July Camp began on Saturday June 30 with disappointingly low numbers for such a superb base camp site and in an area with an abundance of Little Berg, a surprising number of passes and the Giant’s Cup Trail all in easy proximity. That afternoon saw most campers striking out for a good hike.

A party doing an Escarpment trip left for the relatively short haul to Bushman’s Nek Hut on Sunday afternoon while most of the other campers had gone on an all-day hike. Whatever we had done, we all turned in for a peaceful night after a happy day.

That night the WIND began. It blew, it blew in gusts, and you could hear gust upon gust charging down the valley. It blew, unabated all of Monday. Fortunately the party in the Hut had the protection of a very effective wide fire belt because they were surrounded by a runaway fire. On account of the fire, smoke and the wind, they were trapped and could not move out of the Hut. So they lost a day. Nonetheless, they completed their five-day trip in four days, and returned on schedule and in remarkably good spirits.

Back in base camp, we faced total devastation. I am a heavy sleeper and was woken very early on Monday morning by a shouted discussion on the merits of various sherries and urgent calls to send the sherry over. In the pre-sunrise morning, I crawled through my collapsed tent to see four women, sitting Buddha-like on top of their collapsed tents and passing the sherry around. Even in my crawling position I was immediately rolled over by the wind! So that is why they were sitting so sturdily and calling for sherry! Every base camp structure was flattened as were many of the campers’ tents. To go and check on what had happened, I needed the help of a much larger person to cling to and to be blown against. We all commiserated with each other and first-timers bravely wondered what they had let themselves in for. Yet spirits were still high!
The wind gusted and howled all day.  We could see the wild and frightening flares of at least two different runaway fires.

Later that day we decided we should move for the night into the protection of the remaining wattles that were being felled. So despite the wind, we de-camped and re-camped some distance down the road towards the farmhouse, but there was no water nearby. Thomas Magg and Monika were able to shelter behind their well-equipped bakkie and got a brew of coffee going with the water we had brought. I went to tell the farmer what we were doing. He very kindly lent us his bakkie holding the fire tank of water. We had made provision for supper to be cooked on the ‘for emergencies only’ gas cookers. Those of us who were tent-less had to go and collect our vehicles so we had somewhere to sleep. Not recommended, but the only solution.

Although we were grateful for the shelter of the wattle, we still spent a windy and very cold night. The water in the hose from the tank on the bakkie had frozen in the morning! Margaret Brown and Gerhard Venter, both early risers, got breakfast organised. Still later in the day, the wind had dropped considerably and we returned to the base camp site to survey the damage. Self-organised parties of clean-up gangs went downstream to salvage what they could and collect many black bags of debris. A group of men set out to survey the damage. Very little survived undamaged. Loaded tables had been tossed across the river, shedding their contents in the process and were smashed, some into kindling-sized pieces. The bathrooms screens and their poles had taken off like kites and were found, in pieces, far downstream. The zinc baths, one of them brand new, were also blown far down the river and were well and truly dinged. As bag after bag of smashed plastic was brought back into camp, I longed for the good old days when almost everything was metal which might have been mightily dented and dinged, but not smashed into countless sharp-edged smithereens!

All three the bell tents were down, the centre pole of one of them was broken. The long-serving equipment tent, alas, finally had succumbed and was ripped beyond repair. The loo screens had gone, but the well-designed and unique loo seats still stood proudly over their trenches.