How do you like your mountain: rare, medium or well-done?
Out To Lunch
NOW THAT the smoke has finally cleared over Cape Town I suppose it's inevitable that some people will look for a scapegoat.
With more than 9 000 hectares of wilderness area destroyed and the remains of toasted tortoises littering the scorched earth, this was clearly no minor conflagration, but a disaster of Old Testament proportions. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the almighty doesn't follow the fires with a plague of carnivorous locusts just to show Capetonians what he really thinks of them.
Aside from the extensive damage to the Western Cape's flora and fauna, many homes were destroyed or damaged and hectares of vines from some of the country's finest wine estates were reduced to smouldering twigs. The damage is estimated at a colossal R3-billion and there are fears that, with the mountain sides denuded, mudslides are inevitable when the rainy season comes.
What apparently started as a small fire became an inferno and the world watched as one of South Africa's top tourist destinations went up in smoke. So, the doomsayers wail, potential foreign visitors would have taken one look at CNN and cancelled their trips, with the result that SA will lose valuable foreign exchange. Who can we blame?
We do have the most amazing knack in this country of wallowing in gloom. Without in any way wishing to detract from the personal losses suffered by those whose homes or property were destroyed, we must accept that there is a price to be paid for living in paradise.
If you insist on building your home on a beautiful mountain side surrounded by forests, then you shouldn't be surprised if they catch fire occasionally, particularly after the Cape has been baking in temperatures in the mid-30s for most of December.
By the same token, if you choose to live on a fault line in San Francisco you should be prepared for a deep subterranean rumble every so often which leaves you watching your living room part company with your dining room. It's all part of the thrill of living somewhere exhilarating. The alternative is to move to a town like Pofadder, where there is precious little vegetation to catch fire, minimal risk of tidal waves and no chance of a mudslide.
I was in the mother city the week before the fires began and the undergrowth was tinder dry, as it normally is at this time of year. Add the effect of the gusting southeaster, which Capetonians should be used to, and you have an annual recipe for potential disaster. So nobody should feign surprise at the occurrence of fires.
To try to apportion blame for them seems pointless and to suggest that arsonists were responsible is little more than political opportunism and knee-jerk hysteria, which is hardly likely to bolster tourism. Heaven knows, it's bad enough running the risk of being pipe-bombed or hijacked and shot without the added threat of some pyromaniac setting mountains alight while you sleep.
To criticise the emergency services and lay charges of bureaucratic bungling just after the event is deplorable.
It may well be that the recent fires highlight the need for future preventive measures and a larger budget for fire-fighting equipment.
However, few South Africans could have remained unmoved by the TV footage of professionals and volunteers working together in dangerous conditions to douse the flames and protect a stranger's property. Far from the alleged bungling, the fire-fighting seemed efficient and well co-ordinated and I would suggest that without the remarkable efforts of the firefighters, many of whom went without sleep, the damage would have been considerably worse.
It was a moving case of adversity bringing people together and a fine example of the spirit of the new South Africa at its best. To suggest anything else is to devalue the efforts of the many men and women involved.
The greatest miracle of all, though, is that no human life was lost. The vines will grow again and the mountains will be green in a few months' time. Houses can be rebuilt and Simonstown will hopefully be restored to its former glory. International tourism will be damaged by the fires only if we allow it to be. When Indonesia's forests caught fire a few years ago the effect on foreign tourism was devastating because the government was unable to control the fires.
That hasn't been the case in Cape Town and there is no reason for foreigners to stay away. On the contrary, Satour should be launching a cocky international awareness campaign with a picture of Table Mountain and the accompanying slogan: "How would you like your mountain: rare, medium or well done?"
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