KNYSNA: Remembering the 2017 fires - JS Kloppers, Knysna:
My wife and I are residents of Brenton-on-Sea. On the fateful 7 June 2017 we initially had to evacuate in great haste to the Brenton Haven hotel as the road to Knysna was closed due to the fires along that road.
When I think back about those events, the most memorable one is obviously the massive destruction of property and its impact on those who suffered loss.
The second aspect is the anguish and uncertainty that all evacuees experienced as a result of not knowing what was happening to the property left behind.
But the third aspect relates to all the wonderful acts of kindness and support that erupted both locally and nationally immediately as the enormity of the crisis became apparent. To me, this is the most positive and inspiring aspect of the whole saga.
Strangers offer help
This contribution will therefore highlight the kindness and assistance we received from initially unknown individuals during the dreadful hours of 7 and 8 June.
During the late afternoon of the 7th we landed up at Brenton Haven after having been alerted by our neighbours, the Meirings, to evacuate immediately. There was no time to pack and we grabbed little more than a few toilet necessities and warm jackets. At the Haven finding parking space was a big problem as what seemed like hundreds of vehicles were packed like sardines in front of the hotel.
Hundreds of people, some in wheelchairs, some bedridden patients from Belvidere’s frail care facility, and many with their pets, were all gathered in the Haven when it was announced that the fire was moving the Haven’s way and that we had to evacuate it and proceed to the beach to find our way to Buffalo Bay.
Time to move
The bedridden patients and those in wheelchairs had to be carried down the steep steps to the beach with great difficulty. A very fierce wind of 90km/h was blowing and on the beach it felt as if we were being sandblasted. Some had already started walking towards Buffalo Bay when suddenly several 4x4 vehicles approached us along the beach from Buffalo Bay’s direction.
One of them, driven by Norman Burton from George, picked up five of us and took us to Buffalo Bay where we were directed to the community hall. I learnt that Norman was one of a group of 4x4 enthusiasts in George, and when news of the Knysna disaster reached some of them, they contacted the others and set off to assist at Buffalo Bay.
Their assistance was absolutely invaluable because the prospect of the long walk to Buffalo Bay in the strong wind, while dusk was descending and the tide was rising, was very daunting. Their selfless acts of sacrifice were greatly appreciated and will always be remembered.
In the dark
The whole Brenton–Buffalo Bay region’s electricity was off and in the dark community hall where a large number of people were gathered, I was surprised when I was approached by an unknown man who said to me, “Come with me, I have three bedrooms available in my holiday home nearby.”
We, the Meirings and another couple whom I did not know, were taken to his house where each couple was allocated a room. We learnt that our benefactor was Johan ("Pottie") Potgieter from Garsfontein, who was on holiday on his own. He was very hospitable and offered us drinks and something to eat while we were all relaxing in his living room.
When we went outside to look towards Brenton, the entire horizon appeared as just one continuous wall of fire. The uncertainty whether your house had perhaps already burnt down, resulted in extreme anxiety among all of us, but even more so in the case of the Meirings, who have a timber house.
Very late that night, while all of us were still up, news reached us that the fires had jumped over the N2 national road and as this threatened Buffalo Bay, we once again had to evacuate.
Time to move, again
Pottie used his own car to convey me and my wife and two elderly people whom he had accommodated before we had arrived, to Sedgefield. The others made use of alternate transport, again provided by the 4x4 drivers.
At Sedgefield we were redirected from the community hall to a church hall. There the very friendly members provided mattresses for our elderly companions. While I was standing with a coffee, I could not believe it when a lady approached me and said, “Come with me, I have a big house here in Sedgefield and have three bedrooms available.” She introduced herself as Lynette Briedenhann, a local resident.
We, Pottie and the Meirings, accompanied her to her very modern home where she made three en-suite bedrooms available to us. She wanted to prepare something for us to eat but we declined.
Recharging our batteries
We were very grateful for the opportunity to recharge our cellphone batteries which were depleted by the flood of calls from relatives and friends who wanted to know whether we and our houses were safe. We already knew that Brenton had no electricity and therefore welcomed this opportunity.
The next morning, after enjoying the last shower we were to have for weeks, Lynette prepared breakfast for us and then drove us and the Meirings back to Brenton. Pottie left for home in his own vehicle.
At Brenton we were very relieved to find our vehicles intact but covered in ash in front of Brenton Haven, which also survived unscathed. There we took leave of Lynette and were extremely grateful when we discovered that both our and the Meirings’ homes were intact except for the ash which the strong wind had forced into the houses.
Initially Brenton had no water, electricity or telephone service, which meant no internet and cellphone charging. Mobile phones were our only means of contact with the outside world for quite a while. Fortunately water was restored after a few days but for many weeks we still remained without electricity and telephone services.
Appreciating basics anew
Our situation was relieved later during June when Mark Hughes, a friend in Knysna, was kind enough to lend us a powerful generator. This transformed our situation completely because for the first time in weeks we had electric lighting in the house, hot water to shower and use the washing machine, and to use the TV, to cook and use an oven and to charge the mobile phones. Despite this, we still had no access to the internet. Electricity was restored after a long delay and the telephone service took much longer.
This experience taught us how dependent we are on things and services which we accept as normal. You first have to cope for extensive periods without water, electricity and even telephone services to appreciate it all over again!
The point I hope to emphasise with this narrative is the unbelievable kindness we received from each of the individuals mentioned, which relieved our situation when it mattered most. We shall always remember them with a feeling of deep gratitude.
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