Five 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.
Thankfully 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.
I 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.
At 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.
Not 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.
Throughout 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.
We’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.