WHEN the town dam dies, there’s always a feast.
It’s happened twice during the time I’ve been living in this little Free State dorp and I’m learning the rituals.
At its fullest the dam, just outside the town gates, is more than six kilometres in circumference. Several streams from neighbouring farms empty into a wide depression and many years ago a stone wall was built across the lowest point to make a very large earth dam.
Over decades it has been used for recreation – there was a caravan park on the edge, the fishing is good and locals used to bring their boats along for a Sunday outing. Now the buildings have been vandalised and cattle graze the banks. No-one except dog-walkers and bird watchers goes there any more.
But when drought hits or the municipality recklessly uses the water for town consumption instead of fixing the pumps at the Caledon river, the level drops dramatically.
When the dam is in its death throes and a child can stroll across the 100 metre puddle to which it has been reduced, then the feasting begins.
Every day for about a week, hundreds of people converge on the dam, pushing wheelbarrows, riding ancient bicycles modified to carry three passengers. They form small parties, sharing the load of their equipment as they walk through the poort that links the dam to the town.
They laugh and chat with a shared sense of purpose and excitement about the day’s work ahead.
And suddenly the whole place is transformed. Families sit in little groups wherever the mud has hardened enough, watching the action. Grownups and children wade into the water with home-made traps, some of grass and others of metal.
They are after the carp.
Forced by the receding water to concentrate themselves in the last puddle, the fish are now easy prey. By the end of the festival, people stop using their traps and lines. Instead the kids wade in with plastic bags. They quickly lose their balance and fall down, shrieking with laughter. They start crawling across the muddy bottom, feeling for a nice fat fish. Like herons they pounce; then they shove their catch into bags before trotting back to their waiting families with their prize.
Then the grannies cut up the caught fish and cook them over little fires while everyone else waits to eat or catches some more.
It looks more like Durban than the middle of the Free State – all these little groups sitting around on the sand, watching their kids in the water.
In the afternoon they all trek home. The wheelbarrows are full of bagged carp. Bicycles ferry more fish strapped to the crossbars. People without any transport sling sacks of fish on their backs. All their tummies are full and everyone is pleased with the day’s work.
But theirs is not the only feast. Once they can’t find any more fish the people stay at home. Now it’s the turn of the flamingos. Last week there were 23 Lesser Flamingos, guzzling happily on the algae at the edges of the puddle.
This morning they are gone, and the mud pond is empty apart from a few carp traps stuck fast in the bottom. Within a few weeks there will be no sign there ever was a dam here. Cattle will walk confidently across hard ground eating new spring grass shoots.
I first witnessed the death of the dam several years ago. Two days after Christmas a Dutch Reformed Church minister came to visit bringing his family and a younger man, soon to be ordained. They wanted a guide to the top of the mountain and I obliged.
From the top we took in the distant view of those last few puddles. ‘There’s a story that this dam is cursed,’ said the older minister who lives in a nearby town. ‘People were going fishing on Sunday and the church was empty, so the dominee asked God to shrivel up the waters and the Lord obliged.’
The younger man surveyed the desolate scene below, the thirsty cattle and the confused birds. ‘I may not yet be ordained,’ he said, ‘but I have to do something about that curse.’ He held out his arms and called down the rain. Two days later, on New Year’s Day, the storms began; they lasted a month and by then the dam was full.
I don’t know where he is these days, but if I find him shouldn’t he be offered a top job in the department of water and forestry? – Better yet, with his rain-making skills, what about Minister of Finance?