Gillian Warren-Brown

Writing, editing, proofreading


Baptism of fire

20151106_180714Five days before Christmas, almost half our farm went up in flames. We saw two bolts of lightning, too close for comfort, as we approached our farm on foot after a long Sunday morning outing. We’d been to photograph a particularly striking panel of eland in a rock-art shelter. Hot and weary, we enjoyed the sharp shower, before it started pelting us with tiny hailstones.

After kicking off my hiking boots and enjoying a slice or two of homemade bread, I settled into an armchair to read and recover. At that moment my husband happened to look out the door, towards the mountain.


Thoughts running faster than high-speed internet, he told me who to call before going to rescue the cattle, which were in the path of the advancing flames, being driven by a south-easter.

20151220_144728Thankfully the cattle were in adjoining camps and, as they’d already been scared by the flames, were huddled together against the fence. As he drove one group along, those on the other side followed. But just as his bunch approached the gate, some of them decided to head towards the mountain and the vlei at its foot. So he had to retrieve those and get them moving, amid jostling bulls and mooing moms trying to keep track of their calves.

When I stuck my head out the door to see how my beloved was doing, I saw him pick up a calf, just a few days old, that was weaving about in confusion and shove it through the gate. Fortunately, he got them all to safety.

Meanwhile, I reached some people on the phone (trying not to sound too desperate while being clear about the urgency) and left messages for others.

At one point I was told someone had seen the smoke and a tractor with a water tank and hose was on its way. Comforting – as long as I didn’t allow myself to think about how long it would take.

20151220_145110I was beginning to stress about the house because the flames were advancing rapidly and all that was between them and the house was long, blonde, tinder-dry grass. I tried using the hosepipe to damp down a border of grass close to the house but the water pressure was low and hardly seemed to achieve much. I decided to take the battle to the front lines and, fire beater in hand, tackled the advancing blaze. It was HOT and began to feel futile when, with every slap, the sparks jumped and started a fresh little fire.

I’d left my precious dog in the house, thinking it was the safest place for him. But when I began to panic that it would go up in flames, I dashed inside, trying to remember fire-drill rules about closing windows and doors (funny what one thinks of in such moments). I quickly grabbed a few items that, at the time, I thought were important and shoved them into my backpack, which I put on.

When I went out to confront the flames again, I took my dog with me and secured him on a large, flat sandstone area behind the house where there was nothing to burn.

As I was beating out the flames that had reached the garden fence, I heard myself chanting, ‘No, no, no,’ (determinedly) with every stroke. I wasn’t going to let those flames devour a good sneezewood fence post.

20151220_152209.jpgAt some point, the first farmer arrived and used the hosepipe to quell the flames as they crept behind the house, where our supply of firewood was stacked. Reassuringly – though it looked impossible to me – he kept saying I shouldn’t worry, that he’d put out the flames before they reached the wood. He did.

I watched the fire rage in front of the house through our carefully tended veggie garden, scorching the young fruit trees before it tucked in greedily to a compost-heap feast.

The apron of flames that passed the back of the house, beyond the hose wetting, alighted on two 16-foot bluegum tree trunks – trees that had been sawn down at the front of our house and, fortuitously, dragged away not long before by a bulldozer that had come to dig dams.

Once they caught fire they burned red-hot for two days, creating a dramatic firework display at night.

20151220_193601_LLS.jpgNot long after the first farmer arrived, others began to roll in – some with water tanks and hoses on their bakkies. Two came on tractors with large water tanks on trailers and set about dealing with the blaze.

I’m guessing the 12 or so farmers who responded fanned out and got to wherever they could to fight the fire. They were absolutely amazing and stayed to the very last, which was into the early evening.

Most of that time I had no idea where my brave and tireless husband was. The last time I’d seen him he had the blower in hand, an old t-shirt tied around his nose and mouth and yellow protective glasses on, which gave him a rather mean-insect look.

I felt helpless being at the house so I busied myself with carrying buckets of water to quench blazing stumps or cowpats (which carry on smouldering for ages). And offering ice-cold cooldrink to the fire fighters – thoughtfully sent along in a cooler box by one of the farmer’s wives. Oh, and I took some photos too. And watched a frightened hare sitting in the middle of the burnt-black field next to the house, looking confused and disoriented, before it scampered off.

Once the fire was out and most people had left, we sat on the front steps and had tea and rusks with our neighbour. I felt so relieved that we still had front steps and a stoep to sit on, and a house to go to sleep in.

20151220_175415.jpgThroughout the evening I kept checking that the burning tree trunks hadn’t set anything else alight (not that there was much to burn). When I woke at 4am and went to look again, there was an unusually bright light coming through the back window – a bush was on fire on a rocky ridge behind the house. When I roused him, my gracious, weary husband got up and went to douse the flames before we both fell back into an exhausted sleep.

In the morning, the barren blackness was startling. With every puff of wind, dust and soot blew in our eyes and settled on every surface in the house.

20151220_175250.jpgWe’ve not seen much evidence of burnt creatures, except a few sadly empty tortoise shells. Happily, the ground squirrel family of four that live in a maze of burrows near the house survived. I can imagine them sheltering under the earth as the flames raged above them.

Desperately hoping for rain, we watched the clouds for almost three weeks before a good downpour broke the impasse. It wasn’t long before the optimistic grass began to shoot, and now, after more rain, the tinge of green has turned to brilliant emerald.


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Rainbow mealies


We’ve become typical farmers who spend a lot of time hoping for rain, looking up at the sky and willing the smallest puff of cloud to mushroom into a large, promising thunderhead.

If we happen to drive anywhere, such as to town or to visit a neighbouring farm, it can take us much longer than anticipated because it’s common practice to stop and chat to a farmer in an oncoming bakkie. Both drivers wind down their windows and, after the usual greetings, lamenting the lack of rain is the likely icebreaker.

Amid the talk of dry dams and tenuous boreholes, I find myself listening for the moment when one or other party mentions the Norwegians – who are usually quoted with authority and in a tone of respect – as in, “The Norwegians said…” or, in Afrikaans, “Die Nore het gesê…” You see, in these parts, almost everyone consults a Norwegian weather site, which they claim is more accurate than any local forecast. Most importantly, it provides hour-by-hour precipitation predictions, with suitably graphic icons.

Having consulted the Norwegians ourselves, who said it would rain on Thursday week before last, my farmer-husband decided we should plant the mealies. Hanging on any longer would mean we’d risk them being bitten by frost just when they’d be ready to harvest. However, that Thursday came and went, as did last one, and we’re still looking up at the sky, hoping. There have been a few brief showers, which have produced beautiful double rainbows over the mountain, but not much else.


Of course before planting the mealies, the field had to be prepared. My beloved has a red Massey Ferguson tractor just like the one my dad had on the farm when I was a child. Some time before we took the plunge to plant, he’d used it to plough a small field next to the vegetable garden and we’d spent a hot and dusty morning hoeing and creating rows for planting.


In addition to the usual yellow ones and some not-so-usual purplish black ones known as Inca corn , we planted rainbow mealies called Painted Mountain (with colours ranging from white to yellow to purple to rusty red and maroon, all on the same cob).  They’re wonderfully tasty and the Inca ones make the most extraordinary-looking purple mealie-meal porridge.

Sadly, our stash of multi-coloured mealies from last year’s harvest has just run out and we’ve had to move on to yellow ones. We grind them using a beautiful, solid metal mealie grinder bought from a scrap yard. To get it in perfect working order, my husband had one of the working parts re-machined; then he painted it and built an elegant sandstone pedestal outside the back door to mount it on.

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Grinding mealies is a hectic, ambidextrous, workout – it’s much more difficult to get the wheel turning again than to keep it whirring by swapping hands seamlessly. We take turns and when one of us is puffing the other steps in (not quite seamlessly yet). It’s an exhausting task, but ever so satisfying because the coarse, wholesome mealie meal is worth every drop of sweat. It bubbles and pops away on the wood stove every night while we’re cooking supper, so it’s ready to heat up for breakfast in the morning.

Meanwhile, we continue to look to the heavens as we water our rainbow mealies, using a very long hosepipe. The Norwegians are not quoted with as much confidence as before; they keep moving the day of the promised rain. At the start of the week it’s Tuesday, on Tuesday it becomes Thursday… Maybe today’s the day.





Chasing cows

At the beginning of October, I moved from Cape Town  to join my husband on our farm in the Eastern Cape. Fortunately, I’m a farmer’s daughter, so the lifestyle is not entirely foreign to me but it is very different from living in the city. While I’m embracing every part of it, I’m also maintaining an observer’s eye so I can share my experiences…

Our (current) milking cow and her beautiful calf.

Our (current) milking cow and her beautiful calf.

Early mornings last week were very active, and interesting to say the least, on account of one of our cows that had a calf recently. We brought her close to the house so we could milk her in the mornings. For those of you who don’t know, a cow is separated from her calf in the evening and the little one usually gets to sleep in a kraal while its mom continues to graze and pass the night within calling distance. This is so that the calf doesn’t drink all the milk by the time we humans try to get a share in the morning. The cow ends up with a reservoir of milk in her udder and, as soon as the calf comes near her to drink, she opens the milk bar.

While this particular cow had no problem with her calf latching on, she’d never been milked by humans, and thought it a repulsive idea. So whenever we tried to get her to go to her calf in the kraal, where it was waiting for its breakfast, she would career across the dry streambed and into the bushes.

After plaintive moos from the little girl, mama would eventually concede to be driven back and, with some pushing and shoving, we would get her into the pen for milking. Then, and only then, would we free the calf to come and suckle so mama would release her milk.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Getting some milk means my ever-so-calm husband, who’s the one actually trying to do the milking, has to compete with a very determined calf. We want only a litre or so for the day, so there’s plenty left over. The problem is getting it while she’s trying to biff her mother’s udder to release more milk. This is the least of it. A cow intent on escape has all manner of tricks up her sleeve. As soon as the foamy white liquid covered the bottom of the bucket, she decided it was time to empty her bowels and then, because her back legs were tied to prevent kicking, to run on the spot in the soft manure she’d just deposited, splashing it all over.

We stop. Wait patiently for her to notch up her score and try again. This time she manages to work her legs loose enough to kick over the bucket and tread in it. I think that’s when we conceded victory for the day.

We tried again a few days running but there was no indication that the cow was making peace with the routine. On the contrary, she devised more cunning, diabolical means of escape and had us running uphill and down dale to get her to the kraal.

So we gave up on her and decided to swop her for another cow with a newly born calf. The herdsman had said she had a gentle nature, which would suit us just fine. But when he went to fetch her, he found her grazing alone and – being an expert in cow behaviour – decided she’d hidden her calf, and done it so efficiently that he couldn’t find it.

When he came to tell us about it, I couldn’t help smiling at the way he mimicked a cow grazing casually when there’s a human around and, as soon as the human has gone, returning to its calf so it can suckle. It was perfect material for a Gary Larson cartoon.

But said herdsman snuck up on her the next day and managed to bring her and her beautiful little girl-calf to the camp near our house. With the exception of a few round-about routes, and one evening when her calf couldn’t be found, milking proceeds in a relatively sedate fashion. It’s almost a meditation.