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 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.
|Flames begin engulfing the roof (Photo by Zoltan Szabo)|
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.
|Saving the saveable. (Photo by P. Tricorache)|
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!
|Foam goats in a box, life-size cow and a refrigerator recovering from the scare (Photo by P Tricorache)|
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.
|Our beautiful cheetah mural is still welcoming visitors (Photo by P Tricorache)|
|Rainbow over the Waterberg (Archive. P Tricorache)|
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…
|Burning in the night (Photo by P Tricorache)|
|Our teaching tools (Photo by P Tricorache)|
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.
|Recovery: (above) Putting the Gift Shop back together. (Below) Open for business (Photos P. Tricorache)|
So why did I title my story Phoenix? Well, that’s the name of the cheetah I love the most. And his name, a reminder of the mythical Phoenix rising from the ashes, was fluttering in my mind every second of these events. 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.
|My beautiful Phoenix walking on my shadow (Photo: P Tricorache)|
Cheetah Conservation Fund