It’s a damn good question actually. What DO you pack if your house is about to burn down? I found myself living the cliché on Wednesday, 6 June 2017, as I stood in my living room in Knysna, temporarily overwhelmed by a state of hysterical calm.
But in a moment of clarity I suddenly knew exactly what to do. I grabbed a white clay lamp that my mom had bought in New York in the late 1950s, scooped up eight beers standing on the kitchen counter and ran to the car…
My first indication that things were amiss was not the thick yellow-grey smog or the wind whipping up debris every which way as Knysna awoke that morning. Nor the palm fronds that lay strewn across the street as I parked in front of the coffeehouse. It was later, just before lunch during a municipal budget meeting I had attended, that the deputy Mayor, Peter Myers, suddenly excused himself with the announcement that his home was under threat of fire.
As everyone stepped out of the town hall onto the street, a frothing conflux of clouds had blocked out the sun and pungent smoke had started to probe every pore of the downtown district. As the afternoon wore on, reports and rumours abounded in equal proportion. But anyone who cared to squint through the smog could see the refugees streaming across the railway bridge from Brenton, and emergency services swelling as neighbouring towns sent in their forces.
So Brenton is burning, we thought. Brenton is always burning. It had in fact burned badly some 10 days or so before. What’s left to burn in ever-burning Brenton? Those of us on the other side of the lagoon breathed a sigh of relief. And all those around me remained in a state of denial even after news filtered through that a family of three had succumbed to the flames in Rheenendal.
But by late afternoon, the flames had leapt clear across the lagoon and formed a torrid alliance which laid waste to properties along the Salt River and was gnawing its way up towards Knysna Heights. As I drove up into my suburb it looked like any other American disaster movie. Vehicles lined up along the suburb’s exit roads with some breaking rank and moving off to who knows where, people hunched against the weather trying to fasten goods to their roof racks, or gathered in groups to finalise arrangements. Everything had slipped into dead-slow-motion in a silent, surreal landscape of figures on an old fashioned board game.
By the time I turned into my cul de sac there was not a soul in sight. An eerie emptiness had descended and it all suddenly felt frightening and desolate. The unsettling quietude followed me through the front door and into the living room that hosted the lamp.
I had probably grabbed it because its long thin neck made it so perfectly grab-able and the beer, well, my throat was parched by tension and wood smoke. And hey, they were Heinekens. But the fact is that, confronted with so many things to suddenly choose from, one might as well take nothing at all. So anything you take is okay – such as a lamp and eight beers – as it doesn’t really matter what you choose to hold on to when your life is disappearing down a Dantean abyss. Or the fact that a lamp left unplugged won’t really help light the way when you do.
The daughter of a friend not particularly interested in cooking or dancing chose to grab a toaster, her matric dancing shoes and a family recipe book. Another acquaintance decided to languidly start mopping his deck in blissful denial until pressed to take the mop, his golf bag and a fishing rod he hasn’t used for 20 years.
As I was strapping myself into my car seat I remembered my passport. Back in the wonderland of multiple choices I grabbed a white silk shirt emblazoned with golden dragons (appropriate in retrospect only) that I’d brought back from Bali, a pair of huarache-sandals from Mexico and then sat down exhausted. “Fuck this. It’s madness,” I spat. “It’s a fucking house for heaven’s sake. Houses are big strong things. Fires are like.. ballet. All snug and romantic and at most a medium for shadow-rabbits. Tiny towers of comfort for R23.95 a dozen. It’s simply my fear of boredom taking hold again, my neurotic self seeking out unnecessary drama.”
The urgency in a call from All-sound Security shattered my rambling inner discourse: “Hello Mr Du Plessis. We’re just checking if everyone has evacuated the street.” I grabbed more nonsense, tripped over a carpet I tried to drag down the stairs, recovered and sped out the door once more.
As I exited my road and sunk back down the hill towards town, I caught glimpses of the fervid juggernaut. The renegade crush of grey-black clouds fed by flicks of bright orange reaching up the rising was being mimicked in several other places around Knysna – some manifesting in massive hissing, spitting banks of quivering heat up to 20 metres high. When I entered the eatery where my 10-year-old daughter, Lara, and her mom were waiting, the veil of murk that had settled over the town had started to fill the venue and it was clear we couldn’t hold out there for too long.
The exit roads to Plettenberg Bay and George had been cut off since mid-morning and by the time news filtered through that the furnace was edging into the western side of town, everyone, as surreptitiously as possible, started phoning around for anyone they might know with a boat. A coughing consensus was reached by our group to get as close to the water as well and soon our children were being herded into a room at the Angling Club with an assorted collection of hounds and a parrot ensconced in a plastic washing basket.
Gale-force gusts jerked at the doors and rattled the windows trying to force an entry as I negotiated a tiled bathroom floor strewn with twigs and leaves. On my return from the toilet, two girls rushed through the hall: “Out, out, everybody out!” The fire had spewed its combustible bolts across the Salt River and was sweeping towards town. Patrons straining up against the glass could see flower beds of flame springing up beyond the gravel parking lot. Whether we were in dire trouble or not, no one would be taking a chance.
Careening into Waterfront drive towards the opposite end of town, the traffic had thickened and a sense of urgency was replacing widespread bewilderment. A mumbling Rastafarian, palms raised and head swung heavenward, stumbled into the road a few metres ahead of us before lurching forth, and some minutes later we just missed an anguished mother scooping up a howling child before it could wander into the throng of vehicles. Thankfully, a hotel on George Rex drive had offered free accommodation to refugees and we peeled off from the river of tail-lights at the turn-off and finally flopped down in a crispy cool double room apartment.
Before our takeaways arrived at a pub down the road, however, the doors burst open with a clarion call to evacuate and 10 minutes later we were packed and on the road again. The eastern head would be the end of the road for everyone who had ended up at this junction. Someone at the bar had championed the virtues of that community as the only one to have repelled the natural onslaught without official assistance. And besides, it’s always good to follow rich folk in a crisis if only for the opportunity to elbow an old lady clutching her pearls off the helicopter stairwell for a seat to certain safety, right? But there was scant time to deal with the stab of guilt that surfaced in the wake of that thought.
Because heading southward we could see the soft pink glow piercing the darkness over Pezula and we took the last other option – to Leisure Isle where thankfully Lara’s mom Anina and her partner Daniel knew a big-hearted family that took us in for the night.
The following morning I stood gazing out over the open spread of smouldering ashes that was my home and burnt out shell of a car that belonged to my partner Rafaela, who had flown out to see her family in Brazil three days prior to the catastrophe. At least there was a less interrupted view of the lagoon, I thought wryly.
Somewhere in this mangled mess of iron, burnt bricks and powder is a New York Times cover announcing the first moon landing, a bogolan tapestry brought back from Mali, and antique carvings and cloth from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Zanzibar. Number plates of our family’s first baby-blue Plymouth circa 1957 and some truly terrible Bavarian memorabilia from our family’s five-year stint in Munich.
There was artwork in this sorry shambles by South African brush-meisters from Battiss, Boonzaaier and Carl Becker to Hillary Graham and Hermien Spies, all the documentary films and series I’d produced across the continent as well as hard copy versions (I like them. And computers still scare me.) of stories I penned for newspapers and magazines for over three decades. Hefty loads of photos (screw this digitising crap) were reduced to dust and an old bakelite projector that could conjure up technicolor images of my mother in flaring floral dresses and a bubble-cut, my dad in Florsheims and pleated Oxford bags swanning around the city like Herman Charles Bosman and my sister and I with toddler-Raybans on holiday in Florida in 1961.
Over a thousand books lay strewn here, some hundreds of years old and many irreplaceable. Every single National Geographic ever printed gathered by my granddad until his death as well as the first Huisgenoot magazines resplendent in watercolour covers of the Voortrekkers entering the land of plenty. With all that paper at its disposal one can’t really blame the fire. It must have smelled all that nourishment a mile off.
I knew that in the days to come a conflicted memory of every item at my former address – from my grandmother’s deco sideboard and cracked floral dining set – to my collection of retro-African kitsch and the silly anthology of songs I composed, would be triggered by a glimpse of colour, a passing whiff or arbitrary aural input. I was aware that I would wake up wincing about my favourite screwdriver or pair of argyle socks. Or (now more than ever) that gold leaf-bedecked bearded Buddha given to me by a monk in Thailand after discovering I had in my possession a bronze version of the same Thai mythological phoenix he had inked onto his chest.
I suddenly felt very tired and just wanted to go home.
But I also felt curiously lighter with every step away from the site. Less convinced that without such a graphically expedient past, I did not really exist. That without the reflective tokens and replay-triggers my life would be meaningless. After all, here I was – all 10 fingers and toes still intact and filled with no less or more self-loathing than I’ve always been. Or confidence for that matter. The only difference from now on would be that the artefacts are stored exclusively in my hind-head instead of the lopsided oak cupboard in the basement. And, as my friend Mark Stevenson reminded me when I bemoaned the loss of all the Kodak-moments my daughter would now never experience: “If you’re so worried about retaining memories, try to remember how bored you were when your dad hauled out that box of old stuff or sat everyone down for an evening of slides without you in them.”
No, this is good, I convinced myself in my fresh new guise as would-be Zen-master, this fire is but a purifying force that expelled excess baggage. Mere material weights withholding me from valuable insights or even fully fledged satori. None of the items I lost have any meaning to anyone or anything other than my fanciful ego. Hullo, new uncluttered me. But on attempting to start the car, when I noticed my house keys still attached to my car-key holder and realised I could simply throw them away, I choked up just as the Jeep decided to do at that moment. My daughter, tragically also genetically predisposed to hoarding it seemed, put them in her pocket.
On the way out of town to her grandparents’ home in Lake Brenton I glanced over as her grimace broke into silent sobs. The entire previous night I had played the fool, stayed stuck in my class-clown default position trying to “keep things light” like that idiot in Life is Beautiful. But children are not easily fooled by such folly and when I reached over to give her knee a “comforting” squeeze, she’d had enough: “Why are you not crying dad!” she retorted angrily, “we’ve lost our whole home!”
“Tell you what,” I said, stupidly clinging to some form of forced social decorum, “we’re nearly out of town, then we can both cry all the way to Brenton.” But we kept on laughing between the tears every time we looked at each other and it was only just before we parked the car that we’d had a communal weep worth its salt. As it is oft wont to do, the keening helped clear at least some mental murkiness create space for a semblance of guilt and regret for the hundreds of others that ended up in our boat. Or in others much, much worse.
Standing on the granddad’s deck looking north across the lagoon over the thick, vaporous forest hugging the wetland and the grey-green Outeniqua mountains beyond, anyone would be forgiven for expecting Francis Ford Coppola to come lumbering into view. Rogue whorls of smoke rising from the brush muddied the view from our perch all the way from Montagu Pass to Formosa Peak. Choppers swirled about burping a staccato beat that chopped away at the wailing sirens and the water reflected a morose mauve and silver in the late afternoon light.
By the next day the cloud-clusters hovering over Brenton had turned a sickly yellow and the formerly densely forested area from Belvedere to Brenton was an arid, ghostly wasteland. Charcoaled wattle-stalks lined the sandy ridge dividing lagoon and ocean and strands of blackened cloth and rubber dripped off phone lines stripped by the blaze while loosened lengths of wind-whipped wire coiled dangerously across the tarmac.
In town the post-apocalyptic setting had been extended to near perfection. Khaki tents dotted the school sports field besides rows of helicopters while sturdy camo-covered heroes of the saga scoured the air with military binoculars or prepared to ride out. A day-glo medley of variant security service uniforms from across the region brightened the muted scenery and trucks lined up along the main arteries to deliver emergency food rations, clothing and water for the rising numbers of destitute at makeshift relief centres. In the days to come, everyone would be amazed at the level of goodwill extended among local folk and outside assistance.
Some days later as I lay in bed deciding whether I should ever get up to face the world, I heard the familiar rattling of wind at the window and decided to rather stay in bed for another week. But the window opened wide enough for a massive baboon to climb onto my bed. Mine was the louder shriek and it retreated, but I could hear the party going on in my friend Warrick Brodie’s living room and rushed out wielding a broomstick.
No one was home except myself and a clan of apes who scattered for the doors and windows through a garbage pit of half-chewed avos, apples, bread and oranges. Mounds of sugar, flour, oats and couscous lay strewn across the carpets and baboon-poop and urine marred progress across the floor. A mother with a baby on her back excruciatingly kept getting stuck on the burglar bars and I only realised that I had cornered the Alpha when it lunged back at me with a hoarse bark through bared teeth. I retreated and it bounded around the living room, slipped in its own urine and vanished out the front door.
And as I stood there in my underpants, with my feet failing to find a foothold in the baboon-excrement and trying to hold up the handle while the beasts at the door were pulling down on it, it occurred to me that I should perhaps join Rafaela in Brazil. Or any other country with only extreme political turmoil to contend with.
But like most other South Africans that love and hate it here as much as I do, I probably won’t. DM
Photo: Knysna Heads fire, December 21 2009, Photo by Slack12 via Flickr
"Last century’s magic is this year’s science." ~ Cherie Priest