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The Cape Aflame Clears the Tower

The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire was launched at Groot Constantia last night. Well over a decade in publishing and a couple more associated with books tell me you seldom see many such successful launches-cum-celebrations of newly published titles.

Throughout the evening, I could do no more than take mental notes. These notes constitute only my recollection of and thoughts on the evening. Follow me:

Keynote speaker Braam Malherbe, an internationally renowned extreme conservationist, adventurer and motivator lives up to his billing as the country’s most powerful voice on matters personal and natural.

I suspect his mesmerising words reflect the views of most of his audience. His ability to fuse the interests of man and nature is uncanny and his delivery is superb.

It has to be. Part of The Cape Aflame Project team member in me remains distant, detached, and observant; and I’m keenly aware that the large venue is packed with extraordinary people – people for whom I have immense respect and admiration.

Whether starting their careers or coming to the end of long and distinguished terms of service to their community, city and country, they are all quiet legends – men and women who go the extra mile to make the world a better place because…well, that’s what they do.

Braam
From success to significance Braam Malherbe spells out the difference between the two and how the first should lead to, rather than preclude, the second.

Braam’s at the top of his game. He’s putting man in perspective. He speaks of meeting Neil Armstrong and discussing the astronaut’s experience of seeing Earth rise above the dark side of the moon.

We’re talking of the tough experiencing, knowing, understanding and embracing humility.

I recall an hour spent chatting over coffee with Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, in a Rondebosch coffee shop some thirty years ago. Buzz, a short, leathery former USAF test pilot, exuded a calm dignity underpinned by the same humility of which Braam is speaking.

For the record, I avoided bringing up the moon landing until parting – it seemed the polite thing to do.

Earlier, the General Manager of the Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Association (CPFPA) introduced me to the City’s Chief Fire Officer. Responsible for the safety of 3.75 million Capetonians, he bears his heavy burden with self-effacing ease.

Ian Schnetler
No astronaut, but … Cape Town’s Chief Fire Officer Ian Schnetler is responsible for the lives and safety of 3.75 million people.

Shortly before that, I’d chatted to the SPCA inspectors charged with overseeing the wellbeing of wildlife stretching over more than a million hectares. Like the young Volunteer Wildfire Services couple, P. and C., whose careers and after-hours’ lives exemplify community service and care for the environment, the go-the-extra-mile attitude of the SPCA’s staff and spokesperson, W., tells me we’re leaving the world to a younger generation better equipped to manage the world than was ours.

Am I able to discern any difference between the City’s Chief Fire Officer, the CPFPA General Manager, the SPCA staff, the VWS volunteers and Buzz Aldrin – or perhaps Braam’s assessment of Neil Armstrong?

No.

Look, they’re not trying to break fighter jets or man missions to the moon. Besides, this is Cape Town, not Cape Canaveral. They’re easy and relaxed. But, like the astronauts Braam and I have been fortunate enough to meet, they all have that same quiet resolve and self-effacing humility.

There are no large egos here.

I’d trust these people to fly me to the moon.

Philip_Pierre_Braam
And then I said … Braam Malherbe (right) chats to two of our leading wildland firefighters, TMNP Fire Manager Philip Prins (left) and Cape Peninsula Fire Protection Association General Manager Pierre Gallagher (centre).

Braam is driven to demonstrate, through action, that – as people – we can contribute to rather than detract from the wellbeing of the planet. Nothing is impossible, says the man who has – through feats of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual endurance – been there, done that and outworn many T-shirts.

Do One Thing. #DOT. That’s all he asks of us. Do one thing to leave Earth better off than it was before we arrived to destroy much of it.

Midway through the evening, I’m standing alongside my friend, D., whose image of the koppie just inside Silvermine’s western section was always going to precede Chapter 2. I’ve lived with that image and hundreds more of similar quality for six months. He and I exchange few words, but he knows how much I appreciate his captures of ruined buildings on the coast and his in-store shots processed to a 60s super-realism.

If he catches the tone of the evening, he knows I value his presence.

The Volunteers Members of the SANParks Honorary Rangers (Table Mountain Region) (right) and Volunteer Wildfire Services (left) listen to keynote speaker Braam Malherbe.

Later, while talking to another photographer, A., whose images blew me away with their power on first seeing them, the quiet force of the Rangers’ Chairman and his wife S. bid us goodnight. We swap a few words and a chuckle over the activist nature of our favourite restoration ecologist. His wife works in the City’s Biodiversity Department. It turns out she occupies the office alongside the photographer with whom I’m in conversation.

The synchronicity, of which there has been much throughout the compilation and publication of this book, threatens to overwhelm. Do all these people know each other? Has the book launch brought them together? No, how could it have?

fred_ian
Flabbergasted Working on Fire (WoF) Aviation pilot Fred Viljoen (standing) asks me to sign his copy of the book. I consider asking him to sign my shirt. Behind Fred stand City Chief Fire Officer Ian Schnetler (left), CPFPA General Manager Pierre Gallagher (centre) and TMNP Fire Manager Philip Prins (right).

I’m being sucked into a black hole of incomprehension. Time starts to collapse. Even F., the Working on Fire (WoF) helicopter pilot beside me, stretches out to a strip of biltong twice the length of Buzz Aldrin.

He asks me to sign his book. I do so, like an automaton, although my inscription is as sincere as it gets.

He tells me he feels privileged.

(On Sunday morning, 1 March, with the Muizenberg Fire raging in the clouds atop the sheer cliffs of Muizenberg and Steenberg Peaks, updrafts caused water dropped from Bambi Buckets to rise vertically. It was F. who observed the phenomenon. A week later, on 8 March, he watched in horror – with B. – as the Huey of his friend and colleague, Colonel Willem Hendrik ‘Bees’ Marais, fell 800 feet to crash and burn on a ridge overlooking Smitswinkelvlakte.)

I insist it is I who feel privileged.

We agree to discuss the matter over coffee at the fire base. I promptly agree. The vortex and black hole recede.

I feel at home at the fire base – especially with a cup of fire-base coffee.

Strangely, it is home to many of these amazing people. When wildfire leaves them free to do so, P. and P. work away in their offices, Y. mans the dispatch desk, J-J. and P. discuss matters related to planning in the Ops room and C., TMNP’s Operations Chief, drops in after completing a prescribed burn. Last time I was there, N., who heads up the southern cluster, popped in for a visit, his coffee and a long chat.

It is their home – while waiting to do the exceptional at the drop of a hat or the first flash of flame.

So what’s going on here? Braam is preaching to the converted. Everyone in the room goes out each day and works to leave the world a better place.

andrew hagen
Agents of Change I get time for a one on one with Peter Hagen of Volunteer Wildfire Services (right). Peter and his wife, Christina, form part of a new generation that lives community service during and after office hours.

There are more than 100 people and perhaps as many could not attend. Have they perhaps become so habituated to doing work benefiting us, other species and the planet that they have forgotten how noteworthy their actions are?

Again, I suspect so.

And that’s what makes the evening so special. Braam expands brilliantly on obvious truths – tackling them from every angle. Giving is about the most powerful thing we can do. Tonight, he is not only giving – he’s sharing.

He’s reminding members of his audience who they are. He is at one with us. We are at one with the guy that raced to the South Pole, ran the South African coast, and hoofed it along the Great Wall of China – to give kids born with cleft palates a shot at smiling and to change our attitude towards living on our small planet.

Braam’s the real deal.

We understand and know what he’s saying.

He (Braam) is the same guy I knew back in the mid-70s when being press-ganged into the military saw many friendships interrupted. I feel immense pride in him becoming so fully the person I knew him to be capable of being all those years ago.

Setting up earlier that evening, we chatted.

“Y’know,” I mused, “Many of us are extremely fortunate that, in one way or another, life gives us each the opportunity to run our own Great Wall of China.”

He knows that.

His speech is worth an ovation, but he cuts away to give a copy of the book to a mutual friend, P., whom he’s known since 1983.

team_shot
An extraordinary bunch The Cape Aflame Project Team (from left to right): Cathy Bell, Basil Parker, Kate Dearlove, Les Martens, Paula Wood, Braam Malherbe, Mike Golby, Kathy Sutton, Patrick Ryan, Kevin Gleeson.

I cannot imagine researching, writing, compiling, publishing, marketing and distributing The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire with a finer team. The task certainly does not equate to running the Great Wall of China or my allusion to doing so, but I can think of many things easier to accomplish than an eight-month gig funded by nothing but goodwill and hard work.

In the corner of the launch venue, the P.M.’s daughter, J., is unpacking complimentary copies of the book for our photographers. A student studying logistics, she’s undertaken distribution. It is the day following the book clearing customs. Already, customers are e-mailing to thank us for delivery. Like her Mom and Dad, she’s a can-do person.

Whenever I pop into the P.M.’s house for a meeting, I ask for a cup of coffee. I drink tea all day but, as at the fire base, coffee seems to be the most appropriate beverage. Drinking coffee in his home seems as natural as it does at the fire base.

Kate_Braam
Making things happen The Cape Aflame Marketing and Promotions Lead Kate Dearlove (left) and Braam Malherbe (right) take time out to smile for the camera. Kate seemingly pulled the launch event out of a hat and works 24/7 to promote it for our partner organisations.

The book is our way of saying thank you to these remarkable people, but something else has happened.

The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire has brought us – together with the greater community that rallied to support suppression efforts during the high-profile fires of March – into the world of the exceptional.

And yet…as Braam points out, none of us ever really left that world.

All we need do is act on our potential.

The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire, courtesy of our partner organisations and the public we know will continue the discourse so well framed by Braam, has cleared the tower.

I think Neil, Buzz and all those present would agree. Quietly. Tomorrow is, after all, another day.

Onward and upward, as our P.M. likes to say.

Or, as Braam puts it, “Do one thing.”

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