There was an acrid smell in the air and the usually clear blue sky had turned a pale grey. The sweetish notes suggested a grass fire, although no smoke was visible from our garden. That was until we drove to the top of the hill.
A veil of thin grey smoke rising into the air was clearly visible against the blue sky that had been hidden from view further down the hill. Judging from the direction the strong Berg wind was blowing, it was easy to tell why. Once on the N2, we could see the thick smoke billowing on the slope of the Rietberge that overlook town.
The extent of the veld fire was more evident from the 1820 Settler’s Monument.
As the sky darkened, the flames racing through the dry grassland were clearly visible – the choking smoke had now been blown right across town, filling the valley and moving way beyond the town.
It was apparent that the flames had taken hold and were blackening the mountain in a fury; their hungry journey hastened by the strong wind and the dry conditions of the veld.
The fire burned late into the night. We woke to a black mountain that now looms around us as a stark reminder of fires in the past and of how careful we must all be as the veld is tinder dry right now.
I keep harping on about the drought, and with good reason for both Howieson’s Poort and Settler’s Dam have run out of water – leaving our town in dire straits. The very light (and little) rain that has fallen has not been enough to provide the much-needed runoff that will make its way to these vital storage dams. Nonetheless, the rain has made a noticeable difference to the vegetation and has been captured in hollows, such as this aloe leaf in my garden
The aloes now have a beautifully green backdrop that provides shelter for the birds.
Our forested garden is becoming rejuvenated: the Natal Fig is heavy with fruit that attracts African Green Pigeons, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds, Cape White-eyes, Olive Thrushes, and many other birds. The pompon trees are filled with swelling buds that will soon provide a beautiful display of pink flowers – and the Cape Chestnut is already blooming!
Fine droplets of welcome rain cling to the leaves of a canary creeper.
It is a pleasure to sit in the shade outdoors and to enjoy all of this green – last December our garden looked apocalyptically brown and skeletal!
One of the most amazing aspects of indigenous vegetation, be it grass, flowers or trees, is the way even the most hopeless looking environments can bounce back after a little rain. Last summer most of the indigenous trees looked like desiccated spectrals of their former selves. I thought we had lost them … until the first rain of only a few millimetres arrived. Our garden trees – all indigenous – now show an amazing variety of hues of green. Their foliage is thick, buds are swelling and we can look forward to a variety of blossoms. Exotic trees do not have the same tenacity. This Brazilian Pepper tree has shrivelled over the past year, lost its leaves, and has finally given up.
It is one of the trees planted along the street in front of our home. In its heyday it would have looked like this:
All of these trees are stunted thanks to the hard clay soil that is unkind to their roots – and they were never watered, even when planted as tender saplings. It has taken over thirty years for them to reach the height they are, which is relatively short when compared with others planted in more favourable positions in town. While they are not my favourite trees, I have always had an empathy for the way they have had to struggle to survive. It is thus sad to see this one finally succumb to a drought that has lasted too long. It is gradually falling apart:
The description of a particular grassland plant being common on overgrazed range-land made me realise I had hit the jackpot in identifying these canary-yellow flowers growing on a neglected triangle of ground – where the once regularly mowed lawn has long since been replaced by wild grass, on the overgrazed patch of lawn below our house, and along neglected pavements in the suburbs.
The Bulbine narcissifolia is also known as the Strap-leaved Bulbine, doubtless after its loosely twisted, strap-like grey-green leaves. As you can tell from the photograph below, flowers are star-shaped with bearded stamens and mature from the bottom of the inflorescence. The open flowers are pollinated by insects.
The stalks reach up to 500mm, making the flowers conspicuous during their summer flowering season. Fortunately, they are drought tolerant and so bring joy during these dry times!
People who live in places where they have had so much rain that they complain about it now and then cannot always comprehend the impact of a serious drought on the landscape. These photographs were taken in the Addo Elephant National Park about two weeks ago.
There is very little ground cover left after the dry winter – and nary a sign of spring flowers!
Even where there is still grass, it looks dry and lifeless. Yet, the animals survive somehow and – as long as good rains fall before it is too late – the veld manages to renew its growth of essential grasses, herbs and other vegetation to a point.