Gale force winds are not unusual in South Africa, especially the Western Cape coastline, and into the Eastern Cape. These winds are a feature of summer and winter, with the winter storms accounting for the Cape’s original appellation as the Cape of Storms.
We’ve had more than our fair share this year and wind, in combination with fire, can wreak havoc. As it did two years ago on the Garden Route, and as it does every year in the townships of Cape Town, leaving thousands with just the clothes on their backs. Eighteen months ago, a school friend, now living in the Garden Route area, had to evacuate her home. She, her husband and their pets lived in their vehicles for days, fighting the fire around their home. As I write, not far from their home, six fires are raging and one has destroyed more than 85,000 hectares of vegetation – much of it in the mountains. According to this report, the plume of smoke is visible from space and the biggest fire has left a scar four times the size of that left by the 2017 fire. Eight lives have been lost.
In my home town, Grahamstown, I heard that people were also being evacuated this morning, but mercifully, during the course of the day, there has been heavy and good rain, which has doused the fire – for the moment. I remember, when I was about eight or nine, my father, then superintendent of the botanical gardens, joining the firefighters to fight a fire that raged for days – over those same hills. I remember the constant smell of smoke and ash falling gently from the sky over the town and his red-eyed exhaustion.
I have had the privilege to work with firefighters; one of whom was Fire Chief during that 2017 Garden Route fire. Their courage, skill, knowledge and dedication in the worst of circumstances, is not to be underestimated, whether of wild, veld fires, house fires, or of those tragic fires in informal settlements, not to mention industrial and mine fires.
Until one has had one’s own brush with fire, one has little concept of how unpredictable and how terrifying it is. Especially when the wind blows.
Two years ago this month, I had an unexpected request to work in a spot that meant a road trip and The Husband happily came along for the ride. Well, actually, he did the driving. I pointed the camera at various things.
A lone tree standing out against the golden stubble of harvested wheat.
The bales of hay for much-needed fodder, waiting to be collected and stacked.
There are wind farms everywhere: on every road and virtually around every bend. I can’t make up my mind if they’re fascinating, benignly waving their arms at one, or a blight on the landscape. The turbines are huge. In the bottom, left photograph in the collage above, you will see a turbine blade on the ground, bookended by the portable toilet and the picnic gazebo, which give one a sense of how long it must be: turbines can have a diameter of 40 – 90 metres.
Our destination was the seaside, mostly holiday, village of Paternoster.
The sea was brilliant; the colours, exquisite, but the wind howled. The apparently calm sea was very deceiving.
Then, the morning we were to return home, a dog barked. At 4 am. It was a very agitated bark. Neither of us went back to sleep, so an hour later we resolved to get up, pack and hit the road.
Good thing, too, because an hour or so after we were back in McGregor, we were fighting fires. Literally.
The Husband, Jan Boer, and a few other locals monitored the fire that was across the road from our house. As I was taking this picture and the one below, the wind suddenly changed direction and the fire jumped the road and the fence. Into our plot and vegetable garden.
I turned tail and ran back home and unceremoniously dumped the camera. Friends and neighbours arrived from everywhere, including friends en route to a wedding, not caring that they would be.
Our two hose pipes were already in use, dousing the flames across the road, so every bucket and hole-free receptacle was dragooned into service. Cool boxes, catering equipment and dustbins were passed from hand to hand, and every available tap was used to fill them.
An hour and a half later (which felt like the longest day) after it jumped the road, the fire was under control, the fire service was on the scene, and the camera was retrieved from the tree.
The hose pipes came back blistered and burnt. Small price.
The aftermath: incinerated telephone lines, charred, smoked vegetables and homes unscathed. Mercifully. Dust, ash and moonscapes.
Within a week, even though no rain fell, the reeds in the vlei across the road, were sprouting.
Thanks to that barking dog, we had been home to fight that fire. A day I shall never forget.
Two years later, the drought has broken, but it’s dry again. It’s the wind, that dries things out and as we have a Mediterranean climate, rain after October is rare, leaving the vegetation tinder-dry, not helped by unseasonally hot temperatures.
Eighteen months later, these photographs that I took in late winter, show not just the recovery from the fire, but also the drought.
Our garden is greener and the vegetable garden has crops in the ground. The sad remainder of an orange tree that succumbed in the drought, though, is a reminder f the drought. On the other hand, the vlei across the road, which had been denuded, was awash – not just with water, but the most magnificent showing of arum lilies that I have ever seen in my time in the village.
The power of nature to recover is not to be under estimated.
Nor though, is fire.
Post script: Originally posted in January 2017 and updated; photographs taken with a Samsung bridge and edited in Picasa.
There it is – until next time
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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