Of Fynbos and fires and how beautiful things rise from the ashes

A fire had been raging in the mountains above Grootvadersbosch just outside Heidelberg in the Hessequa region of the Western Cape for a good 24 hours when we happened to meet one of the farmers who had been battling the blaze.

He sat down next to us at a table that had been stylishly laid for the GVB Concervancy’s AGM and let out an almost inaudible sigh. I had spotted him earlier, peering out the window, watching that mesmerising red glow in the distance, murmuring messages into a two-way radio.

Now as he settled back in the chair and took a sip of his soft drink, I took a closer look, trying to gauge what his body language and expression would reveal about the seriousness of the situation. Should we ready ourselves to be roped into intrepid fire fighting efforts any moment now? Or could we indulge in the fancy cheese and wine being served up with a clear conscience?

Before I could complete my non-verbal analysis, however, he turned to Guillaume, introduced himself and said something entirely surprising:

“Isn’t it wonderful that the mountain is burning for the first time in 20 years?”

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He had been in the front line of the battle all day, mostly on horseback, and along with the other farmers and their workers, municipal firefighters, conservation bodies and, of course, a favourable turn of the wind, they had managed to send the flames away from the farmlands and into the wild valleys.

“You know fynbos has to burn every once in a while for it to truly thrive?” he asked, going on to explain how a certain species of indigenous ant harvests fynbos seeds and then buries them underground where they lie dormant for a long, long time… until one day a fire comes and coaxes them out of their slumber.

Then he told us this fascinating tale that struck me as the kind of fable Aesop may have penned:

Once upon a time, at some point during the ’60s or ’70s, there was a very rare Protea species that could only be found in a certain area of Table Mountain. Despite intensive conservation efforts, the numbers kept dwindling until one day only two plants were left.

Knowing their demise would mean the end of this species, special measures were taken to keep them safe from all possible dangers. While they were left on the mountainside – because removing and replanting them in a nursery would carry far too much risk – a protective fence was raised around them, so that neither destructive humans nor hungry animals could pose a threat.

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And so the Protea pair remained in their private little kingdom, undisturbed, but lonely; safe, but devoid of any promise of prosperity.

Then one day a fire came. It raged through the peninsula as only Cape fires can and devoured the mountainside at a furious pace. Despite all efforts to divert its course, it made straight for the rare Protea enclosure, flattening the fence in one foul sweep and consumed all that lived inside.

The Proteas were gone, leaving no legacy in their wake. A sad day indeed. A tragedy.

A week or two later green shoots started rising from the ashes, as they always do in the Cape Floral Kingdom and new life returned to the mountainside. Baby Proteas, Ericas and Restios raised their heads and greeted the sky… and miraculously among them, a whole host of the doomed Protea pair’s fresh-faced descendants.

Now, I don’t know how true this tale is or whether any of it ever happened, but it’s full of magical little truths that I’m sure would have pleased Aesop right down to his little toe!

Plus, having grown up amidst Fynbos, able to witness all the interwoven ecosystems at work on a daily basis, I have become increasingly aware of just how much we can learn from our natural surrounds. Enduring wisdom, as opposed to passing knowledge. If only we took the time to look and listen.

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