KNYSNA: Remembering the 2017 fires – Imagine being one of the people who helped build Featherbed Nature Reserve back in ’84; being its first tour guide; watching it grow into one of the biggest attractions on the Garden Route – and then watching it burn almost to nothing.
I can tell you how that feels.
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At the beginning, we ran maybe three tours a week, with a 45-seater plywood-and-fibreglass ferry boat, and an old, left-hand drive Dodge with converted car trailer to carry our guests up the hill. (The same Dodge that brought everything we needed across from town every day: boerewors, mozzie spray, drinking water, fish parcels, chairs, tables, instant coffee, braai grids, salads, chemical toilets…)
A full boatload of 45 people? We only dreamed of that.
Stuff of legends
But not for long: the tour quickly became a hit, and over the years literally hundreds of thousands of people enjoyed that boat trip across the lagoon, the drive to the viewpoint, the coastal walk (with photo ops at Needle’s Point and Nature’s Arch), and those legendary lunches under the milkwoods at Featherbed Bay.
I left the company sometime in the '80s, but I never ended my association with the reserve: I visited when I could and, in my new profession, I wrote about it often, too. It and its people.
And then came the 7th of June.
I was stuck at home without a car, and I saw the fire from the window of my flat on the other side of the lagoon. Saw it burning at Belvidere, and then jump over to the other side of the Brenton-on-Lake road; saw it barrelling towards The Heads, jump the firebreak, and then begin eating at Featherbed itself.
First things first
But that was it: I didn’t actually watch the reserve burn, because our suburb was under threat by now, and I had to get my animals and myself to safety. The people on the reserve, though – family and staff (there were no visitors that day: the wind was too wild) – had already been evacuated by boat.
It took five days before any of them managed to go back there.
It was mostly just a smouldering desert. From my side of the river, all that I saw standing were the owner’s house and the forest surrounding it.
"End of an era," I thought, "It’s over."
But Featherbed had other plans for me. By December, the managers decided they needed help with the rehabilitation of the vegetation, so they phoned me on the 18th. “You’re a qualified horticulturist, and nobody knows Featherbed like you,” they said. “Why don’t you come back?”
I started on the 20th.
When I got here, I found that it wasn’t a desert. Knysna had had some rain, and the pioneer plants were shooting – the fire hadn’t been hot enough to destroy all the seeds in the soil. Things like the blue-flowered dronkbessies, the gentle pink geraniums, the pretty, wavy emerald grass, and hundreds more. Even a couple of stands of seedlings of that "ou staatmaker" (stalwart), the keurboom tree.
In all my time at Featherbed, I’d never seen a keurboom here.
Alongside all those indigenous plants, though – alongside, on top of, around them, even under them – millions and millions of rooikrans seedlings. Literally. Millions.
Someone brought the rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) from Australia to stabilise the sand dunes of the Cape Flats in 1835, and without any natural enemies in the Cape, they produced seed by the billions, and quickly invaded most of the coast – and Featherbed was overgrown with them by the 1980s.
Fire as a blessing
Sure, we cut them down where we could (they make great firewood!), but we never thought we’d get rid of them. So, the fire came as a blessing. It destroyed most of them, turned them to ash, and left just a few skeletons behind.
We were left with a clean slate. If we worked well enough and fast enough, we had a chance of restoring a healthy biodiversity at Featherbed.
We began by hiring Working on Water (via the Garden Route National Park), and Working on Fire to physically pull out the rooikrans seedlings, but we found that the constraints under which they’re forced to work meant that the project would take too long. So we also employed a team of 15 labourers, and I showed them what we wanted them to do: mark out 30x30m blocks using measured, pegged lines, pull out the rooikrans within them, and leave the seedlings on the land to return the carbon to the soil, and to protect the soil from heat and rain.
It worked alright at first, but, no enthusiasm. So I sat everyone down and explained why we were doing this: invasive alien plants pose a fire hazard, they’re water thieves, and they threaten biodiversity, with all that that means. And that changed everything.
The guys on our Aliens Team now know that what we’re doing is bigger than any one of us, and that their work has meaning. And that’s an incredible motivator.
Even before the rooikrans, Featherbed was never only fynbos. The slopes above Needle's Point have always been wooded with a coastal-scrub/dry-forest mix of milkwoods, candlewoods, pock ironwoods, white stinkwoods, dune olives, and others.
Fortunately, at least a half of them survived.
Nature takes care of most
Many of them looked dead at first, but most of them began sprouting by about mid-summer, and now the forests are regenerating themselves – often under blankets of pioneering, nitrogen-fixing vines (Cape sweetpeas – "Mother Nature’s Band-Aid", as one environmentalist put it). And while we’re planning to give our forest areas a bit of a helping hand by interplanting with seedlings of those species that belong here, there’s not much more we need to do.
As for the rooikrans, though – there’ll always be some on the reserve, we know that. But, starting about 10 years ago, the people who know about these things introduced to the Cape a gall-forming midge that lays its eggs in the flowers, and prevents them from forming any seeds.
Rooikrans almost under wraps
Which means that now, as UCT’s professor John Hoffmann – an entomologist who studies the biological control of invasive Australian plants – told us when he visited us a month or so ago: between the fire, our work, and the bug itself, we’ve almost got our rooikrans problem under wraps.
On this piece of land, at least.
So look across the water at Featherbed Nature Reserve today and know this: those patches of brown covering the hill are patches of dead and decaying rooikrans. And the green between them is the fynbos coming back – in a hurry.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a more satisfying job.
* Martin Hatchuel is a writer and horticulturist.
** Featherbed’s Food Forest, restaurant, and access roads are currently under reconstruction. The company plans to reopen the reserve for tours and meals later this year. For information, please follow The Featherbed Co on Facebook.
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