Is there a dif­fer­ence be­tween a braai fire and a cook­ing fire? What is a staan­vuur, and at what stage does a kuiervuur be­come a kuiervuur? Toast Coet­zer lays out South African camp­fire lore.


Is there a dif­fer­ence be­tween a braai fire and a cook­ing fire? What is a staan­vuur? Toast Coet­zer lays out South African camp­fire lore.

The fa­mil­iar con­tours of a Lion match­box; a lit­tle drawer filled with am­mu­ni­tion. It smells like card­board, sul­phur and trouser pocket. I give it a light shake, es­ti­mat­ing there are about 15 matches re­main­ing. The emp­tier a box of matches is, the more mu­si­cal it be­comes; like a rat­tle or a cal­abash. I take out a match and close the box again, then I strike it on the flint. For a mo­ment I hold a minia­ture ex­plo­sion in my cupped hand, then I lift the flame – like a frag­ile bird on a branch – to its nest: kin­dle built from dry grass and twigs that I scav­enged around the camp­site. This is my favourite kind of camp­fire: built on the ground. I cleared a cir­cle us­ing my vel­skoen hav­ing for­got­ten to bring a spade. You’re on your knees or your haunches when you light a camp­fire like this. I’m al­most flat on my stom­ach next to this one, watch­ing the thread-like grass stalks burst into flames, lit up for a few sec­onds like a coil of wol­fram in an elec­tric light­bulb. They quickly burn out, but they’ve served their pur­pose: help­ing the thicker twigs above light up and carry the flame deeper into the fire. Now a fist-sized flame un­furls; a warm, liv­ing sail flap­ping in the oth­er­wise dark­en­ing Ka­roo. I blow softly but with pur­pose, into the throat of the fire. The surge of oxy­gen kick-starts the twigs, which sud­denly burn with a thirsty hiss. I add thicker pieces of wood un­til the fire roars like a me­te­orite

swoosh­ing through the at­mos­phere. Ev­ery time I leave the city on a long jour­ney, I try to make a fire as soon as I can. I’ll stand as close to it as pos­si­ble, so I can in­hale the in­cense-like smoke. It’s around the camp­fire that I shed my city skin and put on my veld coat. Some days it will be like this – a sweet­thorn fire in the Ka­roo – other days it will be a mopane fire in the Bushveld or a camel thorn fire in the Kala­hari. Af­ter­wards, I’ll sleep with my ear to the ground, more at­tuned to na­ture’s sounds and sighs.

A solo camp­fire is a beau­ti­ful thing, but there are other kinds of camp­fires. I’ve never heard any­one speak of a “stand­ing fire” in English, so I’m go­ing to as­sume that a staan­vuur is a par­tic­u­larly Afrikaans sort of fire. What is a staan­vuur? It must be big. You don’t make a staan­vuur on the bal­cony of your town­house; some­one will call the fire bri­gade! The flames of a staan­vuur must be as tall as the heads of the peo­ple stand­ing around it. It’s a fire for a group of peo­ple: five to seven will do. Stack it with logs or branches and don’t be shy to light it with Blitz or even petrol. A staan­vuur is an im­pul­sive thing. You’re cold, the sun has set and you need the warmth and com­fort of a fire. Pronto. You need flames, not coals. You can make a staan­vuur on hol­i­day, but you might also see work­men gath­ered around one on the edge of town, wait­ing for a bakkie to give them a lift home. In such cir­cum­stances you can fuel the fire with any­thing at hand: ply­wood, planks from a tomato crate… A staan­vuur brings re­lief, like a quick shot of whiskey. But don’t just make a fire for the sake of it. At tourist lodges they some­times light a big fire in a boma “for at­mos­phere”. This is a waste of wood. A fire is not back­ground muzak piped into the cor­ri­dors of a mall. A fire must be used. When you light a fire, this is the re­spon­si­bil­ity that you ac­cept. A cook­ing fire is small and stoked with the min­i­mum amount of wood. You can whip it up first thing in the morn­ing to boil wa­ter for cof­fee – maybe the pre­vi­ous night’s coals can be coaxed back to life. Peo­ple who are used to mak­ing these fires will con­jure one as if by magic, by the snap of their fingers. You can make a cook­ing fire next to the road to blitz-braai a roll of boere­wors. A sausage fire hardly needs coals. The evening cook­ing fire usu­ally lasts longer be­cause it might have to go through dif­fer­ent stages. One side of it might have to keep pots of wa­ter hot for wash­ing up; an­other side might keep a ket­tle on the boil. At some point, a few shov­els of coal will be ex­ca­vated from the en­gine room and spread around to be braaied on. The braai fire is South Africa’s best­known fire. You know one when you see one. A braai fire is site-spe­cific and of­ten op­er­ates on a weekly sched­ule: Eleven o’clock on a Sun­day morn­ing in the shade of the jacaranda in your back­yard; Wednes­day af­ter work at your built-in braai on the stoep… You can kuier around a braai fire, but it’s op­tional. The braai fire is prac­ti­cal: You use it to cook your meat, gar­lic bread, a few mielies and some pota­toes wrapped in foil then rolled un­der the grid and ar­ranged along the outer edge of the coals so they’re not di­rectly be­neath the lamb chops drip­ping fat. That’s a braai fire.

English is lack­ing when it comes to ad­e­quately de­scrib­ing the South African camp­fire land­scape. What is a kuiervuur in English? Ev­ery­one knows what kuier means – to kuier means you’re with friends, and a kuiervuur is a fire where friends gather. Maybe we should call it a friend­ship fire? A kuiervuur is so­cial. Twenty chairs can be ar­ranged around it. Your party will as­sem­ble, arms folded, legs kicked out as if await­ing the start of a rugby game on TV. Soon some­one will give the fire life and this will have a cer­e­mo­nial ef­fect. Bod­ies will re­lax deeper into camp­ing chairs. A ser­mon has be­gun. (The bon­fire is a cousin of the kuiervuur, but a bon­fire is for cel­e­bra­tions like New Year’s Eve, or a 21st birth­day party on the beach, or AfrikaBurn come hell or full moon.) The kuiervuur can start like any of the above-men­tioned fires and it might re­sem­ble a cook­ing fire for the first cou­ple of hours, while the kids roast marsh­mal­lows and the meat gets braaied. Dur­ing this time, afi­ciona­dos of the kuiervuur will have spot­ted a big log ly­ing some­where on the pe­riph­ery. This log will be about 3 m long and at least 20 cm in di­am­e­ter. When the kids have gone to bed and ev­ery­one has eaten, when the dishes have been washed and the chill of the night has set in – then, and only then, will some­one get up and drag that log onto the fire, mut­ter­ing “Ja-nee” as a flurry of sparks shoots into the night. This is how the kuiervuur starts. The log will be pushed into the fire slowly, savoured like an ex­pen­sive ci­gar. A kuiervuur is not a blaz­ing inferno, so you can move your chair closer. By now your cir­cle of 20 peo­ple will have dwin­dled to 10. An hour later and only five re­main. Even later, just you and a friend. The two of you are mes­mer­ized by the fire. Ear­lier you were sit­ting com­fort­ably with one arm around the back of your chair; now you’re lean­ing for­ward, sucked into the pri­mal core of the blaze. If you’ve been do­ing this right your eyes will be dry. A thin layer of ash will cover your skin. Talk­ing has be­come un­nec­es­sary. Some­one is snor­ing in a tent. A bat flies a low arc through the glow of the camp light. You get up to turn off the light and sud­denly the night is darker, qui­eter. By now the fire is also nearly out; a bed of coals glim­mer­ing like sun­set on a river. “Should we call it a night?” your friend will sug­gest. “Why not,” you’ll say, and you’ll stand up slowly, drag the log off the fire and kick some sand onto its burn­ing end.

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