CHARLENE ROLLS | In the end this is what mattered most in the face of the fierce Table Mountain fire

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Charlene Rolls is YOU’s editorial director.
Charlene Rolls is YOU’s editorial director.

I’m writing this the morning after a sleepless night. I couldn’t really rest because all I could think of was the flames racing across Table Mountain, threatening to wipe out anything and everything in its path. 

It had already destroyed historic buildings, priceless documents and parts of one of South Africa’s most famous universities. It also caused injuries in four of the hundreds of brave firefighters trying to bring it under control. And as the notorious Southeaster wind picked up, so the flames seemed to leap and lick across the lush mountain with astonishing speed. 

With just a small shift or two my home could be in its path too. I obsessively looked out of every window, watching to see if there was any turn towards us, wondering just how fast we’d be able to get out. 

Then I started thinking about what to pack if we got the evacuation order. A nearby area was already being evacuated so we needed to be prepared. 

This wasn’t the first time we’d had to pack – Cape Town fire season resulted in many a huge fire near my home but all the previous times we had to do it in a hurry and I didn’t have time to think about what to throw in the bag other than the basics. 

Between 2am and about 6am I’d talked myself into and out of hundreds of decisions in between reading frantic WhatsApps coming from neighbours and checking social media for updates

This time, I lay awake running through a list of things. Basics like a few items of clothing, masks, medication, passports and other ID documents were easy to toss together. 

But what about other things we’ve loved and cherished over the years? Would it be terrible to want to take a coat my husband bought for me in Venice? Or to take up space packing the journals I’ve written for some time now? 

What about the plant I’ve managed to keep alive for so long that I’m convinced it must have been magical seeds? Or the boots that I’ve had re-heeled many times because they’re the best shoes ever made on this earth? 

Should we pack the very first Lego set my husband received as a child and leave behind the hundreds of other pieces he’s collected over the years? What about his favourite pair of jeans that I sometimes think he might love more than me? 

I don’t have to worry about photographs, luckily, because all of it is in the cloud. But what about handwritten notes and cards I’ve been given throughout my life, all carefully stored in a beautiful box resting on a shelf in a cupboard in my home office? What about the cheesily framed photograph we took in Brazil, our first overseas trip together?

Over and over it went in my head as I ran through an inventory of the items in our house. Between 2am and about 6am I’d talked myself into and out of hundreds of decisions in between reading frantic WhatsApps coming from neighbours and checking social media for updates. 

Then I opened my bedroom window and saw the glowing embers at the top of the mountain flowing down to a sea of orange. It was spreading out left and right, with no indication that the wind was slowing down. 

It was exquisite and terrifying at the same time.

It was also a reminder that none of the things on my list mattered – even the irreplaceable ones were just physical items. 

What mattered was that we could get out safely if we need to. 

It mattered that there were brave men and women putting their lives on the line to save the rest of us.

It mattered that we had supportive neighbours checking in on one another. 

It mattered that we had friends and family willing to drop everything to come to help us and who invited us to come to their homes if we needed to.

In the end, as Mother Nature showed off her immense power, nothing else mattered other than making sure we and everyone around us lived. 

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