Thursday September 25th, 2014, was going to be a busy and testing day. It was the setting-up day for the Hilton Arts Festival at Hilton College in Kwazulu-Natal, followed by an opening function that evening. The past many weeks had been spent gathering stock in the hope of good sales, and all was packed and almost ready to go.
The weather wasn’t great, but at least it was dry, the Berg wind already bending the trees and making the curtains stand out almost horizontally where the windows were open. Daylight came shyly, anointing the garden with a flat hard light that was the hallmark of a warm Berg wind blowing from the hinterland toward the Indian Ocean. I knew there would be dust everywhere, and that carrying large flat material would be difficult, but at least this exhibition, unlike Maritzburg’s Art in the Park, was under cover.
As I’d been told, the cover took the form of a large marquee tent erected on an open stretch of lawn. It all looked very professional, and soon the artwork had been unpacked and the day began in earnest. Other artists, some of whom I knew, arrived in dribs and drabs, most of them used to exhibitions and able to sort out their stands in very short order. Everyone glanced anxiously at the leaden skies as the wind increased its attack on the tent which was now billowing and plunging by turns, the stronger gusts making the steel framework of the structure flex and jump. My engineering background made me nervous as I watched the movement, my imagination creating a disaster scenario with a few score of artists pinned to the ground amid the debris of their produce under a collapsed and heaving sea of canvas.
Setting up was done by lunch time, and I decided that it was better to get out and go home for the afternoon, to return in the evening for the opening. As I left the marquee I walked into what felt like a blanket of wood smoke, and looking around I was appalled by the envelope of smoke that was racing past the College, driven by the now fierce wind. This was a firefighter’s nightmare. There had been almost no rain for some months by then and the land was parched and crackling underfoot and overhead. It would take just a spark at a roadside to create a racing inferno that would be impossible to fight in those conditions. That had obviously already happened, but I could get no idea of where the fires actually were.
The drive down Town Hill into the city was in a tunnel of swirling smoke, everyone driving with headlights blazing, creating a scene of unreality in the middle of the day. My car was being rocked by the blasts of hot air, and I wondered how motorists who were pulling caravans were faring, and indeed, how badly the huge flat-sided trucks were being affected.
By the time I returned for the evening session the gale had abated somewhat, but now the fires were visible in the early gloom. It seemed that the whole of Worlds View was ablaze. If the fire had become hot enough the eucalyptus and wattle plantations were doomed, and the fire would have to burn itself out along the edges of the suburbs. With so much dust still in the air, the sky was a sea of flickering, flashing red and orange as new fuel ignited and sent more pillars of flame aloft, bearing payloads of sparks that were immediately whisked off by the wind to start new fires in the tinder-dry scrub in the path of the advancing blaze. No-one and nothing was able to check the march of flames, and residents in Wembley and Clarendon began to prepare for evacuation from their homes that were at the edges of the forests. A report spoke of the evacuation of the Wykeham Collegiate School as it too shared a boundary with the plantations. And the wind howled on.
By early Friday morning the wind had dropped to a whisper, but in the forests there were no leaves left to stir. The stench of smoke had invaded our lives, penetrating into our homes and cars, as logs and tree trunks lay smouldering and still burning in what, a day before, had been verdant timber plantations. Thousands of plumes and spirals of blue and grey smoke still climbed into the air to join the brooding cloud that hung low over the blackened landscape as weary and soot-stained firefighters picked their desultory way through the devastation ensuring that the fire had indeed burned itself out and that the city was not under threat from renewed fires.
Yesterday, two months after the great conflagration, I walked along the paths and tracks that snake and march through the dead forest, fascinated by the serried ranks of charred monuments to man’s attempt to harness nature, looking for all the world like supplicants extinguished in their moment of desperate need. Again, the air was still, the noonday sun beating down on me, adding to the feeling of destruction by heat. At first it had the appearance of a cemetery, a tree graveyard that looks after its own maintenance as no growth disturbs the forlorn stretches of now bare ground, the layer of ashes having long since been dispersed by breezes and the little rainfall that’s graced the Midlands.
Here and there hikers and walkers provided points of colour and motion in the silent, barren landscape, while the occasional off-road motorcyclist proved yet again that only noise and fumes could satisfy his limited creative capacity.
There were no stray dogs to be seen or heard, the few antelope that inhabit the plantations were elsewhere, and the only evidence of any habitation was pile upon pile of illegally dumped domestic refuse. At least one of the earlier dumpings had been partially cleansed by the fire.
No machines or squads of workers went about the task of harvesting the timber or planting new trees that would in time yield a crop to feed the paper mills and construction industry. No machines even stood silent, waiting for a signal to cut, lift, hoist or drag a victim of the constantly buzzing chainsaws. The inactivity was complete. Even the cut logs that were ready for transport were reduced to waste, and the stumps of previous years also bore the signs of the fury.
Not entirely. As I watched, a lone Yellow-billed Kite took up a position on an old tree trunk, casting about for whatever prey could be found in the two-month-old desolation. A Forest Buzzard glided quietly through the bleakness, ranging about after sustenance, and drongos hawked from favoured perches as titbits appeared on the forest floor. A few swallows, recently returned from their annual sojourn in the Northern Hemisphere, also provided some activity.
Taken at nearby Midmar Dam on the same day.
A closer look revealed the new growth that was sprouting from the burned trees, and the invasive Bugweed was making its prolific return to confound those whose job it is to eradicate declared weeds.
Carpets of new Black Wattle seedlings, their germination stimulated by the fire, created little patches of dark green in the dun picture, and here and there some bright green grass shoots had begun to escape from their soil prison. At the base of almost every charred trunk was a determined sprouting or coppicing of shoots, their colours varying from green and yellow to red and maroon. In defiance of all the laws of nature, some shoots had emerged from the trunks themselves, testimony to the resilience that keeps our world growing. As the affected plantations began their recovery they were flanked by the more versatile indigenous trees and bushes to which the phenomenon of fire is an integral part of the life of our environment.
Within a few years, just a blink of an eye in the story of our environment, the hills will again be green, a new generation of trunks stretching to the skies to provide the products needed by our burgeoning population and its diverse society. The recent fire and its aftermath provided me with a small look at the indestructability of nature. It happened right on my doorstep, not on National Geographic on TV. It’s happening in our gardens, in our plant pots, and all we have to do is marvel.