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  • Murrae Stephens

The Fires of 2007

Today, 13 years ago, a devastating fire was raging all around Piggs Peak. Forest fires had been flaring up during a warm, dry and extremely windy week. Although mid-winter is traditionally "fire" season in these parts due to our rainless winter season, most times fires are quickly handled and do not progress into a full blown inferno.

However, that night was something different. A series of fires had been burning all week, towards Bulembu/Havelock and finally on Friday they had been extinguished, everybody who could help during the week had done so and my husband, Tommy, was continually driving out to help fire fighters and check burning embers at all hours of the night. We had a few friends around for dinner, sat inside and shared our relief that the fire-ridden week was over - the air was still smokey though and suddenly the wind began to pick up. At about 9pm someone went outside and could see an orange glow on the horizon with flames coming at speed.

Gale force winds started raging. It happened so quickly but we all jumped in our cars to see what we could save, in our offices and for me, my horses were stabled next door at Boshimela. One of them, my precious and pregnant mare.

I drove up to Boshimela, the old thatched home of the late Bob & Coral Stephens. There was smoke everywhere but somehow I thought it was a good idea to attach my horse trailer to my car - which I did but then realised as the fire raged along the roadside that I would not be able to take them anywhere so quickly abandoned that plan.

Fortunately there were people with the five horses, the hay store was sitting close to the stables, and with the fire racing up the hill it was only a matter of time before before it would catch. The stables were also full of sawdust, so needed to be away from there. The house was huge with a full thatch roof, so there was this sense of inevitability and a feeling of complete helplessness at what was going to unfold. There were no fire trucks available and the water tanks which supplied the house were in the trees which were already burning.

We took the horses down to the large lawn next to the pool, thinking we could always soak ourselves with water should we need to. The lawn had a winter stubble, so I thought it might be a safe place to be. I had time to run through the old house - some things had been taken like the crockery and silver, but a large Judith Mason portrait of Bob remained in the dining room. I grabbed it but could not think clearly to take whatever else was important. The house was maintained as elegantly as ever, even though no one lived there full-time it was used by family on weekends, and this particular weekend was to be used by croupiers who had come to work at a poker tournament the following night at the nearby hotel. The beds were made with vintage quilts, treasured woven carpets and curtains filled the house - everything was ready for a full house.

The building that used to house the weaving admin caught alight first, followed by the guest cottage and main house. By then we had time to remove the dining room table made from very heavy tambuti wood and some other special items. The fire raged all night, but did not spread much past Boshimela. The hotel was evacuated and people fled to the border (which unhelpfully remained closed). As it all happened at night, it was more dramatic, I can eventually remember sleeping in my car with the horses standing around.

In the end 11,000 hectares of mainly forest had been burnt but no lives were lost. The home was lost and most of the treasures in it, books, fabrics, art works, letters and the very special place that was Boshimela.

A few years later the home was rebuilt - no thatched roof - but I remember that night vividly, along with the sense that an era had disappeared before my eyes.

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