Note from the author: this post is coming slightly out of order because I got carried away with my ‘Memory Lane’ posts for a bit (here and here). I’ve had ‘Pyromania’ in the pipeline for a while though, so I thought it was about time that I got round to finishing it. What you are about to read was originally conceived way back when on 2nd September…
I’ve been stuck for a topic for quite a while now, trying to get those tired, old synapses fired up. Some call it writer’s block. For me it was writer’s cement block. In fact, it probably would have been more helpful for me to bang my head continuously against a cement block than suffer the hours I spent bouncing ideas off a very unreceptive brain. Slight exaggeration, I know. Kids, don’t try that at home.
Eventually, bouncing ideas off of another human being got the creative juices flowing, and my ‘Pyromania’ post was born. Although, technically, it’s not born quite yet as I’m still writing it… I guess this whole post will be a sort of metaphorical labour. Food for thought.
Fire is of great significance to the Kimberley. It’s incredibly dangerous and can completely ravage an area, but it can also sustain and revitalise. I’ve mentioned before how the Kimberley essentially has two seasons: a wet and a dry, and as the moisture is leeched out of the landscape, the whole area essentially becomes a ticking tinderbox timebomb. You only have to look at the fire warning signs dotted along the roads to understand how real a possibility it is: only one option is ‘low-moderate’ (which still implies you’re not entirely safe from a blazing inferno), and the other five range from ‘high’ to ‘CATASTROPHIC’. I’ve always imagined that ‘CATASTROPHIC’ would be a lot like one of the seven circles of hell, as the truck barrels through roads of lava and hurtling fireballs, so let’s hope it never comes to that. And the signs know what they’re talking about; you are bound to see fire in the Kimberley. I reckon I’ve seen at least a few fires on each trip I’ve done, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; some plants and trees in the outback need fire to germinate. In addition, most of the fires you see are started deliberately to prevent a full uncontrollable bush fire incinerating a large area. These deliberate fires are referred to as ‘cold fires’ (don’t get me started) and they burn away all of the ground-level brush. These create boundaries where, hopefully, a naturally-started bush fire can’t take hold. Otherwise you get a situation like we had in the Bungles at the end of August, with cars and trucks stuck in the national park because it’s too risky to leave, and miles and miles of land left burned to a crisp.
The Aboriginal people of Australia have also been carrying out these burn-offs and using fire themselves for thousands of years. It’s an excellent hunting technique, literally smoking out your prey. If you know roughly where your kangaroos or wallabies are, you can start your controlled fire, herd them into the waiting arms of some of your fellow hunters, and if there’s any prey that’s not quite fast enough, well, then you get a pre-cooked dinner out of it. The Kimberley ready meal (although possibly a bit chargrilled).
One animal that’s jumped on this fire-stick farming bandwagon is the appropriately-named fire bird (and no, unfortunately I’m not talking about Fawkes). But I am talking about the black kite (Milvus migrans) which is the most common predatory bird in the Kimberley. They’re absolutely extraordinary creatures. They’re the only bird that can eat on the wing and they’ve learned how to use fire much like indigenous people. If you come across a bush fire, you’re more than likely to find a black kite or two as well, scouting out the fleeing prey and looking for an easy meal. More than that, if it’s slim pickings there, they’ve worked out that by grabbing a burning branch they can start their own fire elsewhere to flush out dinner in another area. A bit frustrating if you’re a firefighter, but fascinating if you’re an ornithologist.
And it is believed by some Aboriginal people, like the Bunuba, that the black kite gave fire to humans. The story goes that the old crocodile (Gayi) was the first to discover fire but he wanted to hoard it and keep the secret to himself. He jealously guarded these glowing, crackling sticks that warmed his cold blood and old bones, but it is almost impossible to keep something so bright and exciting from keen and prying eyes. And these just so happened to be the kind of eyes that the black kite (Girrganyi) had. One day she was flying overhead and spotted this dazzling mix of oranges, yellows and reds licking and twisting their way up, around, and through a bundle of sticks. She swooped down to investigate this mesmerising display while the crocodile was off swimming in the river and felt the wonderful warmth for herself. She scooped up one of the burning branches and carried it gingerly in her talons (heat and wings are generally not conducive to successful flying. For further information, see the story of Icarus), and carried it to the Bunuba people. They had struggled through a dry season with particularly cold nights, shivering and shuddering together, and struggling however they could to stay warm. The black kite took pity on these poor, desperate souls (and probably realised that she needed to ditch the burning branch she was carrying and sharpish). And so she bestowed upon them the gift of fire. And so man discovered fire. (‘Discovered’ in the loosest sense of the word; it was literally dropped in their laps).
It’s one thing discovering fire, and another to store and transport it. What’s the use in knowing about a cool thing if you can’t show all your friends? I can tell you’re burning for an answer, and it just so happens Aboriginal people have a solution for this one too: it comes in the form of the pandanus. I know that Bardi people of the Dampier Peninsula use this method, but I couldn’t say with confidence who else does. The pandanus is a palm-like tree with edible fruit, it normally grows near water because of its shallow root system, and, interestingly, its branches function as extremely useful fire transportation devices. If you were to take a branch about two-thirds of a metre long, for example, start a fire in the middle and leave it smouldering away, you’d have a reliable source of fire for five days. Pretty ingenious, huh?
And just as fire was, and is, important to the Kimberley, it was an integral part of my job as well. It’s not much of a camping trip if you don’t have a campfire, especially when you need one to make dinner.
I’ve had quite the crash course in fire over the last five months, although I managed to get through eight trips before I actually had to start a fire myself (I had the theory down like a pro though), but I knew I was more than a match for it. And I ended up making some pretty epic fires that trip, if I do say so myself. Luckily I have amazing friends who always keep me grounded and, despite the pride I had in my newfound abilities, I was talking with a friend back home who was utterly unimpressed. His exact words were, ‘so you can light a match…?’ I would argue that it’s a lot more complicated than that… But he was obviously jealous and deliberately making inflammatory comments.
Cooking on the fire was one of my favourite parts of the job, and just as an actor has a special process to get into character, I had very specific requirements to ensure a five-star meal. It was vitally important that I had the perfect log to sit on (comfort is key, especially when you’re going to be sweating your arse off for at least an hour), and a pair of welding gloves to cover my shins. You laugh, but burnt shins are nothing to joke about.
It’s really good fun though, and if you ever get the chance, I’d highly recommend trying it.
Shifting the coals around to get that perfect temperature, whacking on a hot plate, conjuring up a delicious BBQ or a delectable stir-fry, and you feel so capable! Like you could head off into the wilderness that second and put Bear Grylls to shame (with your trusty pandanus branch in tow, of course). It’s something I’ll miss at home, I think. You can’t really start a fire in London unless you’re taking part in a riot.
Fire is an excellent way to break, or melt, the ice with a new tour group as well. Bringing everyone together round a campfire really warms up that group dynamic, especially if you throw in a guitar (into the mix, not into the fire) or a good story. Even collecting firewood can be a great team-building exercise. I had one trip, for example, where some young passengers and I spent a good twenty minutes trying to break a single branch off a tree.
I should say that the branch was still alive, which is why it was so challenging and a pretty obsolete task, but it became our personal challenge. We bent it, twisted it, folded it round another tree, jumped on it, and, when things got really desperate, just started whacking it with other branches. This was much to the amusement of the other passengers, but we showed the haters. When we finally succeeded, we had all grown as individuals and had formed a special bond with each other which only comes from communal destruction.
So I guess a good conclusion to end on is that fire is great and, if you have the opportunity, you should definitely make the most of playing with it.
“To poke a wood fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything else in the world.” (Charles Dudley Warner). And if a nineteenth-century American novelist says it, it must be true, right?
In all seriousness though, do not play with fire. You will die.