The record-breaking rainfall experienced in the Albany area during October, which was then followed up by a series of wild fires along the southern commonage, may well have gone by virtually unnoticed by some townsfolk. In our sanitised modern-day world, where so many progress daily from a townhouse into a garage, thence into an air-conditioned car and finally to a climate-controlled office, means that for them the periodic ravages of nature are limited to a short, impersonal clip on the TV news.
To be so divorced from the natural world can result in such absurdities as some children not even knowing that milk comes from cows. I remember an April Fool's joke some years back which showed a fuzzy picture of tassles hanging on trees in Italy, and how the spaghetti harvest was reported as having failed: so many couldn’t see the joke.
Spring rainfall is usually highly desirable. At this time of year, new shoots are sprouting and a wet soil coupled with warmth and sunshine results in rapid growth of trees, shrubs and grasses. Thus the rains were welcomed in many quarters.
However the excessive rains of October, not only resulted in such inconveniences as the national road collapsing, but also in some more subtle negative effects not easily perceived by those ‘off the land’.
A night-time deluge of 90mm or more, as experienced on Saturday 20 October, on top of an already soaked landscape, results in massive runoff. This causes flash-flooding and erosion, scouring out of stream banks, and the filling of our dams with sand and silt.
Two of the best places to photograph the effects of a deluge are the head of the Bloukrans valley, just below Fort England, and the base of Howieson's Poort, where the Berg river comes out the poort and flows into the dam.
At this point you will see and experience the power of water – several hundred cubic metres of water per second thundering into the dam, and just what it is doing with our topsoil. Once this brown slurry is all mixed up with what was hitherto a crystal-clear drinking water supply, you may forgive the Waainek water purification plant for not being able to cope.
The succession of fires that ravaged much of Mountain Drive and the southern commonage (Featherstone Kloof) just a few days after this month-long soaking came as a surprise. Nobody really believed that the veld would burn – except possibly the arsonist who may have started the fires.
Summer fires are bad news: the newly shooting plants and trees are severely damaged and often will not flower that year. This is in contrast to winter burning when the sap has not yet risen and growth is dormant. Even more damaging is the frequency of burning: much of Featherstone Kloof was burnt in February this year – and a large part of this re-burnt in the latest fire. The consequences of this all-too-frequent burning is a rapid loss of plant diversity. Grasses predominate over woody or bushy plants, because their regeneration time is shorter, and juvenile trees are destroyed. Pioneer trees, growing along forest margins, have not had time to canopy and shade out the combustible grasses beneath them, and so are burnt.
If another fire comes along too soon, then the fires penetrate even deeper into the forest margins, which then get invaded by grasses and other, often alien growth, that is not fire-resistant. The cycle continues until the forest has gone.
I have a 1947 aerial photograph of the area between Thomas Baines and Grahamstown. It is quite shocking to see how reduced are the kloof forests since then, compared to the present day.
Along the southern slopes of the commonage, beautiful fields of flowering pink watsonias and hair-bells (Dierama spp.) were torched by the blaze. Ground orchids (Satyriums and others) and our national flower, Protea cynaroides, which were just recovering from the February burn, were obliterated.
Yes, they will return, but in smaller numbers, as their propagation is negatively affected.
On a more sinister note the spreading plague of hakea, a prickly invader from Australia that is colonising the commonage, explosively distributed its wind-born seeds due to the heat of the fire into the plumes of smoke. In two years we will reap the harvest of this pest, as thousands upon thousands of new hakeas germinate to smother our already ravaged fynbos.
Moral of the story: Our Grahamstown fires are all-too-damaging, and all-too-frequent.
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