Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Cape Town is burning

Boyes Drive, Muizenberg. Photo: Shirene Briell

March began badly for Cape Town: The southern Cape Peninsula has been burning for three days, in a fire front that may be the longest the modern peninsula has ever seen. 

This mostly vegetated and mountainous area, surrounded by pockets of urbanization, is all part of Table Mountain National Park, where I have hiked countless times. 

Hout Bay - Photo: Jean Tresfon, Facebook

The fire's scope is awesome, stretching from the upper reaches of Tokai, burning fiercely in the South African night, as I write, and raging towards the Constantiaberg and lower slopes.

Tokai towards Constantia. Photo: Karen Bekker, Instagram

Then over Ou Kaapse Weg and Silvermine, east to Peck's Valley above Muizenberg, where it began, and down towards the harbour town of Kalk Bay, far west to Chapman's Peak (flaring up again, tonight) and Noordhoek Ridge above Hout Bay, and down the slopes, south to Noordhoek, where several friends live.

Muizenberg - Photo: Ryan Sheraton, Twitter

The response has been massive and dramatic, in terms of professional and volunteer firefighting teams, working for the third day in a row (today in 40'C/104'F temperatures) to save homes; fleets of choppers to ferry and dump water buckets; communities of social media-organized volunteers to support the firefighters and the displaced with food, drink and places to rest; free veterinary boarding offered for animals; local businesses and hospitals and individuals donating everything from crates of hamburgers to feed hungry firefighters to saline solution kits for smoke-blasted eyes to nebulizers for smoke inhalation.

Noordhoek - Photo: Beverley Schäfer, Twitter

The effect on property and people is potentially devastating, and the response movie-like in its stories of heroism, generosity, and the best of human behaviour.

The tortoise hero. Photo: Gale McCall

Helen Moffett (author of this blog), a Noordhoek resident writes: "My artist neighbour was trying to express what it feels like to watch dozens of total strangers, most of them volunteers, with home-made masks, their own chain-saws and shovels, risk blazing heat and roaring flames to save the homes of people they didn't know. And what it was like to be told to evacuate her horses at 2.30am -- and find strangers arriving to help."


One theme I have been watching for two days on social media has been, "the beautiful mountain has been destroyed, the fynbos is gone..."

No. That is one thing we don't have to worry about.

Most Capetonians, who live surrounded by fynbos and who should know more by now about the ecology of the gorgeous place, still do not realize that fire is GOOD for fynbos, and necessary.

"Fynbos is a fire-driven system," says my friend Rosie, a botanist living in the middle of the fire zone.

 Some plants rely on fire to germinate, produce flowers and resprout.

Chapman's Peak, March 2nd. Photo: Lee Slabber

Much of this area has not burned enough. We are afraid of fire and do not allow it. So areas grow too dense, and simply make for a bigger bonfire, later. There is also alien vegetation present - pines, wattle and hakea, which are like fueled torches when a spark comes along, and the fire burns hotter.

Drawing: Isabella Marais, Bay Primary School

Of course there are fire problems, and some are tragic: houses and humans in the way, wild animals killed or injured; later, possible landslides in subsequent, very wet winters (affecting humans, again). And fires that are too frequent, because of human actions (arson, cigarettes, escaped camp fires) do destroy sensitive vegetation.

Ou Kaapseweg. Photo: Jean Tresfon

The same Rosie has watched flames burn uncomfortably close to the Noordhoek home where she and her Don, an ecologist, will marry in three weeks. She says they may change their wedding theme to Mordor, asking guests to come as trolls and orcs, to suit the ravaged landscape.

Watsonias after fire. Photo: Vincent Mounier

But she also said, after driving over Ou Kaapseweg this morning to work at Kirstenbosch:

 "...while everyone else was going, 'Oh, so sad, so tragic,' I was going 'OMG, we are going to have the BEST SPRING!' I can hear the bulbs and Protea seeds waiting for the first rains, creaking into life."

As far as the fynbos is concerned, spring will come, and it will be good.

You can donate to Volunteer Wildfire Services here - and please do:

Volunteer Wildfire Services
Nedbank Branch: Foreshore
Branch Code: 108309
Account Number: 1083321226
If you make a donation, please use your name as a unique reference as well as sending them an email so they can thank you for your contribution:

Here are some more posts by the Frenchman and myself, about places that have now been burned. Re-visiting them will be sad, at first, but in a few months very, very interesting.

Silvermine above Muizenberg

Silvermine East

Bertie's Balcony

Silvermine and Kalk Bay Peak

Of an evening

Terrace life, light past 8pm and dinners outside seem a long way away. 

In the meantime, in the kitchen, it's gin, cassis and lemon juice, for a Mississippi Mule - recipe found in an old, foxed bartender's book in my father's study. Years ago, before reading that book, I shook this combination up, naming it The Paintbrush, my great invention, before discovering that it existed officially, as the Mule.

But my name's better.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Necessities, by subway

I stocked up on some Sahadi's essentials over the weekend, riding the 2 train to the old hood.

Some essentials are sharp. Vinegars: sherry, apple cider, and malt. Others are sweet: Austrian black currant jam and Austrian elderflower cordial.

The stacked spices at Sahadi's. I'd love an alternative to all the plastic boxes. But the size is just 

Re-stocked Ahmad Afternoon tea, ground sumac, Iranian barberries, many peppercorns, cinnamon sticks.

Danish Supreme. Creatures of habit, we love it, and it is ground very, very finely.

That morning cup of coffee is one of the best parts of the day.

19 days till spring. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Modernica Winner

Janet Brown, come on down! The Modernica Ceramic Wok is yours.

The winner of the giveaway was chosen by random number generator, from all eligible entries received.

Thank you, everyone, and I wish I could have this planter sent to each of you.

Janet, please use the Find, Follow link for my email address, and send me your shipping address?

(Send a picture when it's filled!)

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Orchid Show - NYBG

Yesterday I caught a train to the New York Botanical Garden.

Why? Orchids! My editor at Gardenista had asked me to write a story about the new orchid show "Chandeliers" that opens tomorrow (find the story, orchids growing tips and photos here; warning, you may want to buy an orchid, afterwards), and I was lucky to have been part of a preview, before thousands of visitors arrive.

A great advantage of our new Harlem address is its proximity to the Harlem-125th Street Metro-North stop, making a trip to the Bronx as short as 20 minutes, door to door. From Brooklyn it took almost two hours, with a change from subway to train at Grand Central.

The short and simple ride was not without incident. Absorbed in an email I was writing on my phone I missed my stop, and had to backtrack, going sprawling on black ice on the platform in the process. I have very interesting knee-bruise.

But safely at the NYBG I was suddenly in a winter wonderland. No black slush, here, but lawns of white. 

And inside the massively ornate Enid A. Haupt Conservatory the damp warmth made me pull off insulating layers, and instantly fogged up every one of my three camera lenses. Momentary panic. It took 10 minutes for them to de-fog.

It was an educating experience and I learned more than I expected (my own experience of orchids has been in the wild, with fynbos and grassland species, not tropicals).

The show is layed out interactively, with very well chosen information displayed. I came away able to ID the orchids on display without flashcards, and the new-found appreciation that some orchids are scented.

Phalaenopsis, the familiar moth orchids, above. 

Dendrobiums - cane orchids. 

The show opens tomorrow, and runs till April 19th.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Harlem winter

Since we have broken records in the last week, with a coldest temperature recorded at JFK...

...here's a look back at the last three weeks in our immediate Harlem hood.

 127th Street

Until February rolled round winter had been chugging along. Last February was snowy, too.

 Lenox Avenue

But this year, wham bam, we were cold-slammed.

 Lenox Avenue

Even the scaaaaaaary blizzard that made the governor shut down the subway fizzled out, in January. 

Nobody warned us about the next part.


The derelict community garden on our block froze and the snow covered its trash.

 Yes, I have made inquires; no, I have not received answers. GreenThumb is "looking into it."

Even our steps had icicles.

Trees bent with iceweight.

And the flower sellers stayed open, keeping up a steady supply of forced bulbs for me.

The sidewalks are obsessively scraped and then are snowed on or iced over again. 

Wildlife plots its course.

And the stone steps up the rock hill of Marcus Garvey Park are a frozen watercourse.

Most parks have been cleared well, but Marcus Garvey, beautiful in many ways, is also semi-derelict, on these upper levels. The people who come this high are occasional dog walkers, drug users, sex-seekers and purveyors, police (an officer was shot up here last summer), and those who fall in the cracks (...er, me?). So. No salt for us? Maybe they want we should fall and break or heads. Problem solved.

Beautiful steps, up the chunk of rock too big to blow up, so that 5th Avenue has to move around it.

And home past old Atlah, whose pastor's habits have returned after an uncharacteristic Christmas time lull.

Yes, well. The nutter is still at it.

And so are we. 

In other ways.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Winter White Giveaway by Modernica

Here's something to shake off the winter blues: a winter white giveaway, offered by Modernica - the Modernica ceramic wok.

Not to stir fry your plants, but to contain them. The dimensions of the bowl are 8" H x 22" Diameter. On the stand the height is 10". Holes will be drilled for you upon request if you, the ecstatic winner, plan on using it for planting (in which case they are essential, though if you are super-vigilant you could coax a tropical indoor plant not to need them). The planter should not stay outdoors in freezing winters.

The value is $345.

What would be best planted in the sleek ceramic? Something with fairly shallow roots. Small spring bulbs, herbs (elfin thyme, a perfect, grey mat), hens and chicks, sedums, peace-in-the-home (baby's tears), African violets - plants with interesting texture, so you can enjoy them from above.

Or you can just use it as a washstand. Or to hold a clutch of lemons.

To enter:
-  the contiguous 48 states are eligible. I'm afraid we can't ship further.
-  leave a comment telling me how you would use your Modernica ceramic wok.
-  make sure to include your name (you can make one up, but if you win you will be contacted for your shipping address)
-  add your location, by state.

The deadline for entries is Thursday, February 26th, 11pm EST. The winner will be chosen at random and announced on Saturday 28th. I will ask the winner to email me shipping details.

Good luck!
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