My mornings always start with a few grunts, and no plans for the day…or should I say, my only plan is to do the best I can, and to be the best I can, as long as I’ve had coffee and a New York Times crossword puzzle to wake up my brain.
Wednesday didn’t start differently. I woke up, stumbled into the kitchen at Laurie and Bruce’s house, where I have been a persistent guest for the last couple of months as I keep postponing my departure from CCF. The coffee was particularly good, but the crossword puzzle was particularly annoying. I decided my best at that point would be to put it down and try to do better with my work tasks at hand.
For the first time in many weeks, all around me there was quiet and I was able to sit down and focus on the project I’ve been trying to accomplish for a long time. I felt as if I was sailing in a soft wind through an ocean filled with beautiful words and fabulous ideas.
Suddenly, the gentle breeze of my imagination turned into a violent gust of wind, and then thunder. Lightning illuminated the still clear afternoon sky. Bang! An explosion in the house. Something made the phones go out. I took my cell phone and called Brian, our Operations Manager. “ssss…crackle…rrrr….IS ON FIRE!” I could not hear the first words, but the last ones came across loud and clear, and I never thought I’d hear them in real life. My problem with the phones became utterly unimportant. Hanging up with a fade “OK”, I proceeded to rush alongside the plot where our ambassador cheetahs live, across from the Chewbaaka Memorial Garden.
I saw some of my colleagues walking inside the cheetah enclosures to my left – walking faster than usual. Were they moving cheetahs? Yes, it turned out they were moving them away from the Centre that is the nucleus of all our activities. Then a gust of wind brought an acrid smell to my nose. Smoke. The bad kind. I looked up and my worst nightmare rose in front of my eyes: tall, yellow, blue, orange, ugly flames were slowly but hungrily creeping along the top of our Visitor Centre. The beautiful thatched roof that was almost a landmark for visitors walking into our Centre, was on fire. Someone was carrying a recently neutered Anatolian shepherd puppy away from the Clinic. I realized that animals were being evacuated.
My morning purpose kicked in as I saw one of my colleagues, Chavoux crawling up on the roof with a fire extinguisher, barefoot, but determined as hell to fight the fire. We all called to him to come down, it was a valiant effort but it was very dangerous. I then turned to where other people were running in and out of the building to save what they could. Whatever I could do, I’d give it my best.
Gift Shop, classroom, Café, kitchen, were all like an explosion of people carrying things, pushing stuff. I joined them. As long as it wasn’t reckless, we would save what we could, because we all knew how hard earned every single item in there was. The thought of the long drought we have had would not leave my mind. Our water levels must be so low by now. Water hoses were spitting out painful little arcs of water that would never put out those flames.
Tables and chairs were thrown over the rail into the garden in front the Café. Merchandise kept flowing out of the gift shop – t-shirts with cheetah images on them, necklaces made of magazine paper, soft drinks, goat-milk soaps, cash register, visitor logs…The strong people carried heavy items… displays, refrigerator, shelves. I might not be strong, but am certainly hard headed. I grabbed buckets or baskets or bags, and filled them with merchandise, papers, or whatever I could find that fit in. We made sure the beautiful dead tree trunks that we used as displays for bags or necklaces in the shop were also saved, mostly as a precaution. They would have only excited the flames quickly descending from the roof.
The flat-screen TV in the Café that showed CCF videos to visitors enjoying a cup of coffee or a nice lunch was tenderly, and very quickly, brought down by Eli, who had as carefully installed it there only a couple of months ago.
The heat was rising all around the fire. Volunteers and interns who were so focused on helping had to be asked to stay away from the burning structure, and assigned the task of moving everything we were carrying out, away from the burning building. Without a question, volunteer arms began lightening the loads of those of us still going in and out of the building. There was nothing else I could carry out of the Gift Shop. I remember running – or maybe walking… around the back of the building. There in front of my eyes were the refrigerator and freezer from our kitchen, in the middle of a life-size cow, a life-size cheetah, and life-size foam goats, all props we use to teach farmers predator-friendly farming methods. I think I smirked. It was a strange sight, and almost comical, although not as comical as my trying to roll the recycling and trash bins away from the blaze. I was afraid the bins full of recyclables and trash might intensify the fire and had to be moved away, and yes, they have wheels, but lack balance…and in my attempts to roll two bins at a time, they both rolled right under me. I still went back for two more, with the same result. But I managed to move them away. I tried to get the last two but the building felt so hot!
My colleagues had already emptied everything they could on that side, and I needed to occupy myself. All vehicles were ready in case an evacuation was necessary. The entire scene reminded me of a huge anthill, where everyone had a task and knew exactly what it was. Move this. Close that. I saw the visitors’ bathroom curtains flowing with the wind through open windows, and knew the flames would embrace them and the wind would carry them as glowing flags in God knows what direction. I remember trying to pull one from the outside and having a bit of trouble. Without a word, Brian was there finishing the job, while someone else I couldn’t see…Jenny? Juliette?, did the same in the other bathroom. That’s how we all worked the shortest and the longest 20 minutes we had before doing anything else became unsafe.
The thatch roof began to collapse under the flames, as we all stood there in disbelief, and complete despair. I don’t know what others were thinking, but have no doubt that Laurie, our Founder, was in all our minds. She was on a fundraising tour across the ocean, but loves this place more than her own life. In a way, I was happy that she wasn’t here to see this. Knowing her, she might have tried to save it in her very determined and sometimes much too daring ways.
But neither disbelief, nor despair would stop our fight. Our main office, the building that houses our veterinary clinic and so many years of research, is only a few metres east of the burning building. There was no way we were going to let that building suffer the same fate. Every bucket and every water hose at hand were used to pour water on that roof, also thatched, and oh, so close. I hoped – prayed – for the wind to stop. I wanted lightning to go away. And I wanted rain, hard, powerful rain. One out of three “ain’t” bad, and the wind subsided, and with it, the flames. And since one and a half is even better… rain started falling, somehow persistently, although not heavily. Four millimetres of rain at the end of the day wasn’t much, but at that point, any water was welcome! I am not sure when the lightning decided to move on; all I remember is how frightening it became.
The invisible wand that turned our actions into impeccable orchestra movements directed us to begin cleaning up broken glass, trash, loading trucks with surviving items so they’d be taken to storage, stirring the fire of the fallen thatch to make it burn quicker. Our life-size menagerie of cow, cheetah and dead foam goats were moved to safety along with tables and chairs and who-knows-what-else. I lifted from the ground a framed poem that used to hang on the wall of our classroom, glass broken and a corner burnt, but still legible. Funny how some things just refuse to die. The beautiful cheetah murals on the building walls also refused to die, and stood there, watching and waiting, but not burning. Other things just had to go, I guess… The last two trash bins I had tried to move away from the building lie there, completely melted, burnt, flat.
I needed water. My tongue, my teeth, my palate, all tasted like smoke. As I began walking back to the main courtyard for a drink, something made me look to my right as I nearly fell flat in mud from all the watering we did to avoid letting the fire reach farther. And there it was, on top of the magnificent Waterberg Plateau, which needs no bells or whistles to be one of the most beautiful visions, a faint rainbow, making the scene so unreal, but so magical. I might be remembered forever as the dork who started running around and screaming, “rainbow! There’s a rainbow!” in the middle of a major fire. But I wasn’t the only one who saw more than just a rainbow. Those who were not busy at the moment joined me to take a better look. There were smiles on our faces. Rainbows have that effect on people… is it hope?
Dinner was sombre, and we were all tired, sad, dirty. We could use a laugh, and our “MC”, Brian managed to make it happen. After thanking everyone for our help with the fire, he proceeded to also thank us for coming to his house warming party – the newly – built apartment that burned on the second floor of the Visitor Centre was to be his new home with his partner Jenny. He would have been working there when the fire started.
We then asked people to get some rest. We knew a busy day awaited us.Four of us had to go back by way of the skeleton of walls and still-burning beams that for nearly 15 years witnessed so many people learning to accept, or maybe even love, the cheetah. Embers were burning, a few sparks were flying. Our concern for the main office building was not over. I don’t remember whether we made a plan. Suddenly the water hose was on, as pitiful as it was, but provided us with a bit of water that we used to fill some buckets left outside earlier during the fire. Darkness helped us find glowing embers on the ground and we began to pour water on them. We killed some; others persisted. We tried again. Where the fire was stronger, the footing was dangerous and ceiling beams were still burning, so we couldn’t go there. I am pretty sure we all took walks through the night to check on the wind, the sparks…
Our storage room with so many educational and tourism materials, many of which we had just re-ordered, could not be saved. There was just too much paper there, and it was just too unsafe to try to go in there when the fire started. The bright, red flames consuming those amazing tools of learning glowed and burned, as in homage, the entire night.
With every tragedy, there is the proverbial “it could have been worse.” And it could… most definitely. We could have been all sleeping. It could have been one of the buildings harder to empty or with more flammable things. Someone could have been inside the building. The wind could have been blowing in the direction of the other building. I reflected on that, and the numbness in my heart became a bit less oppressing. I called the two dogs in the house, Isha and Finn, and cuddled up with them until I fell asleep. I think they knew that’s what I needed.
The next day we were open for business as usual. The magic of people pulling together, no matter what, got our Gift Shop fully operational, and better than ever, by midday. The fire was out and only an occasional whiff of smoke rose from the burned thatch around the building. Visitors came and marvelled at what happened, but mostly at our persistence. Except for our inability to prepare delicious meals for them, we provided everything their hearts desired. Museum, cheetah feeding, cheetah drives, and they smiled, and thanked us.
In my mind, I did my best. In my heart, I hope everyone who was there knows that they are the best. And in all certainty, together we will all do our best to rebuild that part of CCF that is now hurting… even more beautiful and stronger than ever, like the beautiful Phoenix – the bird or the cheetah.