Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Snake that set the farm alight

- Judy Maguire -

It had not been a good week. A farmworker’s mother had died, and several complicated arrangements had been made for the funeral. The gravediggers, who had been given time off from Thursday afternoon, had prematurely drowned their sorrows and by Saturday morning, three hours before the funeral was scheduled to take place, the grave – purportedly in an undiggable ‘klipbank’ - was scarcely deep enough for the coffin. Some of the designated pall bearers were also prematurely inebriated and replacements had to be drummed up at the last minute. A fiasco threatened. Much of this had been telephonically relayed to me at the farm, some 10 kms out of town, in serial format, as one drama followed upon the heels of the next. I was home alone, except for one worker – all the rest were involved in the funeral proceedings.

By lunch time, when the funeral ought to have been well and truly under way, I was more than ready for the Stress Relief Radox and a cool bath (it was terribly hot that day). I had just stripped to climb in and chill out when there was a frantic knocking at the door. It was my last remaining employee: “Mevrou! Die plaas is aan die brand! Die veld brand langs die skuur!

Radox forgotten. I hurried into my clothes and Crocs, loaded the worker’s bicycle onto the bakkie and raced to the scene. We had just harvested and baled our entire oats crop, and that all 630 bales were now stored in the said skuur – already claimed and paid for by Ann Kerr…

When we got there, there were about 10 small fires here and there amongst the fallen dried straw. One bundle was smouldering right at the threshold of the straw-packed barn. We scraped it away with a spade, and frantically tried to move other smouldering straw heaps away from the doors of the building. It was immediately apparent that there was no way that we could extinguish the blaze on our own. It had already spread almost into the Scholtzkloof riverine thicket, and if that went, we would have no hope because there is no vehicle access. I left Arrie, my foreman, on site and hurried back to the house to phone for the new Prince Albert Fire Brigade. The telephone number is not in the directory, which I hurried through with trembling fingers and pounding chest. Luckily, the police had the number and miraculously, the fire engine arrived, siren wailing, within 11 minutes. Well done Prince Albert Fire Brigade, manned by Mr. Michael Griebelaar and Mr Henry Lekay! The neigh-bours were strung out in a line in their wake…..thank you neighbours, for coming to see if I was OK! Our grateful thanks are due to Arrie for his surveillance and help in controlling the fire which went well beyond the call of duty

The firemen knew exactly what to do and in no time had emptied their smallish tank, but irrigation water was available not too far away and in about three hours of vigorous fire fighting, it was well under control.

As to the cause of the fire, it was an absolute fluke. Some birds had nested in the ESKOM transformer near the skuur, where at one time there was three-phase electricity and another transformer. An acacia tree had grown within boomslang striking distance of the nests. An enterprising snake had climbed up the tree, reached out for the nests and in the attempt shorted out the power lines. This caused a momentary power cut at the house which I had in fact noticed but thought nothing of. There must have been a huge flash and incinerated boomslang and burning nest must have come falling down onto the tinder dry undergrowth.

The blaze had been going for some hours before it was noticed, because it was right at the far end of the property. Thank heavens it had been a perfectly still day. Eskom has recently agreed to come and clear away the rank undergrowth beneath the powerlines. We are extremely grateful for the efficient service which we received, and that on a Saturday afternoon.

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