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Knysna: Scorched Earth

01 August 2017
It’s a 50-minute drive from George Airport to Knysna. At one point, the N2 descends along a small pass hemmed in by thicketed hills on one side and, on a clear day, the ocean on the other.  Around one of its final bends, the landscape widens to reveal an endless seam of white sand stretching from Wildnerness at the foot of the pass to Sedgefield in the distance. It’s a view so captivating, it almost hurts your eyes.
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I only feel I’ve truly arrived at the Garden Route when I descend into Wilderness.  Mossel Bay, Glentana and Victoria Bay all have their charms.  And, not long out of George, the lakes that drift tantalisingly into view through gaps in the forests of Pine and Eucalyptus, are as beguiling as any you’ll see in the Scandinavian hinterlands. But, it’s Wilderness with its curious blend of natural wonder and – in places – architectural human rights violations, that signals my arrival on the country’s coastal equivalent of Route 66.  In times gone by, this is where my thoughts would drift to Knysna, a cold quayside beer and, inevitably, a few wild oysters; to quiet moments walking along the water’s edge, paying deference to the Heads standing watch over the entrance to the lagoon. It is, at most times, a glorious place to be.  But, not today.

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From the vicinity of Buffelsbaai, the road twists and turns its way slightly inland before one final and gradual descent into Knysna.  It’s on this final stretch, still several kilometres outside the town, that the catastrophe of early June starts to fully reveal itself.  Vast tracts of blackened earth and lifeless trees.  Acre-upon-miserable-acre of nature incinerated by a series of fires so hungry for fuel, they very nearly consumed an entire town. Walk this ground today and what used to be grass crumbles beneath your feet like a packet of discarded Willard’s crinkle-cut.

There are unconfirmed reports that the fires – at their peak, there were as many as eight burning in the region – may have been caused by a lightning strike several weeks earlier.  An area of isolated, indigenous forest in Elandskraal reportedly caught ablaze and, after burning inconspicuously below ground level, the flames were fanned back into treacherous life by gale force winds. That has yet to be confirmed and, in any event, serves little purpose beyond determining a vague notion of culpability.

Whatever the cause, it’s clear that Knysna and its residents are some time away from a full recovery.  Basic infrastructure was restored within days of the tragedy.  Tourists, too, still appear attracted to the lagoon’s delights and those of its underrated waterfront. The annual Oyster Festival went ahead just weeks after the fires, and many more will be shucked in what is likely to be another bumper Christmas season.

But, for thousands of people in scorched Knysna Heights, Khayalethu and Concordia the practical demands of rebuilding are enmeshed with more philosophical considerations.  The economy will recover, the plants will regrow and the forest wildlife will return.  For those now familiar with the utter horror of hell made animate, the challenge is to construct a life on the ashes of another. And, all the while knowing that all you are, all you own, is mere fuel for nature’s furnace.

John Webb began his career in journalism as a wide-eyed cub reporter at news agency Network Radio News in 1997. He joined Talk Radio 702 in 1999 as a reporter and news reader and was assigned to major news stories. John then joined Carte Blanche in 2004, where he presented current affairs programmes from the field. He spent four years with European sports broadcaster Setanta Sports as a presenter and producer, returning to South Africa in 2013 to take up a six-month contract as host of "Talk at Nine" on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. In March 2014, John was the Pretoria field anchor for the highly successful Oscar Pistorius Trial.

You can follow @journojohn on Twitter.