Knoflokskraal turns from a rural idyll into Satan’s perineum

Knoflokskraal turns from a rural idyll into Satan’s perineum

It’s a hot, late-summer Sunday morning in the Western Cape.

The weather boffins say Cape Town is the hottest place on earth this weekend, ideal for dipping in pools and sipping big cocktails with rum, paper umbrellas and fresh fruit.

But Terence Maritz and I are in my Ford Ranger, barrelling and bucking after a Western Cape Disaster Management bakkie and a 4X4 fire engine along a narrow dirt road between stands of black wattle and rows of pines.

Some are summer-parched, some blackened and smouldering, some blazing in wind-driven white and brown smoke.

On the back of my Ranger is a skid unit: a portable metal frame with a 500-litre tank, a two-stroke pump, hoses and nozzles.

I negotiate the track while Terence takes note of places where we can do a three- or eight-point turn and get out if we need to. In the smoke everything is sepia-toned.

When we stop and get out, the heat is an angry presence, flames a menacing white noise.

The Ranger’s door handles are already hot to the touch and Terence and I secure our goggles, gloves and flash-hoods, cursing and coughing.

The pump hiccups as I yank the starter-cord: twice, thrice.

Unseen up high, a small spotter-plane buzzes and the rotors of a Working Against Fire Huey helicopter thud as it drops 1,200-litre loads of water nearby.

The pump blares into a steady beat and Terence wets a buffer around the truck, then douses flames on a wooden Wendy house nearby.

I follow, the hose over my shoulder and off the ground. We tread carefully and Terence hoses the ground, watching for steam.

He aims a jet of water at some, and the ground erupts like a small mortar-round: vapour and hot mud.

These are ash-pits: tree roots that extend for many metres underground like veins. They burn for days, creating molten pitfalls for the unwary.

There are ashpits aplenty, along with widow-makers – trees that burn overhead for days and then collapse like red-hot cudgels.

We kill the flames and observe the firefighter’s maxim: look up, look down, look around.

While we glug bottles of water and isotonic, the incident commander on the two-way radio reassigns us: work along the edge of the road, preventing the flames from jumping to unburnt stands and shacks on the other side.

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The tank empties. We drive to a nearby lake. Refill. Repeat.

By noon it’s 39.90C and hotter than that inside our fireproof protective gear. Grabouw is a verdant area: its fruit production is legendary.

This particular area, Knoflokskraal, once a state-owned forest, is peppered with informal housing ranging from fairly swanky log cabins to one-person tents.

The wind and record-breaking temperatures turn small fires into conflagrations, and Knoflokskraal, isn’t a rural idyll. It’s Satan’s perineum. It’s dark when we’re stood down.

The Ranger has some scratches to buff out at the end of fire season. Cold beer sluices.

My washing machine runs black when I wash my uniform.

Climate change means more Knoflokskraal hellscapes await, burning too hot and too often for the fynbos.

As I slide toward 60, it feels good to muck in and help.

Terence and I are members of the Overberg Wildfire Volunteers (OWV), a nonprofit helping fight fires and, when needed, evacuate residents and animals and so on.

It’s the brainchild of Bernardus Groenewald, a building contractor from Kleinmond, formed seven years ago after he and his family narrowly survived a wildfire in the village of Fisherhaven.

Like many volunteer organisations, OWV runs on a shoestring, with sponsorship and donations.

We use our vehicles and pay for our personal protective equipment.

First, you pass a fitness test, then oral, written and practical exams.

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