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.
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.
Good thing, too, because an hour or so after we were back in McGregor, we were fighting fires. Literally.
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.
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.
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.
The power of nature to recover is not to be under estimated.
Nor though, is fire.
There it is – until next time
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa