9. The Fire of 2011

Wild fire Paardeberg 2011

The big fire of two thousand and eleven ravaged the Paardeberg for five days and five nights. It was reputed to have started on the north side of the mountain, but with twenty-five years of growth just waiting for fire, it quickly spread and consumed 75 percent of mountain vegetation before it was done. Everyone on the mountain went into panic; we all knew what kind of danger we were in. Before long, every corner of the mountain was ablaze with thick, choking smoke and fierce flames tens of metres high, driven by fierce south-easterly winds.

On day three the fire reached the saddle between Dragonridge and Sonkop, and it proceeded to burn its way down the Joubertskloof. Helplessly, we watched as it descended inexorably towards the farm. At first we ran around uselessly, not knowing what to do, but eventually we had some semblance of a plan of action. From our communication with the firemen who arrived at the farm, we knew that they would let the bush burn but try to protect the farmhouse. So we turned on our farmhouse sprinklers and then caught the ducks and hens (plus ten baby chicks) in two large boxes, which we packed on the back of the bakkie. The three goats we had at the time we chased into the farmhouse garden (where they proceeded to eat my flowers), and we crated our two cats and closed our dogs in a room ready to move them. Fortunately, we didn’t have donkeys yet.

Then we had to decide what we would take with us should Honey Badger and the farmhouse burn. I packed our photo albums into boxes, unplugged our computer, and took all our personal papers, passports, and birth certificates. (I just couldn’t face the long queues at Home Affairs trying to replace them.) I took the one valuable painting from the living room and an African sculpture that Johan loved. Then I went to Honey Badger, where we were living at the time.
“What do you want me to take?”, I shouted to Johan, as I left.
“My Grateful Dead CD’s”.
So I took those, plus my camera and our medication. All of this we packed in a friend’s car, which she drove off the farm to safety.

It was quite a surreal experience to expect one’s life to go up in flames, and I realized that actually there was virtually nothing that we possessed that really mattered. The experience irrevocably changed my feelings about possessions. Only people and animals meant anything. But of course, this comes from a privileged position where possessions are easily replaced. Our workers had a different perspective. We told them to bring what was important to them down to the farmhouse from their houses. They duly made the trek down with their fridges and cookers, as well as suitcases filled with possessions. I felt chastened as we packed their goods into the farmhouse living room. Here’s holding thumbs that the farmhouse doesn’t burn. There were no assurances.

By now the fire was perilously close to the farmstead. We watched the line of oak trees that run up the valley burst into flame and were sure the Mourvèdre and Viognier vineyards were alight. The situation was complicated by the fact that we happened to be hosting a wedding the following evening. The bride and groom, along with their families and friends, were already ensconced in our guest cottages, and they joined us in the general panic of the moment. I had phoned a friend who had a wedding venue in the area, and she said we could, if need be, move the event to her venue. But Johan still continued to prepare the wedding meal in the farmhouse kitchen while the fire raged. We were waiting till the very last minute to make a decision.

And the very last minute came soon enough. At a point it was definitely time to get the helicopters. These had been on the other side of the mountain for days, scooping up water from farm dams and pouring it on the flames. Now we desperately needed their help. I phoned the fire control line and expressed my panic.
“It’s coming, its coming close,” I said, “Please help.”
Within five minutes, two helicopters arrived and filled their large canvas sacks with water from the next-door dam, which they then deposited on our fire. I recall thinking this must have been what Vietnam was like. Thick smoke, minimal visibility, orange flames in the near distance, howling winds, screaming animals, and the loud thrumming of helicopters. It was wild.

At the last moment, the helicopters put out the fire. It came to a stop just a hundred metres from Honey Badger. We were all stunned as we unpacked our cars, the workers took their goods back up to their houses, and our guests repaired to their cottages. It was a near-miss, but we were all safe. Our relief was palpable.

The fire continued to rage elsewhere on the Paardeberg for another day and night, and its aftermath continued for days. Farmers counted their losses – a barn here, a cottage there, a vineyard here. Burnt tortoises dotted the landscape. They had been caught along fences, and we could only pray that smoke inhalation had killed them. Happily, there were a few alive ones that we transported to whatever green spot on the mountain we could find. We happened to have two French volunteers with us. They were as ashen as the land as they gently picked up tortoises and placed them in boxes.

Needless to say, the regrowth of the fynbos that came months later, after the first rains, was spectacular. This was the gift of fire – a landscape of shoots and bulbs, new seedlings, and delicate greenery amongst burnt vegetation and sparse sandy soils. The fynbos flowers the year following the fire were simply wondrous, and botanists flocked to the wild land to enjoy and tabulate their growth.