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.

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

A dark day indeed

“It is insulting to all South Africans to be asked to stomach legislation that could be used to outlaw whistle-blowing and investigative journalism…and that makes the state answerable only to the state” – Desmond Tutu

On the 19th October 1977, the apartheid regime banned The World and Weekend World newspapers as well as Pro Veritate – a Christian publication – alongside 19 black organisations and detained scores of critics – that day has been called Black Wednesday ever since.

Slightly more than 3 decades later, we have a sense of déjà vu with the Protection of Information Bill that went to table today.

After mass protests on the 17th of September, and internal squabbles of the ANC, the Bill was pulled on Monday the 19th of September but would have been tabled again on Wednesday the 23rd of November. Yusuf Abramjee, chairman of the National Press Club, issued a statement declaring “Wednesday 23 November Black Wednesday“. Thus an appeal went out to all South Africans to dress or wear a black ribbon or armband – the traditional symbols of mourning – on the day, to show their opposition to the bill.

That would just not do! Abramjee was informed that the bill will be voted on, on Tuesday 22 November.

The office of ANC chief whip, Mathole Motshekga, declared its distaste for the comparison between events in 1977 and today. “The National Press Council’s likening of the scheduled democratic and constitutional process in Parliament this week, in which the draft legislation on the Protection of State Information (Bill) would be put to vote, to the infamous 1977 Black Wednesday, is nothing short of a reckless hyperbole aimed at peddling misinformation and distorting history. The Council’s plans, in which a democratic and open parliamentary process would be declared Black Wednesday by having people dress in black, are tantamount to staging a parody of one of the saddest political events of our history.”

At 14:00 today, the bill went to table with about 120 amendments since September, yet still without a public interest clause which would allow whistle blowers and journalist to disclose information found to be in the public interest. Hence the state can seal, at any given time, any information it so wishes and with a government whose corruption has been exposed time and again, this can be seen as nothing but an investment in self-interest.

It may be true that keeping corruption under cover may not be the primary intention of the so-called Secrecy Bill as it does include clauses that criminalise misuse of the bill to avoid embarrassment. Yet, with no way to demonstrate that abuse this wall can shelter many an evil and woe to anyone who leaks a secret, anyone who takes possession of a secret and anyone who publishes a secret as they will go to jail, without the option of a fine, potentially for up to 25 years!

Even though the Bill still has to be pass through the National Council of Provinces and will, in all probability, also go to the constitutional court, it is without a doubt that, with 229 to 207 votes for passing the bill, this is indeed a black day in our history.

May the pledge of the Honourable Lindiwe Mazibuko (she who was called the Madam’s Tea Lady by Mr. Malema) be the shining beacon of light and may we not stop standing up to be heard until Light shines through for our country and our freedom.

“It should never have come to this. Today is a dark day for our young democracy.

If passed, this Bill will un-stitch the very fabric of our Constitution. It will criminalise the freedoms that so many of our people fought for.

What will you, the members on that side of the House, tell your grandchildren one day? I know you will tell them that you fought for freedom. But will you also tell them you helped to destroy it? Because they will pay the price for your actions today. Let this weigh heavy on your conscience as you cast your vote.

Speaker, whatever happens in this House, we will not give up the fight.

We have fought this Bill from the very first day it was tabled. And we will continue to do whatever it takes to defeat those who want to silence our people. First, we will take the fight to the National Council of Provinces, where we will propose amendments, including a clause to protect those who disclose state information in the public interest.

If the Bill in its current form is passed in that House, we trust that the President will send it back to Parliament. Surely he will see that it is unconstitutional.

But if this Bill is signed into law, I will lead an application to the Constitutional Court to have the Act declared unconstitutional.

In terms of section 80 of the Constitution, the support of one-third of the Members of this House will be enough to send this Bill directly to the Constitutional Court.

I know that my colleagues on the opposition benches will support us. And I believe there are enough ANC MPs with a conscience who will do the right thing. Honourable Members, it is our duty to protect democracy. A Bill that poses a danger to our people’s freedom is before us. Let us vote against it today.

But if it is passed, let the message ring out from this House across South Africa:

The ANC has abandoned the values of its founders exactly 100 years after it was formed.”