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With this Tuesday being a holiday, any South African who has been paying even mild attention has realised that the country had more or less shut down on the Monday to make an extra long weekend out of the time available. A friend (who will go unnamed for her and her employer’s sake) managed to stitch together enough Mondays and Fridays with the public holidays in April/May to get off ten days of work in total and spend the time hard at work resting. The fact that South Africa is a country adept at padding holidays with leave, resulting in a work calendar with gaping holes is nothing new though. What is more educational today is what I managed to get up to with my allotted four days. Which is to say getting to burn stuff. A whole mountain in fact.

Well, half a mountain. Which is still impressive – and entirely legal in this case.  Yesterday I was fortunate enough to get to tag along with a group burning fire breaks in the Drakensberg (which means Dragon Mountains, or something very close to that, for the overseas folk – and is entirely appropriate a name for our day’s activities).  If you have no clue what a fire break is, it is a stretch of land burned between two farms, or fields, or anything which you might need to protect from winter fires. That way, if one part burns, then everything up to the firebreak is toast, at which point the fire peters out for lack of grass (because you burned it already). Simple, really.

In our case, we were to burn the boundary between a farm in the Kamberg area of the mountains, next to a national park. People from the park would be setting fire to the mountain from the one side, and we from the other.  The two fires then meet up at the top of the mountain and die out. Our job was then essentially to ignite the side of the mountain in a line from one end to the other about halfway up and then make sure that it burns up the mountain, not down (since down is where people live and farm, who would be generally dissatisfied with us if we managed to reduce a 300 acre farm to warm ash). With such a mission was the team of burners tasked.

The pyromanics who would set fire to todays mountain. This photo is totally unposed. Really.

The pyromanics who would set fire to today's mountain. This photo is totally unposed. Really.

Now the mountain, you must understand, is mountain-sized. Which is to say huge. The part the team was to light and burn up was something around 12km long around their side. If you think that this should suggest that there was a slightly more structured approach than running to and fro with matches, then you would be correct. There is in fact something of a science to the whole business -with three key roles making up the human burning machine that would bring fiery joy to the slopes.

The burner. Dispenser of the fiery fire which is so key to the overall project.

The burner. Dispenser of the fiery fire which is so key to the overall project.

First off is the burner. This individual (we had two, just in case) had probably the most fun of all. Carrying what looks like a homemade flamethrower which dribbles burning paraffin out the end, he would lead the group dragging the nose of the device behind him. Watching a fiery V appear in his wake as the flames picked up and moved off behind his path reminded me a little of some sort of demon walking over the bush. If demons were to wear wellington boots and orange overalls. Seeing things get set alight left, right and center is actually terribly entertaining in its own way, particularly when there is little apparent chance of having the flames burn you.  This is ensured by the presence of the next key player in the team – the beater.

The beater. Lord of his domain and stopper of errant fire. None shall survive the wrath of the ribber paddle beater thing.

The beater. Lord of his domain and stopper of errant fire. None shall survive the wrath of the rubber paddle beater thing.

As I may have alluded to in describing the burner, the fire left behind does not march in a well behaved manner up the mountain, as we would like. No sir. It instead decides to burn in all directions, half of which are useful (i.e. up the mountain), while half are not (down the mountain. The end where we are marching along). It therefore falls to the beater to ensure that bad fire is whacked into ash,  leaving good fire to carry on running up the mountain where it can become someone else’s problem. In this case the parks board on the other side of the mountain, whose good fire would shortly meet up with ours, embrace, and die. The beater is therefore essential in taming the anarchy of the burner and must be thorough in their task, as any unbeaten fire which has the chance will go running down the mountain. This is called a runaway fire and is potentially hazardous and panic-inducing if not checked. A good set of beaters should ensure that there will not be any such blazes.

The squirter. The final member of the team carries a giant water pistol and back mounted water tank.

The squirter. The final member of the team carries a giant water pistol and back mounted water tank.

Finally, because some fires can become so hot that approaching them to beat them becomes pretty much impossible, the team has squirters. Carrying water and connected water pistol  on their back, the squirters can destroy errant flames from a distance, where a beater might risk life and limb to get close enough to whack a larger fire. Our burn was well-behaved though, with only whack-worthy fire ever making an appearance. And then being whacked.

Working together, burners, beaters and squirters can then move rapidly along the side of the mountain, setting and directing the blaze as they go and covering the full 12km burn target for the day. All together, it looks a little something like this.

Working together, a well-managed fire break burning becomes an extended day hike - where you get to set fire to everything.

And so it was that I managed to pass Monday. My legs are now rather (read terribly) stiff, but I learned something new and managed to set fire to half a mountain. If that is not a mischevious boyhood dream made real, then I have no idea what is.