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Tokai’s Spurned Lovers Doth Protest Too Much

It was a bomb, waiting to explode
“It was a bomb, waiting to explode.” Vulcan Wildfire CEO Patrick Ryan’s strap line and photograph, used on the original Cape Aflame website.

Indeed, MTO Forestry’s Tokai Plantation was a bomb, waiting to explode.

Wednesday, 4 March

Shortly after 01:00, as homes came under assault from Chapman’s Peak to Clovelly, the wind picked up above Tokai, and the gums and pines of the forests beneath Constantiaberg Peak, stretching from Tokai in the south to the vineyards of Constantia in the north, detonated. Like meteor showers, embers flying hundreds of metres landed in fresh woodland to start, within minutes, raging infernos that appeared, in the dark of night, to attract each other and combine to do the same again.

Capetonians as far afield as the northern suburbs and the Helderberg watched, mesmerised but with increasing apprehension, as brilliant, twisting red, orange and yellow rivers, rings and flickering lakes of fire danced above the vast expanse of the Cape Flats.

Cape Town awoke to scenes redolent of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic, Apocalypse Now. Billowing clouds of brown, grey and ashen smoke filled a sky under which bright orange flames writhed and leapt like snakes or danced like demented shamans. The unmistakeable clatter of Hueys, flying in formation to drop water on the burning forests, filled the stifling air which – later in the day – reached a record high of 42.4 °C, making Cape Town the hottest place on Earth.

None of the 410 firefighters in the field expressed a love of the smell of smoke in the morning.

A large part of the Arboretum was aflame. The historic Wood Owl Cottage on the Tokai Manor Estate had been gutted. Two houses in Almondbury Lane in Zwaanswyk – from where Gabrielle Boyle’s plea for help had come some 36 hours earlier – had been destroyed or razed. A house in Thorpe Close had been badly damaged.

Fire continued to blaze through and consume the forests above the Porter Reform Estate through the morning. Wildfire firefighters could do little and helicopters nothing as fire whirls – fire-induced whirlwinds of flame – rose high into the air, brutal testimony to the turbulent vortices of furnace-hot air sucking in burning vegetation.

As the fires subsided in the forests of Tokai, so the northern section of Constantiaberg caught fire and a four-kilometre wall of flame, sending a plume of smoke far south-southeast into the southern ocean, reared above the Constantia Valley by the end of the day – leading to evacuations from Steenberg Estate in the south to Constantia’s Price Drive in the north, the destruction of a third building among the pines above Buitenverwachting, and the closing of Constantia Nek.

The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire

As Capetonians and, let’s face it, sentient beings capable of processing information, we know the facts and legalities supporting the felling of pine trees at Lower Tokai in Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) these past ten days.

MTO Forestry, SANParks and TMNP management are doing their jobs and communicating with us but, if truth be told, we’re mad as hell at them for stealing our shade by felling the remains of Tokai plantation.

To be blunt, it’s probably that horrible little Rebelo man who’s behind this – he’s a fynbos freak and he’s had it in for pine trees for decades.

You just can’t trust such people.

–  Does it matter that MTO is a commercial entity being eased out of a designated national park over 20 years in terms of a national “forestry exit policy”?

–  Does it matter that what remains of Tokai Plantation poses a grave threat to our properties (which are also filled with alien vegetation) during the summer Fire Season?

–  Does it matter that only 11% of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos remains – of which only 1% is protected?

–  Does it matter that we’ve perhaps exploited the tragic death of young Franziska Blöchliger to further our own immediate interests at the cost of a global natural asset?

Nope, not really. We’ve had free rein in an open-access national park under unnatural flora for decades and we’re determined to keep it that way – even if it means diverting incredibly scarce resources to take care of us as we spend hundreds of thousands of Rands – not on conserving, preserving or promoting biodiversity, but on protecting our own narrow, blinkered self-interest and deep-seated sense of entitlement.

So, being pissed off, typically Capetonian and extremely wealthy, healthy and self-absorbed, we’ve banded together for yet another week of fruitless toyi-toying on Orpen Road singing that uncommon-or-organic-garden phrase, “SANParks se ma se Auntie.”

Photograph Shawn Benjamin
“Pines, when burnt, immediately and dramatically raise the intensity of a wildfire. The increase in intensity, by up to ten times that of fynbos, is so rapid that liquids and gases in the trunks of individual trees start to boil or are vapourised. The tree immediately becomes a pressure cooker lacking a release valve – and explodes.” Photograph: Shawn Benjamin

Will our outrage achieve anything?

It’s unlikely given that we’ve been here before and know what we’ve agreed to – but it does makes us feel a whole lot better.

Okay, now that we’ve vented our spleens and tried SANParks’s patience, let’s consider the facts.

It’s not as though we don’t have them at hand. We have SANParks’s:

•  Table Mountain National Park Position Statement: Tokai and Cecilia Plantations

•  Tokai and Cecelia Management Framework 2005-2025

•  MTO Forestry’s ‘Tokai & Cecilia Harvesting Plan 2016 to 2017’

•  2012 Table Mountain National Park Tokai Manor Precinct Plan and its…

•  Table Mountain National Park – Park Management Plan November 2015

And, of course, we have ever-present evidence of the March 2015 Muizenberg Fire looming above us. Its unfolding is encapsulated, as a photographic case study in fynbos conservation and integrated fire management, in The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire.

Even should we not have a copy, we must agree with the blurb on the inside front cover:

“Like no fire before it, the Muizenberg Fire was covered, minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day, by mainstream and citizen journalists as it destroyed homes and businesses on both sides of the mountain.”

There’s no escaping it. It’s on record. We know just how much damage was caused by Tokai Plantation’s pine trees over four days in March last year.

But, for now, lets not allow facts to interfere with a good story. Let’s not read that which is before us. We pay others to do such things. Let’s create havoc, lean on working stiffs and have some fun.

I mean, what harm could it possibly do?

Nic Bothma EPA
Stunned, Fran Collings sits amidst the debris of her razed home in Almondbury Lane, Zwaanswyk. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

On 30 August 2016, CapeTalk host John Maytham interviewed Gavin Bell, Table Mountain National Park’s Area Manager (South) for the second time since May this year, before engaging with a caller to his show:

JM: But then there was a fire which changed things.
Clive: Umm, I don’t think the fire’s a valid argument. I think it’s just an excuse that Parks Board are using. So…and I don’t think that they’re acting in good faith.

Say what? We’ve just admitted that we know how much…agh, never mind.

Actually, no, wait a minute.  Should Clive have a point, SANParks would, theoretically, not have a credible leg to stand on. Just how much damage was done to MTO Forestry‘s plantation by March 2015’s Muizenberg Fire?

JM: Why would they be acting in bad faith? What is in it for Parks Board to annoy some of the good burghers of the Tokai area in the way that they seem to be doing?
Clive: Well, I’ll tell you what is the main reason. I don’t think they want the responsibility of maintaining the forest, because once they let it grow to fynbos…and I…the fynbos here, I’m scared to walk into – it’s seven-foot tall, so y’know…it can harbour all sorts of things, but…

SANParks maintains the country’s national parks across nine provinces and several countries. Each park is a complex living organism subject to the implementation of international and national treaties and legislation as well as thousands of memoranda of agreement. TMNP is not looking for an ‘out’ allowing it to escape tending a minuscule patch of pines. It’s carrying out its mandate by allowing the rehabilitation of fynbos which, once the soil is leached of alien nutrients, will revert to Cape Flats Sand Fynbos.

JM: Shouldn’t your push then be to get them to make the tall fynbos short fynbos and safe to walk in?
Clive: But they don’t do that. I mean…obviously, we don’t want to talk about the terrible incident that happened here four months ago….

Of course not. We wouldn’t dream of doing so. But that is exactly what we are doing.

JM: [I]t sounds to me as if they’re acknowledging the safety issue and trying to do something about it.
Clive: Well, I think they’re doing that up on…at the top end of the mountain where there’s been sort of security issues with people coming over the mountain. I don’t think that that’s scheduled for the lower…my whole gripe is if they say there’s a plan and they show me a plan that shows transitional planting and lovely shady walks and that, then they need to honour that.

Bollocks, Clive, and you know it (follow the link). But at least we know why you changed the subject on realising the implications of your fabrication. As to honouring a plan rendered superfluous…nay, destroyed by fire, let’s acknowledge that this expectation is unreasonable, irrational and downright impossible.

As indicated by TMNP in its many communications to the public and media, the way forward, in the spirit of the Tokai and Cecilia Management Framework 2005-2025 (drafted in accordance with the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, Act 21 of 2014 and the National Heritage Resources Act, No. 25 of 1999), is to reengage those involved or interested and discuss how to speedily realise the vision set out in that document – to the benefit of all.

Clive: And I mean I’m standing here looking at these trees that have been here for three, four years…they look like bonsais. They’ve been planted and they’ve never been watered…they’ve never been cared for and they just haven’t grown – half of them are dead so, y’know, if SANParks are going to paint a picture then they should be beholden to that picture – but they’re not.

Such a comment might cause mirth were it not of such grave concern. We now know we have to educate ourselves in the difference between a national park and a suburban garden. The difference is, to put it mildly, not insignificant and we show ourselves to be completely ignorant of it and many other things. The transcript of the show is as revealing as it is embarrassing.

As residents of a city bordering a jewel in the crown of our greater World Heritage Site, let’s start educating ourselves.

The question is, is Clive King – who, it seems, has become something of an ‘eco-activist’ by way of Parkscape‘s Facebook page and press statements – and other residents who, by week’s end, had shelled out ZAR60-100 thousand to obtain an interdict calling a temporary halt to the pines’ felling, prepared to entertain others’ views and the law of the land?

Is Mark or any other caller who didn’t make it on to Maytham’s show?

It’s unlikely…

…given the vehement intransigence of those interviewed in the above video.

“We have been trying to communicate with SANParks for the past four months to find out what their plans are for Lower Tokai Forest. There was no warning.”

“We know this is a plantation; we know that it has to go. We cannot accept that it has to be complete fynbos because it brings fire and crime right to the urban edge. And SANParks have not given us any idea what their plan is to deal with the fire and the safety for the urban edge.

“This isn’t a wild park like the Kruger Park. This is a buffer zone; it’s a park that is on the urban edge and SANParks need to take into account that these houses are right here – and crime and fire will be brought right here.”

Glenda PhillipsParkscape

This is not correct. It is incorrect. In toto. It contradicts itself. Refer to the documents listed above.

The Muizenberg Fire of March 2015 and, later, the Simonstown and Simonsberg fires demonstrated that it is alien vegetation that brings unmanageable wildfire to and beyond the urban edge.

Residents on the Wildland Urban Interface, unwilling to protect their defensible space by eliminating aliens from their gardens (as is legally required around the world), are – in greater part – responsible for damage caused to their homes.

“It’s very difficult to find shade under fynbos. I challenge anyone who’s chopping down trees to come and walk here on a hot day. Bring your little kid; bring your animals, bring your horses – please. You’re gonna fry. We’re not asking for the pines; we know that the pines belong to other people. We know that it was a commercial venture.”

Immaculately-dressed Protester

Well, that’s it then (not that those “chopping down trees” have horses to bring to the park). We know the plantation has to go. We just don’t accept it. Do something about it. Or we’ll sue.

Little wonder most have a jaundiced view of Capetonians.

But the seemingly endless flow of verbiage and wanton waste of money to which we’ve been subjected this week does have its upside.

Q: What do you think about the cutting down of this forest?
A: I don’t think words can describe it. It’s just absolutely disgraceful. Disgraceful.
Q: But they are alien trees.
A: They are alien trees. We understand that but we don’t want fynbos. Fynbos is dangerous. At least, walking in the trees – and particularly as a woman on her own – walking in the trees you can be seen, and you can see bad people coming towards you. We do not want the fynbos. I don’t like the fynbos. Tony Rebelo told me once before – when I told him I didn’t like fynbos – he told me to go back to where I came from. How rude is that?

Extremely angry English-type lady

There are some extremely funny examples of mind-boggling ignorance, prejudice and downright stupidity in these videos (and the MSM is giving good coverage to all sides), but it is disheartening that supposedly educated Capetonians can be so easily manipulated when they have all the facts being at their fingertips – literally, given the number of Macs in the Tokai area.

Remember …

“We have been trying to communicate with SANParks for the past four months to find out what their plans are for Lower Tokai Forest. There was no warning.”

“We know this is a plantation; we know that it has to go…..”

Yes, Glenda Phillips of Parkscape, the organisation behind our upmarket service-delivery protest.

We must assume Glenda was not present at the packed Community Meeting at the Alphen Community Hall on 20 July 2016. Perhaps she was out walking the dogs or exercising the horses in the forest. The meeting, and the above PowerPoint presentation is blogged in detail on the Parkscape site. Among other things, it states:

“Mountains to Oceans (MTO) Forestry, as indicated in the presentation, are leaving the area both as a result of the forestry exit strategy in the Western Cape and because the bulk of their crop was lost in last year’s fires.” … “There was a strong SANParks presence at the meeting as well as representatives of the City of Cape Town. … The botanists and conservationists were all given the opportunity to speak, but it was apparent that they must also be challenged. Both the Constitution and the Buffer Zone Policy and the Protected Areas Act all indicate that public participation is not a nicety but a legal necessity. The will of the public cannot be ignored. We also now have it on record that SANParks WILL abide by the terms of the Tokai Cecilia Management Framework.”

We’re back to where we started. In July, SANParks officials (with whom Parkscape has supposedly had no communication for four months) stated that, because MTO Forestry lost most of its crop in the March 2015 Muizenberg Fire, it will complete its operations at some time in 2017/18 and the Tokai Cecilia Management Framework will be implemented – perhaps well before 2024.

More, the blog post indicates that a good time was had by our scented suburban jihadists.

SANParks officials yelled at in heated meeting to discuss issue proclaims the headlines of a newspaper article by Helen Bamford, proudly appended to the entry.

Jolly good stuff. You give ’em hell. For whatever.

As for the presentation (above) by Nicky Schmidt? Replete with all the bells and whistles available to the PowerPoint power user, it includes images of litter (I wonder if it was collected), dense fynbos and the obligatory image of a cross strung with teddy bears and other paraphernalia at the spot where the unfortunate young Franziska Blochliger so brutally and needlessly lost her life.

The first point under the slide Some key concerns reads:

TMNP is an urban park requiring a very different and people inclusive (sic) strategy.

By definition, Table Mountain National Park is not an urban park. But how does one convey something so simple and emblematic of the brouhaha to date to those who will not or cannot see the wood for the trees?

Of one thing we can be certain. Never has a stand of pine been so loved and revered. It is a love fueled by passion, transcending reason and the facts. It is said that one cannot argue with passion, and those Capetonians putting on their best to appear before the cameras at Tokai seem to bear out this neat truism.

Management is called for.

Thank God for SANParks.

“Cape Flats Sand Fynbos (CFSF) is the richest and most diverse type of Sand Fynbos. It also has the highest number of threatened plant species.”

“It is the wettest and coolest of all West Coast Sand Fynbos, growing primarily in deep, white, acidic sands. It is dominated by Proteoid and Restioid fynbos, but Ericaceous fynbos also occurs in wetter areas and Asteraceous fynbos in drier spots. In winter, seasonal wetlands appear in many areas, and mists often cover the landscape.

“Lying as it does entirely within the limits of Cape Town, over 85 percent of what was once Cape Town’s commonest vegetation type is now destroyed and covered by urban sprawl. Half of what remains is badly infested with invasive alien plants, and less than 1 percent is actually statutorily conserved.

“A fire at Tokai forest (sic) in 1998 revealed that this pine plantation is located on top of intact CFSF seed beds from its original vegetation.”

Wikipedia Extract  Cape Flats Sand Fynbos

Note: Mike Golby’s views – and the way in which he expresses them – do not, in any way, reflect or seek to represent those held by The Cape Aflame Project Team or its partner organisations.

“When the fire dance subsided, the VWS supervising crew bosses assessed the situation. Fires flared above, below and around the firefighters. They stretched as far as the edge of the firebreak surrounding Zwaanswyk, the suburb they had laboured to protect. Worse, a plethora of spot fires had broken out in the gums of the Tokai Plantation.”

“The Prinskasteel Valley was alight and looked set to blow up. TMNP Operations Section Chief Clinton Dilgee was immediately consulted and, with discipline honed by experience, the crew bosses and firefighters beneath Silvermine Ridge swiftly gathered their vehicles and equipment. Half-an-hour later, buffeted by violent fire whirls, they withdrew from the fireline.

“Reaching the western edge of Zwaanswyk just after 02:00, VWS members who had spent at least 12 hours in extreme conditions subject to vast fluctuations in temperature, limited oxygen and a surfeit of smoke, looked back on the wildland they had vacated. The area in which they had been working was ablaze; fire and dust whirls raged about them, the forests bounding the suburb’s northern perimeter were afire and flaming embers were raining down on Zwaanswyk.

“The Tokai Plantation, its canopy engulfed in a sea of flame, had transmogrified into a blinding glow. Much like a volcano, it had erupted to spew fire, ash and embers in every direction.”

The Cape Aflame – Cape Town’s Dance with Fire

Eric Nathan
We are the bed of coals on which Table Mountain rests. Where once, perhaps 50 years ago, Cape Town bordered what is today a National Park, it now encircles the mountain and encroaches on formerly hallowed ground. Photograph: Eric Nathan
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2 thoughts on “Tokai’s Spurned Lovers Doth Protest Too Much”

  1. Even good intentions have unintended consequences. The removal of the pine trees in Newlands forest has increased the (unused) underground table to such a level that we are experiencing a broken watermain every 3 to 4 months, in addition to other costs that home owners themselves are having to bear as water gushes through their properties.

  2. Should there be a causal link, Kim, you may well find that “a broken watermain every 3 to 4 months” (welcome to Cape Town, by the way) leads you to ageing infrastructure and the good intentions of our foresters of yore.

    Because pine, gums and other aliens burn at up to ten times the intensity of fynbos, the damage they cause is not only apparent in razed, gutted or damaged built structures, but hidden. Their stumps and taproot systems continue burning for weeks after a fire has apparently been extinguished, leading to land subsidence, mudslides, rock falls and sink holes.

    SANParks was forced to close Silvermine west for far longer than Silvermine east, solely because of the damage and dangers caused and presented by burnt commercial pine and destabilisation. In March 2015, SANParks communicated envisaged closures of “six to twenty four months”.

    Pinus radiata (the Monetery pine) will, according to Wikipedia, sink its tap root “downward as far as physically permitted by subterranean conditions. Roots have been discovered up to 12 meters long. Efforts to remove large quantities of the non-native tree in areas of South Africa have resulted in significant increases in accessible water.”

    Similarly, Pinus pinaster relies as much on a deep tap root and well-developed secondary root system. I’m afraid your burst mains are an urban variant of this increased water accessibility and must be taken up with the City – which, working closely with SANParks since the 2015 Muizenberg Fire, has invested much in restoring the urban edge and services disrupted by the plantation fire.

    The felling of compartments on the slopes (50-400 metres) has not occasioned an outcry. However, if a link can be shown or made between water cuts and the large-scale clearing of burnt pines, it will demonstrate the hidden (as opposed to the immediately apparent) potential for devastation by these alien trees. And any link made between water disruption and the felling of healthy pines on the lower slopes (<50m) going back to 2011 might well force MTO Forestry to take greater care in conducting commercial operations so close to an urban area.

    Tokai's water table is seasonally high, but is drained by several rivers, notably the Prinskasteel, Keysers and Spaanschemat Rivers, which flow to the Zandvlei Estuary. SANParks addressed the need for services infrastructure upgrades within TMNP's Lower Tokai section in a paper published in 2010, before tree felling began in the area.

    Note: Alien Acacia bushes sink their roots 150-400% deeper than our cheerfully resilient Proteaceae.

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