blue 5mm Dyneema Super Lite (it was actually 6mm on closer inspection) I was off to the manufacturing plant of Southern Ropes for a brief sojourn around the factory floor trying to find the manager, who could sell me a roll. Eventually the day came to a close with all three colours in hand, just in time for evening traffic for my victory lap home.

The next day we set about actually starting the weaving process. After a significant portion of time trying to establish the intricacies of “casting on” the rope to begin the process, we were eventually under way. The bulk of 100m of rope proved a struggle whilst weaving, but we were apprehensive to cut the rope into sections. Hence it transpired that we pulled through the entire rope on each section of tying the knot. Work to make severe callouses and tired forearms. Whilst we threaded spaghetti, I tried to do some mental maths as to how many meters of rope we would eventually pull through in the entire construction, but sheer horror inhibited a final result being estimated.

We scrapped the concept of a frame to build the net onto, and instead created a rudimentary loom system. By using two pieces of 38 x 38 mm wood and spacers the knots could be tied onto the previous row of loops with even spaces to create a neat net. Pulling, pulling, pulling… Day 1 resulted in a mere single row of usable net, with a width of 26 meshes. The length was proposed to be 32 meshes; we were going to be here pulling rope for months!

We found that by wrapping the rope around the 38 x 38 mm wood and knotting the next loop around another piece of the same wood, a spacer of 100 mm was required. However, after the first row we realised that the 38 x 38 mm wood wouldn’t slide into the mesh since space had been taken up by the knots on each side. Another trip to the hardware store and one 32 mm diameter round curtain rail rod later, and we were back in business. This was now the back piece of our loom, whilst the original 38 x 38 mm wood was implemented on the leading end.

Slowly but surely we refined our technique at making each knot, until we didn’t have to talk our way through each step of the process. By day 3 we could complete a row in two hours; not bad, but still highly time consuming. Now I can see why the industrial revolution came to fruition! Fantasies of winches to pull the rope through and robots to intricately knot each mesh wafted around my head whilst we kept on pulling, pulling, pulling…

However, a couple of rows down, the net was starting to look beautiful, and I was truly proud of the fruits of our labor. There is a beauty to a hand crafted product. Maybe its my sweat droplets glistening off the rope that makes it look so beautiful.

At about this point in the process, we found that pulling the latest row of loops off the square 38 x 38 mm wood was ever so tiresome and serious time consumer in the process, so we decided to implement a round object instead, which could easily twist out. By working out the perimeter of the square wood, we found that 50 mm diameter round pole give us an equivalent sized loop.

OddWheel's Net Loom

Whilst Donna skipped off to summer in San Sebastian, Spain for Unicon 18, I spent approximately 45 grueling hours hauling rope in grizzly Cape Town winter. I will save details at this point, since I think my mind has blanked much of it out. I would like to make a special shout out to Sir David Attenborough though; whose soothing voice depicting the scenes of our natural world took me through the darkest hours.

Countless rows of knots later (probably 46 in actuality) and I had run out of rope. The three colours – red, purple and blue – looked spectacular together. Although I felt proud of the accomplishment thus far, I still had trepidation towards the installation. I had stretched the net out in the garden with a pulley rig and it JUST made the required length. Moreover, it was debatable whether my technique of tensioning the net in situ would be effective. I planned on attaching three edges with cable ties, then pulling it taught with a pulley and bar. I guess I’d just have to wait and see.

Well the day finally arrived, and we set off to Grabouw once again. It was a pre-frontal day and highly atmospheric to say the least. After cutting out the original net, we lay the new net down under the space; it looked very small.

Anyways, we badgered on, and started by attaching it at the far short end with numerous cable ties. Next, we attached the two long edges. We then took cable ties to a row of knots 5 spaces from the end and attached a steel bar off which we would tension the net with a pulley rig. Thankfully Charl had another pulley rig so we could equalize the tension easily. However, my steel bar was a bit too long so Donna and Charl ran off to a neighbour to source a hacksaw. I took the opportunity to hop onto Charl’s garden midline, which was a lot of fun in the wind.

DSC_0128

Upon return, progress proceeded, and we hauled in a fair amount of the net – but not nearly enough. I attached the far short end with rope to alleviate the cable ties when they started popping under the tension. At this point we had a delicious lunch to ramp up our motivation and energy, strong coffee included. Things post lunch moved along slowly yet methodically. We de-tensioned and re-tensioned, to get the long edges roped up and in place. We de-tensioned again, this time to adjust the pulleys as they had run out of distance to pull in any more. We got to the final tensioning act, and the net was almoooooost to its full distance. We made a call to attach it with rope anyways, with longer spaces. The reasoning behind this was so that we could hop onto the net and hopefully stretch it in and set all the knots – anticipating we could eke out a wee bit more distance from the net. Well, that seemed to work! We re-tensioned the two long sides, and set about the task of hauling in the final edge. Completion was nigh!

By some miracle, we managed to get the net to the other side eventually. It looked truly magnificent. Borderline biblical. Joseph’s Techni-colour Spacenet. After a frolic on the net and some celebratory pictures, we pursued our odyssey home at the ungodly hour of 7.30pm. That made for a 12 hour round journey. But longer than this physical journey was that of the entire net’s construction. I learnt a lot from it, both in terms of rope work and about myself. Patience. Methodical planning. Perseverance. Etc. Etc.

As happy as I am that the net is successfully constructed and rigged, I was a little sad to see it out of my hands. My calloused hands. But hopefully I shall return to Grabouw sometime in the future for a luxurious afternoon nap on the net – no weaving allowed!

Sending the Life Line

Another beautiful day in the Berg! Another day of work as an OddWheeler. I stroll down the road for my morning coffee and then meander into the office. Open my computer to start my daily duties. On this particular day I started on Facebook because I wanted to upload photos from Sunday’s Park Play Session, which I still haven’t done. I did a quick scan of my feed and come across a slightly disturbingly vague post which immediately prompt me to phone Charmaine, the partner of my friend Sylvain.

The news was devastating and tragic!  With barely anything being said, the tone in Charmaine’s voice had confirmed my suspicions. Sylvain was gone!!! He has left this earthly realm.

After dealing with the death of my father I thought that I would never be wobbled as easily again. However Sylvain’s death affected me. He would be the first friend to cross over.

The easiest way to explain why I was wobbled is by telling you what our connection was….

Both coming from the Film Industry, Sylvain in Stunts and Rigging and myself in Wardrobe / Costume, our paths crossed on a commercial shot in Noordhoek. In true Cape Town film style it was a service job for an American product. The commercial was a bootcamp vibe. I remembered walking across the massive field towards Sylvain. There must’ve been a Wardrobe / Stunt conversation that had to happen. This in turn lead to the discovery of him being into Slacklining, but more specifically Highlining and that he has a company called SlackGear and that he makes lines. Obviously my hobby and new sideline business, OddWheel Unicycles was unveiled to Sylvain. I was a Unicyclist and I had a company that specializes in unicycles but also sold slacklines. We had a kindred interest in balance and developing our communities and businesses. This was our introduction.

Sylvain Burki Highlining

Today, after being out of the film industry for 1 full year running OddWheel full time. I find myself yet again on a film set in Constantia. Fulfilling the role of an Electric Unicyclist and not a wardrobe assistant. Waiting for when ‘they’ use me, if ‘they’ use me. The circus I left behind to pursue happiness and be apart of a real circus community. With ample time to kill I am writing the start of this post on my phone.

Since taking OddWheel over I had to explore ways of making this business viable as it could not survive off Unicycling alone, one of the hardest balance arts to master. It takes a strong-willed individual with a mindset that invites challenge coupled with perseverance, as does Highlining, Longlining and Slacklining.

This exploration led me on a path to connect with the communities that embrace this way of life. We are a vast pool of communities spread over many arts which collectively are the Balance / Flow and Cirque Arts. The circus I feel most comfortable in and welcomed!

Sylvain and myself by default are leaders in the balance aspect of this collective and worked together and singularly to grow, connect, teach and inspire these art forms. What sealed our connection is when Sylvain invited me to the first Rocklands Highline Festival in March of 2014. I leaped at the opportunity to connect with this community and this phenomenal man. The crossover is perfect and continues to work. Without realizing it, attending the first Highline Festival made a huge impact on my life and it’s path. Sylvain was an integral part of my current path.

In the weeks that followed I attended Sylvain’s very small and intimate service where he was cremated. I saw the pain and heartache that his closest friends and family were experiencing. It was so familiar. December came and went. On January the 23rd, 2016 I attended Sylvain’s Celebration of Life at the Swiss Club in Green Point. There were so many people! It was casual, light, heartwarming, emotional and tear jerking. Sylvain’s closest friends and family spoke of his wonderful life. It was beautiful to hear the antics of Sylvain Burki, as a boy, as a brother, as a son, as a musician, as a climber and as a highliner. Echoing the attitude Sylvain lived his life by, always smiling, laughing, teaching, sharing and giving. He lived a full life, not a moment was wasted. Everything he did was to the best of his ability, to perfection and of the highest quality. James Taylor edited a beautiful video of Sylvain’s moments that were either captured on video or as photo’s and the soundtrack was Sylvain playing the didgeridoo and guitar. It was a day of healing for the people that Sylvain had left behind.

Sylvain’s Celebration of Life Video on Facebook (you need not have an account with Facebook to view this public video)

But we couldn’t end it there. I still wanted to honour Sylvain’s memory. Around April / May 2015 I went to a gathering at Keurboom Park that Sylvain had arranged. It was a day of playing in the park with our toys. It was so much fun to be in that world again. I chatted to Sylvain about setting up a Facebook event that would happen once a month; this was to become Park Play Sessions. Our first official session was held in June 2015 and continued month after month. I actively invited as many communities that fell into the balance / flow / cirque world’s. Every Park Session is awesome with so many talented individuals coming to play, share and teach. It got big quickly and is now frequented by Slackliners, Jugglers, Unicyclists, Yoyoist’s, Acroyogi’s, Aerial Hoopist’s, Poi, Staff and Hoop people. I didn’t know it at the time but the PPS held on December 13th would be the last time I hug Sy. He died on the 14th from a shallow water blackout in his pool at home. Damn shame!

I thought long and hard about what could be done to honour Sylvain’s memory. I asked as many people as I could for advice. It needed to include the community that was birthed through Park Play and Slackgear. After Sy died photo’s started circulating of him. Craig Fox had taken a photo of Sylvain bouncing on a small spacenet that himself and Andy Court had built at the October PPS. I spoke with Charmaine, Andy, Mr Dicks and Lyle to bounce my idea off them, “Let’s build a giant spacenet for Sylvain”. Admittedly it didn’t take much convincing, we were all in agreement and therefore it will be done.

A good old Whatsapp group was formed to start figuring this brain fart out. Gear was discussed numerous times. We did a little test build 2 weeks before the January session just so we knew what we were in for. We felt pretty confident that we could pull it off… and did we!

Sunday morning, it’s Park Play day, no it’s spacenet day! Chris and myself arrive at a sparrow’s fart whilst the rest of the team starts trickling in from 9am. We were a core group of roughly 10 people that started actioning the build. As the minutes ticked past we continued to weave Sylvain’s dreamcatcher. Sessioners trickled in and got involved. People helped where they could. The result was exactly what I had hoped for. Sylvain’s friends gave their time, energy and gear to manifest something as grandeur as he was. We collectively created a heart space that held his very essence. It was filled with fun, joy, laughter and love. Like I said, exactly what I wanted!

I will openly admit that I know next-to-nothing about climbing and rigging. I’m the unicycle expert. What I can do is give you a brief idea of what it took to build Sylvain’s Spacenet.

  • 3.5 Hours to build and 1 hour to de-rig.
  • 4 Strong trees.
  • 4 Tree protectors.
  • 3 Slacklines, tripled up.
  • Lank 1 & 2 ton slings to make up the circumference of roughly 5/6 metre’s squared. We eventually decided on a square because of the tree configuration.
  • Just over 500m of static line to weave the dreamcatcher.
  • 4 SlackGear pulley systems.
  • Baboon locks, Rhino locks, soft links and various shackles.
  • Dyno-something-or-other, for measuring the forces when people are on the net. Between 6-7 people was the limit, and yes, the 2 children did count as 1 adult.
  • 2 Ladder’s.
  • Lots of crash pads.
  • Many willing, loving hands with bodies.

Here is a photo album of the day on Facebook.

Something that really touched my heart about Sylvain’s Spacenet Send-Off was that both his parents, Hedi and Ernest came to the park to enjoy the community that Sylvain had helped create. It has been a difficult time for them wrapped up in intense emotion. Hedi and Ernest, Sylvain was amazing with so many incredible qualities that could only be attributed to the both of you. He was a precious gift. I feel overwhelmingly honoured and spoilt to have known him for the short time that I did.

Sylvain you rocked our worlds! Thank you for being an inspiration to us all and for teaching us so much! Dude, you will be missed… but never forgotten!

Just so that everyone is in the loop, SlackGear will continue. It has been kindly handed over to Charmaine Retief Kritzinger who stood by Sylvain’s side for the last few years as his partner. She pretty much shadowed him and I would imagine knows the smallest details about SlackGear that only a partner would know. We support you on your new path Charmaine, unquestionably. Go for it girl!

Sylvain and Charmaine Highlining

If you into Slackline, Longline or Highline then get your buttocks down to the annual meetup happening at Rocklands over the Easter weekend.  Click here if you would like to find out more about the weekend.  I would highly recommend it!

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