Whether you watch something worth while like Ray Mears going walkabout, or some idiot pretending to survive somewhere in the Kalahari with sheep appearing in the background of his survival movie, sooner or later somebody is bound to make a fire. And rightly so. When you are out alone a fire provides so much more than a means to cook a meal. From the snow-covered wastes of the arctic to the sweltering desserts, fire, and the ability to make fire is crucial for survival.
Survival not only of the body, but also of the soul. Just thinking about it brings back the haunting words of Tudor Howard Davies who wrote about the small gleaming campfires that punctuated his journey through this life.
I must say that I doubt very much that the average citizen is likely to find himself in a survival situation in the wilds, even those of us who venture into the bush, driven by whatever primal urge. At the same time I am totally convinced that the average citizen will most certainly find himself in a very real and even life threatening survival situation in the concrete jungle where he exists. And logic dictates that in urban survival, as in the wild, there has to be something that will help him keep it all together. Something that will instill in him the ability to discipline his emotions, to focus his mind, to stave off the creeping fear.
I have for quite some time studied the plethora of publications and articles and electronic media in search of that Holy Grail. In search of that which is quintessential to urban survival? Something that articulates with the essence of Amundsen and Scott, Shakelton and Trichardt and so many others- expressed in the idiom of the concrete jungle.
From countless guidelines for urban survival, manuals for street law, self defense, Life Skills and even from the Ottawa Charter of the World Health Organization, I could deduce only that the grail is yet to be found. We simply have not discovered an urban equivalent for the fire-stick. Or so I thought.
Willem returned later than usual this year. Due to some constraints that I do not even pretend to understand he could only come out for four weeks. Thankfully he managed to secure one week of his precious time for our annual hunting trip. It was in camp on the third night that I noticed something about him. At first I could not place it. In essence he was his old self, calm and relaxed, confident with the rifle, adept at everything that made him a bush-man. But it was while he was making our cooking fire that I noticed an intense expression in his eyes. Something akin to the expression of someone going through the dynamics of catharsis. You don’t hunt with someone for as long as we have without noticing little things about him. And then you also learn not to compulsively probe. Although I didn’t say anything, I could not help but notice, and wonder.
But I need not have concerned myself. On Christmas Eve Willem, having returned to the Arabian dessert some twelve thousand miles from our bush, phoned me like he always does. I found him in good spirit. He was at that minute on the roof of the high-rise where he lives, having a braai, of all things. He was getting ready to tuck into chicken. Chicken portions procured at a local supermarket. Now Willem has never been one to praise the culinary merits of the bird. Hearing that he was on a building somewhere on an island in the Arabian Gulf, having a fire and frying chicken really got to me.
Apparently he had a week or so before, been walkabout when all others were sleeping or were otherwise occupied. Passing a building site he noticed an abandoned piece of three by nine, lying discarded. Fully realizing what the penalty for theft in an Arab state is, he risked a hand and snatched up the piece of plank and squirreled it home. He set about at once, fashioning a short kierrie and carefully saving all the shavings and off-cuts. On subsequent days he foraged further and gathered a good sized stash of discard timber. And on Christmas Eve he made a fire. Twelve thousand miles from home, on a desert island where there are no naturally occurring trees, on the barren roof of a sky-scraper, this bushman made a fire! He lit that fire with a flint which he had brought from home. He and his wife. Not because they had a particular yearning for chicken flown in from who knows where and cooked on an improvised grill and reeking of pine resin. After all, they could afford to have the finest of meals, in the finest restaurant Bahrain has to offer. I was perplexed.
Having bid each other Peace Profound, we hung up, he no doubt continuing with his braai, and I was left to ponder, as usual. Later, when the household had retired, I wandered around, eventually ending up with the dogs outside. Being a rainy festive season there was a chill in the air, so I made a small fire.
Just a teeny flame licking at the hardekool. Barely a sigh of the oxygen burning. Just a whiff of Africa coming to the nostrils, connecting to the umbilical cord of common humanity. No stars visible, on account of the clouds. Just the bullterrier and I.
And presently a sense of understanding came over me. Not a revelation, but a shimmering awareness. A vague understanding that through the ritual of making a fire I had somehow asserted my infinitesimal presence in the vastness around me. Yes I thought, I made that fire in order to discipline my emotions, to focus my mind, to stave off the creeping fear. And to mark myself visible.
Just like the little Bushman- girl did in Edna Quayle’s story of the Wood-ash stars. And like the urbanites do in their strange rituals in the concrete jungle. And like Willem did on that skyscraper. I sensed a strange synergy between us, woods people and urbanites. Knowing that we are somewhere, even in the vast expanse of the universe, instills a glimmer of hope.
Somewhere is not nowhere, and as long as you are somewhere you are not lost. Being somewhere implies the possibility of being found, or of being able to find. And it eventually leads to the realization and appreciation of the efforts at survival of those around you, however slimy and slithering they may have seemed before.
Of course I immediately realized that Willem would not in a thousand years accept the notion of ritualistic equality in the antics of a punk-rocker with green hair doing his thing, and us simple folk going hunting.
For a fleeting moment I imagined that I was beginning to comprehend something of the grail of urban survival, when my daughter materialized and sat down opposite me.
“Oh, there you are”, she said.
“Yes, here I am,” I thought.
Here I am indeed.
Excellent piece 'observe'!
I enjoyed reading it and it made me think of my oldman.
Some of my dearest hunting memories are of me and my late oldman sitting by the fire on the sand under a "Witgat" tree in the Kalahari bush and just staring at the flames, listening to the cracking of the wood and the nocturnal sounds in the background, and neither of us saying a word - such moments speak loud by themselves.