Eight months ago I stood in mountains that looked like they had just been napalmed. The fynbos vegetation had completely disappeared, devoured by a 30 metre wall of storm-driven fire that raged mercilessly across the Cape Peninsula’s Silvermine mountains, ending only a heart-stopping mile from Table Mountain.
But now, after the winter rains, the landscape has been utterly transformed. A shimmer of green clings to the ground as thousands upon thousands of young plants elbow their way towards sunlight. Flowers are everywhere – cheerful stands of daisies, red-hot pokers and trumpet-shaped irises – while trees that were nothing but blackened stumps in March are now thick with leaves.
As counter-intuitive as it seems, fire is the life force behind fynbos. Without it, the plants grow weak and spindly, dying slowly, their seeds wasting away. A fire-free landscape will become dull and colourless as the fynbos succumbs to the advance of shrubs and trees, losing bio-diversity and sending hundreds of species into extinction.
But with the removal of dead plant material and its subsequent recycling as desperately needed nutrients, fires ensure the health of the mountain environment.
Fire also plays a vital role in the life cycle of fynbos plants: some rely on the flames to crack open hard-coated seeds, other plants wait for the chemicals in smoke or a heat pulse to germinate. A few – the fire lilies – are entirely dependent on fire.
Fire also gives an opportunity for plants seldom seen in thick, mature fynbos to do their thing. The Silvermine mountains are currently oozing with orchids, extraordinary ground-dwelling plants with odd-looking hooded or cupped flowers, some smelling of carrion, others laden with perfumed oil. These orchids, along with many irises, hyacinths and aloes take advantage of these new conditions to flower en masse, often carpeting hillsides in extravagant displays.
There are three ways for fynbos plants to deal with fire. Some are re-seeders, scattering their seeds after a fire or even enticing ants to collect them before a fire and store them, squirrel-like, safely underground. Other plants are re-sprouters and grow back from a fireproof stump or underground root; many more plants are geophytes – bulbs and the like – sitting out the summer fire season underground and erupting into life after a fire has passed.
Either way they do it, fynbos plants have all evolved to incorporate regular fire into their lives. It’s been burning on these mountains for two million years – and most probably far more in the recent past than today. Not for nothing did Portuguese sailors call the Cape ‘Tierra del Fuego’ – Land of Fire. The Khoikhoi pastoralists used fire to encourage new grazing for their livestock, and the early Dutch colonialists were so impressed by the restorative effects of fire that authorities had to ban deliberate fire-starting – on pain of death – within a few years of settlement at the Cape.
At the moment there is no better place to see the effects of fire than in the Silvermine mountains. Recently reopened by the park authorities after the fire, these Indian Ocean-facing mountains are part of the Table Mountain National Park and make for some of the easiest hiking on the Cape Peninsula. If you want to see fynbos at its most diverse and flower-decked, now is the time to go.