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.