I enjoy indulging in random act of theatre and shameless self promotion, if for no other reason than it is fun. If I could get a bit of TV face space while doing something heroic at the same time, I would be the first guy to stand in line. Unfortunately, Heroics involve sacrifice.
I have never been one for civic duty but I love that feeling when a fire engine comes blaring up the road and you have to pull your car over to make way for it. For a moment you are part of the community and participating in an emergency relief scenario. It’s very exciting.
In 2003 Cape Town tried to burn itself to the ground. They called for volunteers and we responded.
Standing on top of Rutherford drive I took in a spectacle of life that I had never seen before. I stood at the last house before the bush began, sensing the fire moving toward me. To my left a family was running around their garden with the hose and buckets of pool water, watering the hedges and Wendy Houses. The dogs were barking their heads off.
A fire man walked up to me.
‘Okay you can go now.’
‘What are you talking about man? I came to fight the fire!’
‘Yes but now it’s coming and you need to run back down the hill and wait with the other people. We’ll take care of things from now.’
The man left and I waited there, outraged and indignant. Worse still, I saw an ETV camera van waiting at the bottom of the hill, probably aiming their zoom cameras at me. This was my moment. I called my brother and my friend Ash over to join me and we stood on the crest of the hill, arms crossed, hips squared, and a far away look in our eyes.
And then it came, the most frightening thing I have ever experienced. Like a volcano creature of heat and rage and light the fire approached, swallowing trees as tall as ten story buildings, not just burning things but exploding things. Massive Bluegum trees that had withstood every trial of nature simply vaporized.
I could not control my body. Panic seized me and ran me down that hill as fast as I could go. I had run a full hundred meters before consciousness returned and I stopped my mad flight. This is not what I had come to do. I had come to fight, not to flee.
To my right across the road, now four houses down from the crest of the fire, a human drama was playing itself out. The electricity had gone out in the whole block and that meant the electric gates to the house were jammed closed. This was a problem for the family’s grandfather, who appeared to be not only wheel chair bound, but was in all probability asleep. It was weird to think that the technology which housed and protected them was now stopping the firemen from saving their most precious possession.
I turned and ran back up the street a little way. The firemen were fighting like pirates and had somehow miraculously stopped the path of the fire at the last fire break. The house at the top of the hill had taken some damage. The outer fence and Wendy House were gone. Inside the forest a beautiful glass conservancy was all jutting and black and broken. The family who owned it was standing around, stunned and philosophical. They seemed happy that the dog was alive.
After some of the heat had died down we approached the fireman again and asked them if we could help. I surreptitiously glanced over my shoulder but the ETV News truck was still at the bottom of the hill. The guys looked at my Gucci inspired sunglasses and Samurai blond topknot and seemed reluctant to give my brother and I a job.
Eventually he pointed at a small section of unburned forest where a fire about the size of half a cat was smouldering like a petulant teenager.
‘Put that out.’
He handed me a small spade and ran further along the ridge to where the real action was, shouting in the official way that makes you so excited about cooperating with fire engines. We ran over to the piece of fire and paused, not sure what to do with it. Our only clue was the small green military looking spade.
I decided to bash it with the flat of the spade and within about five minutes our little fire became a Maltese poodle with rabies, nipping at our jeans and shoelaces. My brother started jumping around with his big boots and the fire turned nasty, spreading out around us with a whoosh of heat. Somehow, in the midst of all, we had managed to start a fire.
Next thing he shouts with delight and runs over to where a limp fire hose is lying on the road. The front handle thing on a fire hose is heavy and functional, like a pythons head. There is a way of holding it, body braced – the head tucked under your arm – which I remembered from a school visit to the fire station.
My brother had obviously not been to that class. He picked it up like a garden hose and confidently aimed it at the fire as if he were holding a writing pen. A hovering drop of water suddenly sucked up the pipe, like the ocean retreating from the shore before a tidal wave. You could almost hear the low, distant rumbling.
Further along the ridge, the fire crew had fired up the water wagon. The limp fire hose in my brother’s hands became a rigid lead hard pole in the space of three seconds. He lifted off the ground as the hose pumped him up and down, bashing him around the ridge. Eventually he lost his death grip and the loose hose became a thing of Greek legend; a single hydra head spitting water at high velocity. It spun around and smacked him in the face.
An instant rupture of blood erupted from beneath his eye, spewing away dramatically in the ash cloud of our newly created fire. I felt so left out.
We decided go and look for Ash. Eventually we spotted him on a far off ledge. The sound of his voice echoed across the valley, ordering people around using Canadian fire break talk.
We were watching him with some fascination when we suddenly noted a helicopter arising from the heat haze like a big black wasp, its slow distant percussive thud still sounding impressive against the apocalypse of the fire ravaged scenery.
A metric ton of water from the water scoop beneath the giant Russian helicopter fell from the sky and we watched in morbid fascination as it landed square upon Ash. He realized his danger at the final moment and, rather rashly, jumped under the cover of a half burned tree. The water smashed the branches above him and one of the branches hit him in the head. Another geyser of blood erupted.
This was ridiculous. I looked down the hill towards the camera van and saw it creeping up the hill. Something had to be done.
In a moment I had conceived of my masterpiece and gathered the boys together. We were going to get involved in a water bucket chain gang. Dazed home owners had automatically formed bucket lines from pools and pipes and the little borehole in the grounds of the ruptured conservancy. We joined that gang, running water along the line, scooping it up from the smelly concrete water tank.
‘Which house are you from?’ said the dude in the line next to me.
‘No man, we don’t live around here, we live in Seapoint.’ Seapoint is about a half hour drive away.
‘We?’ the guy looked nonplussed.
‘My brother and I. We are brothers from Seapoint, coming to lend a helping hand.’
This was it! The building story – CNN face time. I could see the headlines. I looked up at the ETV van and saw it was at the top of the hill. The cameras were like bees to this sound bite of human opera at its theatrical zenith, gravitating towards me.
I looked down at myself and took in my outfit. It was a masterpiece of fire fighting chic. For some reason however it was also spotless. Not one drop of blood, not one deluge of water, not a single streak of mud. My face was barber fresh while around me were the faces of war, smeared with mud and tears.
In a panic I ran over to the corner of the Conservancy, trying to stay out of sight and reached down to take two big handfuls of mud. I streaked them across my face with clawed hands. Turning around I walked in slow motion across the cameras, whipping my head around to glare into the live lenses.
A friend of mine in Johannesburg had his funniest ever moment. Watching ETV live he saw me walking across the camera view in my outfit and I was the only person in the entire battle ravaged crowd that had tiger stripes across his face.