Nights are quiet in Bultfontein. The occasional lowing of cattle, or the complaint of a calf that has found herself separated from the herd, perhaps the cry of a startled kiewiet: these just add to the sense of peace.
But we do have nights when our peace is ruptured. Somewhere on our Bult it happens every night, but not to us personally all that often. When it does, the results can be dramatic. A few nights before this was written we had such an occasion.
The darkness had been as peaceful as on any other bushveld night. Then some time around midnight our two dogs woke us with a chorus of excited barking. Most often the reason they bark is someone approaching the house at an unlikely hour. Their barking usually has the effect of chasing off whoever who does not belong. Under these circumstances the most likely course of action is to try to ignore the dogs and go on sleeping. This time they kept at it.
I got complainingly out of bed and was about to wander down the passage to the dogs when I saw how brightly the curtains were glowing. Miriam was also awake. “You switched on the outside lights,” I told her. “Did we have an intruder?”
“I didn’t switch anything on,” she mumbled.
In that moment it was obvious she had done it in her sleep. I went to the switch, but found it in the “off” position. The curtains were glowing like a Christmas decoration, so I finally staggered to the window, moved a curtain and looked out.
Fires in the dry winter grass can be alarming in the day time when most of what you see is smoke. By night the picture is different. The scene can be more spectacular in glorious, blazing technicolour than anything Hollywood can conjure up. On this night the flames were all of two metres high, spread right across the landscape of our property and advancing on the house from three sides as if their mission was to burn it down and eliminate us from the face of the earth. Some inner warning system caused me to rush to the other side of the house. Another wall of flame, as wide and seemingly determined, was approaching through the tinder-dry grass of the cattle farm.
We had made provision, a sort of typically passive Wessel provision, against such a day. The grass in our garden, an acre or two around the house, is cut so close to the ground that there is practically nothing to burn. That works in the front of the house, but on the side of the cattle farm the house was too close to the fence for our very short grass to be a protection and the largest flames were no more than twenty metres from our back door. We watched helplessly while praying our trees between the house the fence would not catch fire.
But fate had taken an unexpected turn in our favour. In last week’s musing I told about the cattle farm’s huge Brahman cattle that eliminated the array of charming black-eyed Susans from our back fence. Well, after that the Brahmans, no doubt hoping for the return of the Susans, tended to loiter around our back fence. And while they were there, they ate. The result is that they created an excellent, but narrow fire break along our back fence. Our black-eyed Susans, the Brahmans and the love of one for the other, while seemingly vandalistic at one stage, helped to keep the fire at bay.
And then there was the community. And that is something you have to appreciate in Afrikaner people. They have a great sense of community. Ten minutes after a desperate radio call for help, guys with water trucks turned up, one team in the front of our place and two fire engines in the cattle farm. Miriam and I stood outside watching them and feeling true gratitude.
Within half an hour everything was over, only feebly glowing stumps of grassy clusters and foul-smelling smoke remained, as the night settled back into fireless darkness and quiet. But that is Africa and our predisposition towards both destruction and peace. The two go together on our continent.