The wind is howling tonight as I write and I confess I am still nervous about fire. When it blows like this I can’t sleep. Almost everything around us has gone, but we are a green oasis on the mountain and the fire might like another bite. Peter doesn’t want me to call them flare-ups, but how to name the smouldering stump that suddenly bursts into flames? We have them all the time, sudden breakouts. The drama is over but the battle continues and we long for rain. It could be a month or more.
Protea repens chooses the hottest and most inauspicious time of the year to flower, covering the farm with fat pink and white flowers in February. This year they are dead skeletons and thousands of seeds, probably millions of them, released by the heat of the fire. And yet… As I ran around the desolate blackness with the dogs the other day, here and there a protea has survived; sometimes a whole group of them. By the lookout at the top of the farm all the leucodendrum tincta are intact – Fire two came at them from one side, and Fire three from the other, yet somehow that tiny part of the farm didn’t burn. Where they have survived they thrive and I managed to photograph a couple of Protea repens, one on the drive – literally the only one left out of hundreds, and one from the top of the farm on a different day.
Protea repens with singed leaves
Protea repens on the drive, a flower almost hidden behind the singed leaves
Early the other morning Peter came and called me urgently – I was fast asleep. “Sarah, come quickly.” Sometimes it’s really annoying when he does this, but sometimes he’s got something really worth seeing. I dragged my unwilling body out of bed, onto the balcony and into the cold dawn. Meabh was sitting by the edge of the dam barking. Right in front of her, not five metres away, was a cape clawless otter, teasing her. And right behind him, a few metres back, his family was playing and cavorting in the water. Peter told me he’d seen this when I was away, but it seemed so incredible that I hardly believed it. Yet there they were, wild otters, teasing the Irish Wolfhound. A couple of evenings later they were there again. I didn’t manage to capture the otter, but if you look closely you can see the silhouettes of Peter and the dogs in the silver water and to the left the ripples of the otter as he swam away.
It is a great privilege to live in Africa and at times it’s a privilege that exacts a high price. At other moments you get cape clawless otters in the sparkling dawn.
Cape Clawless Otter – credit Nik Borrow
It started on Thursday, as fires do, with a puff of smoke on the other side of the mountain. We were in Johannesburg on business and everyone assured us that it was quite far away and we were safe. By late Thursday it was on our neighbours’ farm, still high above us. Peter was on a plane home and I was getting our farm workers back onto the farm to help.
On Friday at 4am Peter phoned to say they had lost it on the south side of our farm. I was already wide awake; I got up and packed to come straight home.
The fire from the air as we flew over the farm
By late Friday I was standing at the gate with a friend and neighbour. I’d been running food, drinks, diesel and other supplies but couldn’t get onto the farm because of a raging fire at the gate. Our neighbour John, an experienced farmer and firefighter had come up to give us water and sustenance. He said “The first fire was to test us. The second fire was serious. But this, this fire is the real thing.” Meanwhile complete strangers were stopping me on the dirt road to tell me they “knew” our house had burned down. The fire raged on.
Taking water from our dam
It is Saturday evening now. We’ve been fighting flare ups all day. The nights can be frightening. Last night we had “resources” to help – because there were so many hotspots. Tonight we will be on our own. I am becoming more competent at firefighting. If it flares tonight I won’t evacuate. I will make sure the dogs are safe and go and fight it. The whole mountain has burned and now the fire seeks the last lines of green, the few remaining trees and plantations that we’ve saved. Another neighbour says “the fire sees something it wants to eat, dry grass, a tree, a thatched roof; then it goes and gets it, even if it has to jump far.”
Not a single fynbos flower left and barely a plant anywhere on this entire mountain that hasn’t been damaged by the fire. The forest is dead and the land is a moonscape. It will revive of course. That is what the fynbos does. But so many old friends gone. All my old friends that have appeared on these blog posts; all are gone. Now they must regenerate. They say the fynbos burns every 15 – 20 years. It has been 17 since this farm burned. I cannot bring myself to post the really terrible photos of the scorched earth.
Jemima Chew in the burned lands
I am told the spring flowers will be incredible. I hope so and I hope to share that joy on these pages. It will take a while.
All we have left are the olives, which miraculously survive and some buchu lands that our farm workers fought bravely to save because they have not yet been harvested.
The hungry fire smouldering darkly.
And our house.