Forged in fire

Monday the 5th of June started like any other week except, maybe, for severe weather warnings for a monster storm expected in the Western Cape. By Tuesday the country was abuzz with the news that the Western Cape Education Department made an unpresidented decision to close all the province’s schools on Wednesday, causing many a local joke about the storm with screen grabs of an hour by hour weather report with our expected ‘stiff breeze’. Africa, after all, is not for sissies, Cape Town is renowned for her storms and in the Garden Route we are used to our berg winds.

The berg wind woke most of us that morning, chasing up dust devils.

Knysna Fires Eden Fires

Eden Fires by Elrorke Photography

The first reports of fire came from Hoekwil, and while we took notice, most of us carried on with life with not much more than a fleeting thought of the Hoekwil fires of 11 August 2016, and the hope that there will be less damage to property.

Reports followed of fires raging in Elandskraal and, as the day progresses, we started to dread the sounds of our telephones. Every call had the potential to carry news of another house that burned to the ground; another family, friend, colleague or acquaintance who have, in some cases, literally just seen their whole lives go up in smoke.

It was a day that turned into fighting fires on our doorstep. Offices soon emptied with men and woman rushing out to assist. Engrossed in the here and now, it was only when news feeds started to flood with the frantic messages of people who couldn’t travel, or when family and friends from across the world started to call or message, we realised that our whole world was burning down. Roads were closed, families trapped in different towns and rescue missions launched to save property, animals and humans. By Wednesday evening we have become a trending hashtag.

Yet it was on social media that we could find the most accurate (and the most inaccurate) information. Brilliant pages like Knysna fires 7th June kept us up to date and was also instrumental in mobilising the country.

There was not much thought of sunsets or sunrises those first days of fire and smoke. Orange flames and lingering smoke filled the horison and, if you slept, you woke up in a haze, with dread, wondering what the day might bring. It was somewhere in this eerie landscape that the first relief arrived. They came from all over the country – first a trickle and then a stream of vehicles – cars, bakkies, trucks…

Disasters are the great equalisers. It exposes people. It unmasks us.

It carries the defeated face of a friend in a supermarket. Or an empty voice on the other side of a telephone line. It has the nothingness of a person who gives orders every day, reduced to the Obedient by the whim of the gods. It is the exhaustion of a firefighter who came to eat just to head out again. It is the tears of a volunteer when finding a piggy bank in a box of donations.

It is how you give, not what you give.

It is breaking down on the side of a highway, sobbing your heart out when a truck of relief supplies pass. It is the line of friends who fight by your side to save your house. It is the miracle in the madness.

It is the silence when you have no words. Or an embrace when there is nothing left.

It brings out the helpers…

They came in droves, setting aside their own worries and woes, the concerns of their every day. They worked tirelessly to provide refuge to those in need. They came to cook, to clean to carry. Every cry for help met with swift response. A community united.

Look for the Helpers

They flew and drove in from far and wide, or mobilised communities across the country, friends from overseas. They donated, packed and posted.

Disasters humble us.

It changes our perception and the value of our earthly things. It shows us how fragile we are. It brings us face to face with the choices we make, the trappings of our daily lives.

Disasters give us love.

The love that is patient and kind, the love that does not envy, does not boast, nor is proud. The love that does not dishonour others, is not self-seeking, nor easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs. That love that rejoices with the truth, always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres.

The love that forges friendships through fire.

The love it takes to Rebuild Eden…

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A legacy in our children

The second time I was overwhelmed by traveller’s guilt was at the travertines at Pamukkale, Turkey. The first was in Jaisalmer, India but that is a story for another day.

The surreal landscape of the travertines in Pamukkale

The surreal landscape of the travertines at Pamukkale

A pathway in Hierapolis

A pathway in Hierapolis

This surreal landscape is adjacent to Hierapolis and was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. As I was standing there, one of the thousands of tourists who flock there every month, I suddenly thought: “What am I doing here?”.

Except for the fact that I was busy with a Round-the-World trip, comprising of very many flights, I was standing on that pristine white limestone and became acutely aware that I was leaving a very real footprint with every step I took.

The moonlike calcium deposits of the travertines in Pamukkale

The moon like calcium deposits of the travertines at Pamukkale

Tourists in the natural pools formed by the travertines

Tourists in the natural pools formed by the travertines

In the village-sized world we live in, where reaching the far-flung corners of the earth has become as easy as a plane, a train and a boat ride away, how much right do I have to travel to these places, gasp in awe and wonder for a day or two, and continue on my merry way? Except for the little bit of money I may have injected into the local economy, can I say, at any level, that I have made a contribution, or was everything on my side just consumption?

The "Cotton Castle" at Pamukkale

The “Cotton Castle” at Pamukkale

In Simon Usborne’s article on world heritage sites he talks about the influx of tourists to places locals were hardly aware of; the wear and tear of millions of feet passing through; the looting of artefacts; the urbanisation of surrounding areas. Then we haven’t even mentioned pollution; the consumption of resources untouched by locals; the drinking and discarding of countless bottles of water; the stress on the environment; the corruption of local customs and beliefs through the influence of tourists and travellers –  the list can go on and on.

Maybe that is the travellers dilemma. Many of these places depend on the income derived from tourists while tourists also contribute to the destruction, albeit sometimes gradual, of these places.

Real understanding though, comes from intimate knowledge and, just as much as travelling breaks down cultural barriers and preconceptions, just as much a love for nature comes from a closeness thereto.

In Plettenberg Bay visisting the NSRI

In Plettenberg Bay visisting the NSRI

The first time I came to Sedgefield was in 1990. I just finished high school and, although I have dipped my feet in the icy waters of Bloubergstrand, I can’t say that I have had any real knowledge of the ocean.

Making a mussel "potjie" from frashly harvested mussels

Making a mussel “potjie” from freshly harvested mussels

At the time I was part of Die Voortrekkers, an Afrikaner youth group similar to the Scouts. It was the first year they had a sea camp for kids living in the Transvaal (now Gauteng) and we, a group of youth leaders, were doing a training course in survival on water.

I wanted to live right here!

I wanted to live right here!

I will always remember walking over the dune between Swartvlei caravan park and the ocean. A berg wind was blowing and I lost my heart! There was a little house on the crest of that dune and I decided then and there I want to live here – one day.

The years rolled by and I haven’t been back to Sedgefield till a road trip in 2008 with one of my best friends. Of course I included what have remained, even after many travels through the known world, my favourite place. Countless times I gushed about the rock pools filled with sea life and am unable to describe how I felt when Ravi and I made our way out to Gericke’s point. Where did they go? Where were all the sea stars and the octopuses and the anemones? In comparison with the teeming life of 1990 the pools were dead and devoid!

Ravi on Swartvlei beach

Ravi on Swartvlei beach

A couple of weeks ago Jo, a friend who recently moved to the Garden Route, mentioned the wonderful sea life in the rock pools at Gericke’s. In an off the cuff remark local guide and lover of nature, Mark, commented that it is a wonder after the Voortrekkers were here (the camp takes place during the July winter holidays).

Ravi at Gericke's Point

Ravi at Gericke’s Point

What a punch to the gut! I was immediately transported to that camp. A camp specifically designed to teach children – many who may never have had the opportunity otherwise – to respect, appreciate and grow to love this indescribably wonderful part of creation. Yet, by the process of collecting samples and specimens for the camp aquarium, harvesting and plundering the very thing they want to preserve.

As in that moment in Pamukkale, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the fact that I, without a shadow of doubt, contributed to the destruction of life at Gericke’s point.

In that moment I was overcome with the responsibility we have to leave a legacy, not only for our children, but to leave a legacy in our children. A legacy not through words but through the very example of our lives. A legacy to observe rather than obtain, to contribute rather than consume and to walk ever more lightly on this earth, for what we have is finite and, once we have plucked all the sea stars, there will be no more.

Couch potato to athlete

How does one go from an almost completely sedentary lifestyle to anticipating the next organised race? It starts with a decision, and a little help from one’s friends.

Last Christmas my sister was visiting with her baby and, when I saw pictures of myself with said baby on the beach, I was shocked and disgusted and sad. What happened to the women who, two years earlier, walked her way all over the world? The woman I saw on that picture was still attractive with a great smile and gorgeous hair, but all that was overshadowed by how big she was. I have always thought that big women with confidence can be much more attractive than a skinny chick but, having had a mom who has always been overweight, I realised that I have become the woman I have ever been ashamed off. The worst was that, during the normal round of silly season parties, I have started to become very careful of the chairs I chose to sit on, in fear that someone’s plastic garden furniture would not hold my weight. As many of my much lighter friends had, had this experience, it was not an unfounded fear!

I have always been overweight and have had my smaller and bigger phases. I believe all overweight people read extensively on why we are overweight and of course so did I and there isn’t much about nutrition you can tell me. I have never been much of a dieter but have lost substantial weight during a fruit and nut phase and, much later, a vegan phase but this journey is about so much more.

I dream of going to hike Torres del Paine and Abel Tasman and, while hosting Couch Surfers Marcus and Kate Westberg from Life Through a Lens, I couldn’t even complete the hike to the waterfall in Wilderness National Park with them. Embarrassing to say the least but more than embarrassment was the realisation, if I couldn’t do that, how could I even contemplate hiking through Patagonia?

In the last 5 or so years, my body has started to protest. As a photographer I used to crouch down to get a better angle but found that I just couldn’t do that anymore. Around 2007 I had severe, stress relates, muscle spasms in my left shoulder which have left me with almost constant pain and, through cold and wet winters, limited mobility. During my round-the-world trip in 2010 I was traipsing across historical sites, trails in far off places and beautiful look-out points and found that one of my knees just didn’t like that – another page right out of my mom’s book.

One of my best friends once told me that,  even though I am overweight, I still live my life to the fullest but was that really the truth? In 2008, while we were both still living in Gauteng, we did a road trip down the Garden Route and I gave him a Canopy Tour for a Christmas present. Of course I told him that I didn’t want to do it while the ugly truth was, I was just too heavy to do it with him. I exceeded the weight limit!

In 2007, while hiking Los Lagos, Huerquehue I decided not to continue with the hike after I hit the ice line as I was too tired but, more importantly, realised that, should I fall and injure myself, it would take a horde of small Chilean men to get me off that mountain.

I was stuck in a fun park swing once and had to be rescued by a friend’s dad and I still colour with embarrassment if I think about that one! Don’t even mention the embarrassment of having to ask for a seat-belt extension on a plane, being asked to move as you can’t sit in an emergency exit row if you ask for an extension or, my ultimate, flying without a seat belt on Turkish Airlines as three stewards – including the head steward – failed to think it important to get me one.

Living in Sedgefield sure doesn’t leave one short of opportunities to get up and get out there but I never quite seem to choose the bicycle over the car.

Enters the personal trainer.

My friend Karen asked me whether I would be interested in becoming her guinea pig for her studies through eta College. In the place I was, to keep on looking myself in the eye, the only possible answer was to accept with a very grateful heart.

As mentioned in a previous post, when we started on the 8th of January, I weighed a whopping 139.2kg. Initially we started with 3 mornings a week but it wasn’t too long before we increased that to four. Some mornings it was tough to get out of bed and it took every bit of willpower I had. When I started a new job, we tried moving it to evenings but I was just too exhausted in the evenings so I was completely in her debt when she offered to move me to an even earlier spot. It is one thing to get up at 04:30 for oneself but to know someone else is getting up at the same time for your benefit is just humbling!

We alternate between pure cardio days and strength and resistance training. We work with a minimum of equipment and train outside whenever we can, using the beach and the hills around us as tools. She has been amazing in my training program and have never allowed me to become bored with a routine – I love the recent addition of kettle bells. I have regained almost full mobility in my shoulder and, except for really long stretches in front of the computer, have no more pain in my shoulder. I can do 34 consecutive (ladies) push-ups – I couldn’t do one at the beginning of the year.

Of course there were days when my body hated me, days where every movement was accompanied by protesting muscles and days when I would have given a lot not to do just-one-more-step-up. Yet I revel in the fact that I can have a conversation, albeit slightly staccato, while climbing a hill. At the beginning of the year I couldn’t do a single dip, now I manage 15. I was unable to hold a bar, resting on my shoulders, with both hands, now I do it with ease.

I have competed in three organised races, two road and one trail and, while I may not have completed all of them in the alloted time, I have completed all of them. I have shaved two minutes on my 1.6 kilometre fitness assessment from August till now so we’ll get there.

I have lost 10kg and, while it may not seem much to most people, I have done so without making any major changes to my diet and without drinking any toning and weight loss supplements – I believe casein should be limited and whey is poison. I have lost 41.5cm overall and will very soon have to have my pants altered for the third time. I may be a long way off from Patagonia but, as I weight less than 130kg, I am just over 9kg away from a zip line adventure.

I couldn’t have done any of this without Karen and can only echo these words from Tracey Melass, in the August 2012 Shape magazine’s article with the title What Exercise Suits You Best?: “The enforced discipline of a trainer appealed to me, because there is nowhere to hide. I knew I was more likely to get results if someone was cracking a whip behind me! Having a set appointment meant I had to be there at a certain time and had my trainers’ full attention for an hour. It changes things dramatically when someone is monitoring your every step.”.

Thank you Karen, for your willingness to take me on this journey and for many, many early mornings when you got out of bed in the dark to help me along this road!

I found my heart in Sedgefield

I felt very honoured when a friend recently asked me to write as a guest blogger for her travel blog, Mzansi Girl. I wrote this piece and realised that 400 words cannot even begin to describe the piece of paradise I am living in!

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How often do we get to return to the place of favourite childhood memories and find it, not as we remembered it, but even better? As a young girl on the brink of adulthood, I spent two magical winter vacations, between the mountains and the sea, just outside the small town of Sedgefield.

Swartvlei mouth in shades of green and blue

I have such fond memories of Sedgefield – maybe due to a holiday romance – that, although I have set foot on 6 of the continents and some islands, it has remained my ultimate favourite spot in the world. When the opportunity came to move to this quaint, sleepy little town tucked away in the middle of the Garden Route, how could I not jump to it?

Magical sunsets in the summer

If you asked anyone where exactly it is, for most the answer will be that it lies between George and Knysna – what most people won’t tell you is that it is also between Victoria Bay and Buffalo Bay – two renowned surfing spots with great camping. For the camping enthusiast the area is a treasure trove with our own local Swartvlei caravan park – the place of aforementioned fond memories – and the camping spot at Wilderness National Park, two of my personal favourites.

One of the many mosaic artworks in town - Marinara

One of the many mosaic artworks in town – Marinara

Many of the residents are former Gautengers who wanted a better quality of life and, with Sedgefield being South Africa’s only certified Cittaslow town, they certainly found it. The world renowned Wild Oats Community Farmers Market is a favourite spot to stock up on fresh produce for the week and, for us locals, breakfast here is the equivalent of the old European town square. I also never miss out on an opportunity to visit Zucchini – one of the few restaurants where I can always count on great quality food for my many vegetarian and vegan friends, even though you might have to enjoy it under the curious gaze of one of the local monkeys.

Teach them while they’re young – at Wild Oats

On Easter weekends the Slow Festival celebrates that this little town is all about the lifestyle. Every day is a glorious day when you can stroll with your dogs on the banks of Swartvlei, take your kayak out, hike one of a plethora of trails, fly from one of our fantastic paragliding spots or meander along one of our 5 beaches. But then, the days you see dolphins or whales playing in the surf are the best days…

The town is a magnet for artist and creatives