The closer I get to Van Stadens the more intense the smell of smoke clings to the air; in the distance towards Humansdorp, possibly Tsitsikamma, brown patches gather under a white cloud revealing the blue of a sky that just had about enough.
On the old Cape Road out of Port Elizabeth to my left and my right, trees that once stood tall now smoulder with red coals still eating away into wooden hearts.
I see the first house, completely untouched by flames, yet circled by a dark black and grey memory of the danger they faced a few days ago, circled by the possible fear and caution that will linger for even longer.
I see another house, and give another sigh of relief.
But this one is no more.
Here and there flames are still visible while farmers, volunteers and firefighters stand by with water tankers and a watchful eye as the wind dares once again to show face.
The first road sign is a blank black space of nothing. The second one is an amputee and the third – also a two-legged indicator once upon a time – is in need of a limb as well as the weight of the green board on the R102, pointing towards Port Elizabeth and Jeffreys Bay, has dragged its tired body of navigation to the ground.
I descent towards the valley via the Van Stadens pass with disbelief as the smoky scene unfolds before my eyes.
“Take the R102 through the Van Stadens Pass”, I always tell people who is on their way to or from the Garden Route, “continue on the R102 until you reach the Tsitsikamma region, it is such a beautiful and peaceful road”.
It is a road I always make time for. It’s a road where I had one of my first driving lessons. It is a beautiful stretch with indigenous trees; filled with the excitement of seeing the flapping red wings of the Knysna Loerie as you get closer to the water, a place where vervet monkeys playfully run from side to side, where puff adders bake in the sun on a hot day, where bushbucks make shy appearances, where trees line up providing shade and at sunset, as patches of light make its way through the branches, you squint your eyes and slow down.
It is such a beautiful and peaceful road.
But now it is naked.
At Gamtoos, over a cup of coffee, I talk to my mother who is busy unpacking the things she packed when they got word that evacuation will be necessary should the wind change. The wind did not change, packing was a precaution and even though everything is in order now I can still see the tired in her eyes; tired from wondering and tired from being cautiously concerned while my brother volunteered with so many others to fight off the flames for days and throughout the night around Thornhill, Van Stadens and Rocklands, all while modern day luxuries of communication and electricity were interrupted.
I continue towards the community of Loerie where small flare ups colour the greenery with an orange glow; heaps of ash greet me as Mother Nature reveals it all, she’s been stripped bare, with a decoration of a few six-packs of littered glass bottle remains scattered all over her nakedness. Once upon a time mountains now look like heaps of coals, and as far as the eye can see smoke reaches to the sky from a land painted in a colour of devastation.
But this is only a fraction of the engulfed devastation.
And after seeing the flames from videos and after driving around sections of the aftermath it is still impossible to imagine what it must have looked like. It takes you by the chest and the lump in your throat and shakes you into a harsh surreal reality, and it gives you the tiniest glimpse, of what happened in Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Tsitsikamma, Thornhill, Loerie, Van Stadens, Rocklands, Witteklip, Elands River, Crossways, Draaifontein and also Schoenmakerskop and Sardinia Bay (and possibly more).
The smell of smoke sets up camp in the form of a headache and my nostrils tingle with an irritating itch, I try to envision how so many selfless helpers endured – for days and countless hours – the heat, the air and the circumstances, I try to envision the emotions, the strength, courage and positive attitudes of individuals affected, individuals who supported, but I stop as gratitude, admiration and heartache takes me once again by the chest and the lump in my throat, I stop as the surreal reality is unimaginable.
For the F-word I have no words
It is impossible to compare the two disaster areas in the Western and Eastern Cape, but from Knysna to Port Elizabeth, to those affected and to those who have lost their people, their houses, their pets, their farms, their livestock and their jobs, I have absolutely no words, but you are all every day, constantly in my (and South Africa’s) thoughts.
One more thing…
Over this last week I’ve seen two sides of South Africa.
The one side made me realise that I’ve never been so proud to be a South African who lives in South Africa; the sense of community has been overwhelming, the support from near and far – from those affected and unaffected – showed the possibility of compassion. After all these years the word, “Ubuntu”, finally made sense and I hope – no I TRUST – that the spirit of Ubuntu will surface again if disaster should strike, I trust that informal settlements and communities will receive the same support and that we woke up as a nation during the last week and learnt something. I definitely did.
The other side of South Africa made me realise that if I have to agree with Trump about one thing then it would be that fake news is on an all-time high at the moment. The number of fake reports of fires (and causes) wreaked its own kind of havoc over the last week. To the humans who started those verbal fires, please go get a hobby, or just perhaps if it is not too much trouble, grow up?
How you can support
While the flames might be out in the majority of regions, there is sill a long way to go for people to financially recover from losing a house or a job. There are numerous places in South Africa where you can support those who were affected by the fires, and a donation that might seem small to you can mean the world to someone who has been affected by these f-word fires.
I can’t vouch for all, but I can definitely vouch for a few.
Port Elizabeth & Surrounding Areas
If you live in Port Elizabeth, non-perishable food items and baby formulae “Infacare no. 3 ” can be dropped off at Eastern Cape Motors North End OR on William Moffett Or st Georges College. There is also a need for basic household items and building materials for the families who have lost everything. If you can assist, please click here. There is also a massive need for fencing to keep the animals on the farms (if you are travelling on the N2 or R102 in the Thornhill/Loerie/Van Stadens area, please reduce your speed since there might be animals roaming around).
The Thornhill Plaza (Hardware Store) has opened an account specifically for donations for building materials which they will sell at cost price. Account details: Click here.
Support my former colleague and friend, Amy Kay; there’s a crowdfunding campaign for Amy and her two kids, click here.
For Knysna collectively, you can donate to:
Gift of the Givers,
Knysna Animal Welfare Society, and
Eden District Municipality.
Click here for the account details and please note that there are numerous scams popping up, these are the only vetted accounts for cash donations.
And if you can’t make a donation, how about saving some water?
The fires took a massive strain on our water resources and operations in the Bay, some areas are still affected and has no water. Save water (especially in the bathroom when flushing, showering and brushing your teeth) and think twice before you open a tap.
Is it over?
During the night the wind howled outside, and every now and then I woke up, thinking about what Kouga Executive Mayor Elza van Lingen, said in a statement yesterday:
“Kouga fire-fighters are on high alert, with strong winds having been predicted for tomorrow (Thursday 15 June 2017). “
(For official updates about the fires in the Kouga update, click here).
I remember the message I read just before I went to sleep about the situation in Tsitsikamma which is still unknown to many:
“As of tomorrow morning 411 fire fighters with 52 vehicles will be deployed…”
Is it over yet?
If you want a bit more insight into the life of a firefighter then read this blog post by Di Brown – the mother of a firefighter – about why firefighters are not heroes.