Table Mountain and the role of fire

Dominic Chadbon, The Fynbos Guy, is a hiking guide who specialises in birds and botany. English-born, he came to Africa in 1991, working as a safari guide in Botswana before coming to Cape Town and instantly falling hopelessly in love with Table Mountain.

The news that the mountains of the Cape Peninsula had recently been swept by a ferocious fire made international headlines. And although Table Mountain remained untouched by the flames, the central section of the Peninsula’s mountain chain was incinerated from coast to coast. Five thousand hectares were burnt bare, several homes gutted and a life lost.

The immediate post-fire scene is nothing less than shocking. Charred stumps are all that remains – some still smouldering three weeks later. Yet from an ecological point of view, fire is merely the beginning of the life cycle; put another way, these fynbos-covered mountains simply must burn.

The post-fire landscape is one of appalling destruction. All photos by Dominic Chadbon

Table Mountain and its surrounding ranges are made of ancient sandstone. Millions of years of erosion have leached their soil bare of nutrients and it is the burning of old and dead vegetation that returns vital ingredients – in the form of ash - for plants to thrive. Fynbos has evolved to not only survive a fire but to actively use the mechanics of it in their reproductive cycle.

Step out of the cable car at the top of Table Mountain and you can see what I mean. The tabletop is covered in great whispering stands of bronze-tipped reeds – the restios. These ingenious plants drop their seed throughout the year; covered by an edible coating, they are harvested by ants that take them underground. The outer coating is eaten by the ants but the seeds remain intact, patiently waiting for the heat pulse of fire which triggers them into germination.

The heat has cracked open protea seed casings

Carry on along either side of the table and you’ll see big bushes with lime-green leaves. These are proteas – cone bushes, named after their pine-cone shaped fruit. Look a little closer and you’ll see burnt cones on the bushes, too, resembling old-fashioned honey spoons. This is how the protea disperses its seed: it relies on fire to crack open the cone after which the seeds, quickly growing a root, nudge themselves out. They fall not into thick tangled vegetation but a clean-slate environment – no competition, lots of sun and nutrients, and if the fire has occurred at the right time, rain.

Within a few weeks irises (Watsonia sp.) have shoot up from the blackened sand

And the "right time" is the million-dollar question – sometimes literally, thanks to the cost of defending homes and infrastructure from mountain fires. Authorities are rarely in agreement about the interval needed between burns, but on the Cape Peninsula between 15 and 20 years is considered normal. Ideally, fires should occur in late summer and autumn with the rains just a few weeks away.

Odd-looking leaves poke out from deep-buried bulbs, promising an extravagant flower

And although it may not be much compensation for those adversely affected by fire, from a botanical point of view it is a very exciting time. Green shoots are already visible, mere days after the flames have finally finished. Within weeks flowers are out – daisies, irises, orchids and hyacinths, while asparagus plants grow a metre high and burst into flower.

The well-named brandblom (Haplocarpha sp.), which translates as "fire flower", is usually the first flower after a fire

And if you want to see how fynbos does miraculously recover, all you have to do is visit Table Mountain. Our famous landmark has stood – and burnt – for millennia. Visitors strolling around the top, marvelling at the lush vegetation and dazzling flowers, are actually walking in a post-fire landscape. Like many things in life, it just needs time.

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