My name is Hannelie, and I am one of the lucky ones. I am a citizen of the most beautiful town on earth, despite that fateful day on the 7th of June 2017. There are so many more harrowing stories of loss and trauma out there. This is just mine.
I’ve left it for almost a month, thinking maybe time will allow my adrenalin-drenched brain to comprehend what happened. Almost a month later, though said brain is no longer saturated in fight or flight, it has still not made an attempt at fitting the enormity of what happened into my skull without the sharp ends poking painfully at my cranium. It just won’t fit, no matter how hard I try.
My son was overjoyed at being able to stay home for a day in the middle of the school week. Me, a little less so. I remember being annoyed at the department of education for overreacting and closing all schools in the Western Cape due to the gale force winds and panic-inducing storms that were being predicted. I remember huffing and rolling my eyes at the notice, but making arrangements to work from home nonetheless. So that’s what we did, me working and my son studying for his maths exam. He made tea (love tea, he calls it) every now and again, we laughed and chastised each other for not concentrating. And we checked on the wind, often, marveling but not worrying as the wind speed picked up.
Then we smelled the first smoke. In hindsight, I have gained a new skill. The ability to tell the difference between an old burnt-earth smell and fresh smoke, the latter inducing the by now familiar feeling of unease that morphs quickly into full-blown anxiety.
Social media helpfully but vaguely reported a fire on the Sedgefield side of Knysna and one on the Plett side. We were shocked and saddened by the news, but again, not worried yet. News and rumours, both true and untrue, both sober and exaggerated, abounded. Before lunch time, the N2 in both directions was closed. Knysna was cut off. And as the smoke grew ever thicker, the worry started picking at my insides, softly tapping at me with a long, curved claw, ready to sink in and start gnawing. But being the sensible mother that I am, I breathed deeply (and coughed a little) and stayed calm, reassuring my son that I’m sure it’s fine, don’t worry.
Little did we know.
News filtered through that Featherbed had burned down completely. That the fire at the white bridge had spread up into Phantom Pass. The worry in my belly sniggered and dug another claw in, reminding me oh so kindly that Phantom Pass, if you go straight across the Knysna river, is closer than I would like to think about. Worry then went to fetch it’s best friend, panic, and inside me they clinked glasses and sharpened their claws.
I had asked a friend who lived on top of the hill to let me know if the fire jumped the river, still stupidly hoping that it won’t. In the meanwhile, my husband had decided to come home, just in case.
Just in case. Such a harmless, sensible little trio of words.
Arriving home, ever the hero, he suited up in his volunteer fire fighter gear, and went off, galloping into the smoke like a knight in shining overalls. He managed to help a few evacuated families before I had to call him home. The dreaded message had come through.
“The fire has jumped the Knysna river. Welbedacht area, evacuate if you can.”
As hubs got home, I greeted him with a smile. It was one of those too-bright, forced smiles, masking the bile rising in my throat, but a smile none the less. He didn’t return it. He was in full survivor mode, calm, his face tight and his voice low and controlled with the panic we all felt inside.
“Let’s just pack a few things, just in case.”
Just. In. Case. There they are again.
We all know that question. It is asked as a conversation starter often. “If you had to run from a burning house, what do you grab?”
Let me confide something in you right now. If someone asks me that question ever again, I will punch them in the throat so hard and so fast they won’t even see it coming. I wish I was kidding.
Sensibility, once again, won out. Firearms, cameras and laptops. Phones, hard drives, clothes. Blankets. Sensible things grabbed and stuffed helter skelter into bags.
My hands shook as I tossed a handful of panties into a bag while shouting at my son to grab all his school books, and to leave all but two soft toys. He was crying, his breath whistling in and out of his open mouth too fast. Much too fast. My husband glanced out the window, and when he turned back to me, the lines in his face spelled it as clear as day, even before the words left his mouth. My blood went ice cold. This is real now. This is no longer Just In Case.
“Get to the car. Now.” My son hesitated, wanting to grab more, his breath still coming too fast, his eyes wide and glassy. I grabbed him by the shoulders and told him to breathe deeply and calm down.
“NOW!” came the command again. And we ran.
Mom, Dad, Son, Dog, was loaded into the car, bags thrown in in a heap, and more soft toys than was originally agreed upon. I let it slide. I forgot the dog’s leash, leapt out of the car and ran in to grab it. As I entered the door, time slowed down to a syrupy ooze.
I looked around my home. The photos against the wall, the drawings on the fridge, the dining room table that’s a heirloom from an aunt that passed away a few years ago. My son’s dirty socks under the same table. The dog’s water bowl. There were dirty cups in the sink. The wine rack I bought on a whim in Still Bay years ago, containing the bottle of wine my sister gave me last year.
I should have drank it, I thought. I should have rinsed the cups.
I felt an incongruous giggle bubble up my throat. Hysteria, no doubt. But there was no time. Then the reel of time caught traction and sped up again, and I turned and ran for the car, leash in hand.
The drive through our neighbourhood, and on through town, like so many aspects of this nightmare, is near impossible to describe. As we reached the top of the development and drove towards the gate, the flames were coming down the embankment, reaching the road just as we passed and licking hungrily towards the car, or so it felt. The wind was howling, rocking the car and driving the flames on at breakneck speeds. Later, remembering the speed at which the flames came for us, it’s easier to understand how seven people’s lives were claimed.
Clear of the flames, we drove around aimlessly for a while, not sure where to go, until a friend sent me a message, one of many that would be flying around Knysna for the next 24 hours.
“Where are you, are you safe?”
My answer was that we had evacuated, and we were not too sure where to go. This friend, being her, immediately invited us to her house. A safe haven.
We all helped clearing out the spare bedroom, preparing to spend the night. My son eventually settled down a little. The dogs had to be kept separate, which was a challenge in itself. We were glued to our cellphones, letting family and friends know we are safe, getting updates, contacting friends and neighbours to find out whether they were safe. There was a peculiar kind of tense silence in the house. The kids played, we stared and facebooked, talked a little and whatsapped. We heard that the school near our house had burned to the ground. Quietly, the worry gleefully ripping into my stomach, drawing blood, I told my husband that I had no hope that the house was standing.
I made coffee to give my hands something to do.
The slow heavy minutes plodded by. The smell of smoke permeated the air. The wind howled and tore at the windows and doors spitefully. We sat, alternately checking social media (an absolutely invaluable tool during this whole ordeal) and just… stared.
Some good news came through. The school that burned down was a false report, one of many during those dark hours. A little hope dared poke it’s head out like a seedling reaching for the sunlight, and my husband decided to go and check on the house. Because not knowing is the worst part. Hugging him and telling him to please be safe, then letting go, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. My heart went with him, but my son needed me.
Half an hour later, he phoned. I stared at my phone as if it was a poisonous snake, knowing that the news was going to be either very good, or very very bad. His voice was raw, his breath stuttering as he said: The house is fine. It’s burning all around, but the house is fine. I’m staying.
The tears came. I cannot remember the rest of the conversation, I just remember my friend hugging me tightly as the sobs jerked through me. I finally calmed down enough to tell my son that the house was fine. His tears came just as hot and fast as mine did. We were safe. Our house was safe.
Minutes later, my friend wordlessly turned her phone towards me to show me a message from a friend who was in a better observation position than we were. It said GET OUT NOW. That was it. Locking eyes with her, feeling my face going as white as hers, we both knew that we had to go. We had the kids and the animals with us. Their safety was the only concern.
So off I went with 8-year-old Katie. We picked her favourite clothes and teddies, pajamas and a warm jacket “for just in case it’s cold”.
There they were again. Those three little words.
As we rushed downstairs with a packed bag, reality hit and her tears started, her breathing picking up, reminiscent of my own son’s panic hours earlier. And then an amazing thing happened. I watched my 11-year-old son, who was suffering a full-blown panic attack a short while ago, put his arms around his friend and tell her not to worry, that everything is going to be okay. His eyes were calm and confident as he met mine over her head.
We rounded up the three cats and four dogs and waited outside for my husband to come. Time did that funny thing again, seconds and minutes stubbornly refusing to pass into the oblivion of the past.
I tried to calm Katie’s increasing hysteria, telling her that we’re going to come right back, that the fire was faaar away, that this was just in case. I remember my son asking me why I was lying to her, we weren’t coming back, and the fire was close, way too close. I told him that if I had to lie to her until my tongue turns black, I will. We needed to stay calm. The short, determined nod he gave me told me that he understood. That he was going to be fine. My son did about ten years of growing up in three hours, and amidst the chaos, the panic, the sadness, I was so unbelievably proud of him.
We decided to go home. I suspect if the authorities had known, they wouldn’t have allowed us. But we didn’t exactly have anywhere else to go.
The ride back through town to our house was again, nightmarishly indescribable. Words fail at the wind, the dense smoke, the flames literally everywhere around us, burning coals landing everywhere. Looking around, I felt the despair form in a hard knot in my throat. I knew then, that my town was not going to weather this. This was too much. Everything was burning. Absolutely everything was burning.
But we made it through. We made it through what felt like Dante’s Inferno, past Knysna Hollow with embers flying and flames literally licking at the wheels of the car, all the way home. I looked at my humble little house with all its imperfections, and it looked like the most luxurious hotel I have ever seen. It was burning and smouldering all around the house, the garden already mostly gone. The carport melted, smoke everywhere, power out. But the house was standing.
The rest of that Wednesday night blurred into an endless suffocating dark of patrolling, hosing hot spots, checking on my fitfully sleeping child and making coffee. After that night, I know every bump in my lawn, every cobble in the driveway, and every place where it just kept burning and burning, intimately. Time again slowed down until the seconds didn’t seem to pass, the arms on the clock face unmoving. I remember, during one rest period, staring at the canvas print photos of an old jetty on Leisure Isle that are hung in a group high on my wall, and thinking: They’re still there. We’re still here.
Thursday morning crept up on my stealthily, using the cover of darkness and smoke to take me by surprise. My husband had finally collapsed in a dead sleep an hour before, and the quiet was overwhelming. And it was cold, so very cold. My brain struggled with the incongruity of the cold, compared to the scorching 24 hours that had passed. It was light enough to see, but I cowered in the house, not ready for what I knew was going to be a punch in the gut. I did go out eventually. And it was.
Again, I find myself oddly at a loss for words, for someone that professes to be an amateur writer. The smoke was thick, thick enough to, for the moment at least, hide the worst of the devastation. I could see across our little pond to the Kanonkop Riverglades area. There is nothing left. The ruins of a few houses were visible, still smouldering, through what was left of the trees. The little pond had no reeds left. The big old tree where the herons used to roost was gone, and they circled, repeating their mournful cry, homeless, like many in Knysna. The one side of my garden was completely gone, whole trees turned into skeletal silhouettes, blackened and giving off tendrils of blue. Well, my husband had been wanting to clear it out for a while now, this is one way, my wry twisted sense of humour piped up with a poker face.
Later, hubs woke up and came outside, still dressed in his overalls, fire boots and bunker jacket, sooty and sweaty. He was carrying the camera. We didn’t talk, there was no need, nothing to say. As he looked around him in the light of day, the scale of what had just happened caught up with both of us. I think we could both feel the sheer magnitude of what happened to our town, the town that we have been happily living in for 15 years, weigh down on our shoulders. The quiet shoved to the front of my mind again as I stood with the camera hanging uselessly at my side, watching the emotions play across my soul mate’s face like an old fashioned picture show. Then I lifted the camera, and captured it. It felt wrong, like an intrusion. But today, I am so happy I did it.
This one photo, this single moment, defines what happened to Knysna and the Garden Route on that fateful Wednesday and Thursday. To me, more than any picture of burnt trees, scorched earth and ruins jutting like broken teeth from the still hot land, my husband’s face tells you, without any of these shallow useless words you just read, the story of the great inferno of July 2017.
The story of what followed, what happened to Knysna, the country, and the world, in the days after Knysna burnt, is a story for another time, and a story of another kind. A story of hope and growth, of family (both blood and not) and togetherness. A story of love and compassion and immeasurable strength.
Maybe I’ll tell it, if I can find the words.