Facing the flames

news: Facing the flames

Ex-teacher Paul McKay left London to live a self-sufficient existence in the Monchique hills with his partner Martyn. He keeps an assortment of animals and grows a variety of crops in an eco-friendly way – all on a limited income. Read his diary as he gets to grips with rural life. This month:

Friday July 9

Wasp and hornet season is upon us. This year’s saga began earlier in the week when Bruno was stung very badly in and around his mouth. We are not sure when it happened, but we think some wasps may have been drinking from his water bowl when he decided to take a drink. By the time we got him to the vet, his face had swollen up to at least twice its usual size. He was given an injection to reduce the swelling and, by the morning, was looking a little more like his usual self.

The day after Bruno’s ordeal we began encountering geese problems. We have one family of five who now live together quite contentedly and another brother and sister who live on the same terrace in a separate house. The aim is to integrate them by allowing them to run together for a few hours everyday. Ideally, we will get some mating that crosses family borders.

Geese do not accept newcomers easily, so the integration project has not run particularly smoothly – wild honking, chasing, pinning down and plucking are all de rigeur! On this particular day, the younger geese sought refuge in a minute gap between their house and a wall. Once there, they calmly prepared to bed down for the night. I locked up their assailants and tried to woo the little ones out so that I could lock them up safely in their house – no such luck. Clucky noises and titbit tempting all resulted in me being cold-shouldered.

I then did the next best thing, got a big stick and began hitting the house violently to scare them out. Instead, seven enraged hornets shot out of some hidden hive, chased me half way up the terrace and delivered numerous painful stings to my ears and head. The next morning, I found myself at the emergency doctor, being injected and observed. The swelling had spread to my throat, making swallowing quite difficult.

Two days later, my swelling had reduced, but we noticed a small hole in the side of Bruno’s mouth, resulting in another emergency dash to the vet. The vet cleaned up the hole and told us to keep him under observation. If it does not heal, he may need stitches. The vet was somewhat hampered by a huge bandage on his arm. The injury? Wasp stings! You will be pleased to know we are all sting and symptom free now.

Tuesday July 27

July 2004 in Monchique, like September 2003, will be remembered for the fires that spread across the mountain. After spending four days in the UK, I returned to Portugal today to witness the last dying embers of the fire and the devastation left in its wake.

Two days earlier, on Sunday morning, Martyn had begun watering at 7am – despite watering the previous day, temperatures back in the 40s had dried the ground out. High in the mountain to the north of us, he noticed a single plume of smoke. Within minutes this had spread to two or three plumes. Around 30 minutes later, another plume of smoke was rising about a kilometre away, to the west this time – despite the wind blowing in the other direction. He is convinced the fires were started deliberately, as no embers could possibly have moved from the first fire to the second. Then began the painful hours of ‘hoping’ that the flames moved away from our valley.

By 11am, the heat had built up to the mid 40s again and, just for good measure, a strong wind began to blow. Both electricity and phone lines were down and the fires in both directions had become fiercely out of control, so Martyn began preparations for evacuating the house.

The extreme helplessness of the situation is difficult to describe, but it is that very helplessness that makes the situation so painful. Along with this are the countless decisions that have to be made – real life or death decisions.Whether to leave, when to leave, what to take, what about the farm animals, the cats?

Martyn soaked the house – fortunately we are not dependent upon an electric pump. By late afternoon, the intense heat and smoke was making breathing difficult and a change in wind direction carried the fire down the mountain to the bamboo at the bottom of our land.

Martyn opened up all the animal houses to give them all the opportunity to escape, put our four cats and dog in the car, checked that none of our neighbours were in danger and got himself to safety. Four cats and a dog in a Renault 4 is not ideal. When the dog has a tendency to open and leap out of windows, things start to become tiring.

By late evening, Martyn was sounding very weary. The following morning, Martyn was prevented from returning to the house until midday. I returned today and the devastation is unbelievable. All around us is black with ashes, over half our land has been completely burned away. The house and the area around it were saved by the bombeiros and the vegetables terraces were clean and wet enough to survive without too much damage.

One of our goats, Hyacinth, had died, quite horrifically, inside her house. The other two goats have slight burns and are in a state of shock, not eating and terrified of any movement. A number of chickens and turkeys are missing. The rabbit had dug himself a warren under his hutch and the geese survived thanks to the help of a neighbour, who put them in their house and left a hose running over it.

Thursday July 29

We have reconnected all the water tubes to the house and vegetable terraces (the old tubes had burnt without trace). The missing three turkeys and the missing chickens have all returned now and things are looking less bleak. The two remaining goats are very nervous still, but have finally begun eating. And the good news is, I haven’t seen a wasp in days!