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Travel Blog: "Nothing prepared me for the reality" #KnysnaFire

Stephan Lombard is the producer of CapeTalks's afternoon drive show. He recently took a trip to the Knysna region and saw the fire ravaged area for himself.

Like other South Africans, I was glued to social media during the June fires that ravaged the Garden Route town of Knysna.

I covered it on CapeTalk's Drive show. I spoke to officials on the ground. Despite this, nothing prepared me for the reality. I'll try and spare you the Phoenix rising from the ashes metaphor, but life has gone on.

What was a blackened and burnt out West Head is now a brown, dreary figure almost imposing on the greenery of the East Head.

A now blackened cream building with shattered windows on a rise to your left as your drive in on the N2 is the first sign that things went very wrong here. We turn inland towards the Knysna Heights neighbourhood, simply because that is the one we had heard the most about.

The normalcy of the main road disappears after only a couple of hundred meters. These are some big houses with great views. Or rather: These were big houses and the view is now troubling. The road winds and after turning every corner my stomach sinks further and small talk dies out.

It's not the razed homes that my eyes and attention eventually linger on, but rather the homes that stand unscathed. I was fully expecting to see the destruction spread far and wide. However, it appears the fire snaked its way over the ridge after sweeping through the valley visible below on the other side.

A man in overalls emerges from what was once a front door and dumps rubble from a wheelbarrow on the remains of a garden. I look away and speed up. This is awkward. A block later I see a man in his 50s tending to his pristine garden in the early afternoon sun. It's a beautiful day and this part of the world almost looks unchanged under the blue sky.

I get out to ask for directions as to where to head next. He's not keen to talk at first, but I ask him about recent events and he eventually says: "It doesn't seem fair. Others around us lost everything and we went back home and just got on with things." I don't think I agree with him. He's clearly still affected and goes on to share how those in the community are helping each other out, but adds: "Many families left and they don't know if they can face coming back."

A half-melted post box mounted on a shell of a terraced home has a handful of fresh advertisements flapping in the breeze in what is a striking juxtaposition. “I bet they're in the market for a lounge suite from House & Home, though?" my friend observes as I point it out.

10 minutes later and I'm stuck downtown in lunchtime traffic with no physical signs that things have changed.

But things have changed for Knysna.

Buildings can be rebuilt, but the town's identity will never be quite the same again.

The proverbial Phoenix doesn’t actually have to rise from the ashes, it just needs to shake off some soot.

This Travel Blog forms part of a series. Watch out for the next installment of Stephan's Knysna Garden Route road-trip.

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