On the 18th September three separate wild fires spread through the northern and southern sections of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Fortunately no camps in the area were damaged but fairly large areas of land were burnt.
A combination of soaring spring temperatures and high September winds, twinned to the tinder dry late winter conditions, was good reason for the Londolozi rangers to be placed on high fire alert. Little did we know when we saw smoke billowing to the north that this would be a day to remember.
As we arrived at Londolozi’s northern boundary we were confronted with a fast approaching raging fire. The howling wind was coming straight at us carrying before it flames as high as 10 metres. My heart was pounding. Clearly this was the real deal and I now understood why I had spent hours, as part of my ranger training, learning the theory of bush firefighting. As the flames drew closer we could hear our teams to the left and right of us fighting the blaze on the multiple fronts. The smoke was so intense that we could not even see more that 10 metres each side of us. As the tractor engines roared and bushes crackled loudly the firefighting teams appeared and disappeared like ghosts in shrouded smoke and then the call came… start the back burn.
Our first attempt at back burning failed as the fire ripped through our line of defence and marched like a wild stallion northwards onto the Londolozi property. The Fire Boss confirmed that it was now burning on three fronts: southwards straight towards the Londolozi camps, eastwards in the direction of our neighbour and the Kruger National Park and the third front travelling westwards threatening western Sabi Sand. The high swirling winds made the fire entirely unpredictable and we assessed where we should set the second back burn. It was decided to use the road on the north side of the Manyeleti riverbed. This again turned out to be a futile exercise, as in minutes the fire breached the back burn barrier and entered the Manyeleti River. We believed surely that it could not cross the Manyeleti, an area of broad river sand with little vegetation, however, we were wrong! In minutes the raging giant swept across the Manyeleti, now carried on a 28 knot north wind causing the fire to travel in the tree canopies on the wind.
We retreated to the southern side of the Manyeleti only to discover that the wind had started several new spot fires setting off multiple fronts tearing southwards towards the Londolozi Camps. Camp staff were now placed on high alert pumping water from the swimming pools onto the thatched roofs and ensuring that all the garden sprinklers were switched on.
In a short space of time the fire covered over 5kms on the high winds and was now on a collision course with the Sand River and the last line of defence for the Londolozi Camps (a long connecting line of thatched buildings on the southern side of the Sand River).
As the smoke billowed across the camps, many international guests became agitated calling for an evacuation plan. The situation could have become perilous and, with minutes to spare, out of nowhere arrived a Huey firefighting helicopter carrying an underslung water bucket. In a remarkable few minutes the helicopter was able to scoop water from the nearby hippo pools and attack the spear of the fire which was most threatening to the camps. As the flames were doused, the Londolozi ground teams were able to move in behind the helicopter and contain the blaze. This intervention stemmed the immediate threat to the camps but the fire continued to burn westwards and eastwards across the property, finally burning itself out against the various back burns which our neighbours had been able to put in place.
For the next 12 hours throughout the night the Londolozi land care and firefighting teams mopped up the internal fires dousing any smouldering logs or fallen trees which could potentially reignite the fire. Under the cover of darkness these burning logs and trees turned the whole area into a fairy land of great beauty making it hard to believe that, just a few hours earlier, we were all facing potential catastrophe – a reminder that Nature rules.
By morning the danger had passed and we woke up to discover that our northern traversing area had been heavily burnt leaving behind a charred ruin of smouldering logs and a reminder of the power of fire, especially when carried on the wind. Thankfully the wind had now switched south with the promise of a cold front arriving hopefully bringing with it soft soaking rain which will in days transform our lands into a paradise of new life, growth and rebirth promising excellent viewing during October, November and December – Nature the great restorer.
A sincere thank you to all of the Londolozi staff who worked beyond their call of duty to contain the blaze with a special note of thanks to the remarkable land care and firefighting teams under Chris Goodman, who bore the brunt of this battle and who equipped themselves in an incredibly professional way. Our thanks go to the greater Sabi Sand community and to the government funded Working on Fire programme (helicopter) for their amazing efforts which in the end kept the fire at bay, resulting in minimum impact to our camps and guest experience. We would furthermore wish to express our appreciation to our immediate western neighbours at Singita who came to our aid with a well-placed back burn which contained the western fire. We extend to all of you our appreciation for the assistance we received in this time of emergency.
Have you ever been around a bush fire, let us know about your experience!
Written by Simon Smit and co-authored by Dave Varty.
Photographed by: Simon Smit