This evening as dusk was settling and the remnants of a glorious burgundy sunset lingered in the clouds, I set off up the mountain with Jack. He hadn’t done any walking today, and though he still favoured his back left foot, I thought it would be good for him to get some exercise. As we made our way up the path by the weir, suddenly Jack was off like a flash. In seconds he was 200 metres ahead in the valley. There they were, standing majestically and unconcerned, two eland, the sacred animal of the Bushmen. They didn’t seem to pay much attention to Jack and his barking, and thankfully he soon made his way back to me. In the silence as the darkness settled and the subtle illumination of a clear moon cast a silver blessing over the land, we watched the eland gather into a group of five and slowly make their way up out of the valley to disappear into the mountain.
Thanissara and I have been living on this mountain for seven years. Its Zulu name is Mvuleni – Place of Rain. The old folk say this has always been a place where the local people come to pray for rain. According to the provincial Museum, one of the Bushmen paintings on this mountain depicts a shaman’s battle with a rain beast. Here on the lower slopes we are over a mile above sea level situated in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa in the province of Kwa Zulu Natal. These mountains are powerful. In the summer season there are thunderstorms almost every afternoon. Roaring rumbling booms of thunder and spectacular purple-tinted lightning flashes evoke the powerful dragon like presence that these mountains are named after. Interestingly, in Buddhist cosmology the ‘dragon’ is a celestial creature that has power over fire, thunder and rain. There is a fascinating concord between these names, the Eastern world view, the drama the Bushmen art depicts, and the actual experience of being in these mountains during a storm.
A Place of Rain is a significant spot in the African environment. Without water life is very difficult to sustain. When we first arrived 7 years ago this province had been having a drought, and many springs and reservoirs were dry. The spring on this mountain, however, was still flowing. This whole area has been a National Park for a long time, and just last year it was designated a World Heritage Site for its outstanding beauty and its wealth of rock art. This vital Drakensberg catchment area also provides precious water for a significant portion of South Africa.
As the winter approaches, however, and the rains subside, the nights become cool and crisp, often below freezing. The days are sunny and clear. Because there is no rain for several months the green grasses turn subtle shades of yellow, gold, red, purple and brown, leaving a vast pastel panoply in their place. But this is also the fire season and the season of the great winds. Though the dry grasses are exquisitely beautiful, they are vulnerable and dangerous.
A careless match can set countless square miles of grasslands on fire. By law, every property must be surrounded by firebreaks, for its own protection and for the safety of those around it. A year and a half ago a hurricane force wind propelled a river of fire through our region, burning over 20 square miles, destroying several homes in the area, ripping off dozens of roofs, and even killing a few people in the process. We saw the fire jump the road, race up the mountain, and soon we witnessed a long low and strangely beautiful wave of fire racing toward us. When it was about a mile away, we knew we had only minutes to evacuate.
Until that moment, five of us had been here on an intensive three month silent meditation retreat, spending our days and nights in efforts to cultivate a steadiness of mind, consciously acknowledging the various swirling currents of desire and aversion, restlessness and worry, sluggishness and paralyzing doubts. We had marveled at the mysterious alchemy of awareness that transforms these so called hindrances into peacefulness and contentment, patience and clarity, compassion and a quiet confidence.
But now, in a matter of minutes, amidst the relentless screeching howl of the wind, we had to flee our sanctuary and leave everything behind. We put Jack in the car and evacuated in our vehicles a few miles down the road. An hour later we drove back up the mountain road, dodging fallen burning trees, not knowing what we would find. Hundreds of burning logs still flamed on our property. Amazingly the main buildings were still intact. The fire had swept right up to and around them, jumping a 200 metre firebreak. Three metres from the thatch roof of our meditation room, a log still blazed, ignited by the firestorm. Somehow the buildings were saved. When the local expert on fire breaks came to inspect our land after the fire, he looked and said, “Why are these buildings still standing? A miracle has happened here.”
To be continued ……
Dharmagiri is dedicated to bringing the universal practice of mindful awareness to South Africans and visitors from across the continent and world. We offer silent meditation, yoga, mindfulness retreats, workshops focused on psycho-spiritual and healing modalities.
Dharmagiri offers silent meditation retreats, workshops and other events throughout the year to allow individuals to learn, practice and deepen their understanding of mindfulness and insight meditation. Our intention is to help all beings find more peace in their lives and live more harmoniously with each other.