Every year at the start of winter proper – towards the end of May – you will see swathes of blackened grass appearing across the higher parts of the Nyika Plateau, and smoke clouding the sky. This is unlike the more southerly parts of the country where you will see the same effect later in the year as people start to burn off the long grass and overgrowth from the previous rainy season so that they may plant crops. Besides happening at a different time, the burning of the Plateau is done for a number of reasons, and crop soil clearance is not one of them.
One of the main prompts for the carefully regimented burning programme, conducted by the Nyika Vwaza Trust with help from Wilderness Safaris and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, is to help rejuvenate tired fields of herbs by creating a ‘level playing field,’ allowing species to compete favourably with one another whilst also dusting the areas with a new layer of potash: a natural potassium-based fertiliser. Secondly, if left unburned, the grasslands are stocked with tinder-dry herbs and grass; thus villagers lighting fires late in the season create fires that cannot be controlled – wild, untamed, extremely hot affairs which can cause extensive damage to the small indigenous forest patches that everyone in the Park strives to protect.
Fire-breaks are dug and burned in strategic places and the aim of the burning programme is to start as early as possible while there is still some surface moisture in the ground. At this time, parts of the meadows may still be a little green and hence this early burn can leave islands of feathery grasses and other perennials in its wake. It also enhances the growth of some grassland flowers which regenerate after these fires have passed through.
The big burn is done as close to the end of the wet season as possible, as this enables far more control over the extent and heat of the burn, and thereby protecting some precious perennial plants. Once an area has been burned, it only takes about three days before the new grass starts to regenerate, thus providing fresh fodder and juicy shoots to the grazers.
So there’s no need to feel distressed at the sight of a fire-darkened landscape should you enter the Nyika over this period – just trust in one of the few harmonious relationships between man and nature that you are witnessing.
By Lauren Slater – Manager Chelinda Lodge