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Fire obliterates history along with Wupperthal homes

06 January 2019 - 00:00 By ANTON FERREIRA

When Andelene Valentyn watched flames engulf the Wupperthal home where she had lived most of her 67 years, she felt as if she had died and left her body.
"We lost everything, everything. Those memories are all dead," said Valentyn, one of just over 200 people - 70% of the total population - whose thatched homes were destroyed when fire swept through the remote Cederberg hamlet on Sunday night.
Among the buildings destroyed was the home of poet C Louis Leipoldt, whose grandfather was one of the German Rhenish Church missionaries who established Wupperthal in 1830.
More than half of Wupperthal's 300 or so residents are, like Valentyn, of pensioner age - the younger generation has largely left the village for Cape Town and other big towns.
Valentyn said she, her husband and their seven-month-old grandson were having a nap when someone raised the alarm.
"When we went outside to look, the smoke was already enveloping our roof. We heard someone shout 'Out, everyone out'," she told the Sunday Times.
"The children tried to beat the flames to kill them. They couldn't, because other houses were catching fire and they had to go and help there. I just quickly grabbed supplies for the baby, clothes and milk and pap, and fled from the house."
She and her husband turned to watch the blaze. "The other houses all around us started burning too . All the houses up in flames. It was terrible. I simply felt as if I had ceased to exist. It was as if I was watching myself from the outside, it felt like it was not me, that I was an onlooker."
Valentyn said they moved away from the house "to get the baby away from that terrible smoke so that he could breathe".
She thought the smoke would dissipate soon, but it only got worse. "Then the reality set in that night." When the sun rose on Monday, "people sat outside their doors and cried. We saw how everything had been completely destroyed."
The Rev Martin Abrahams, vice-president of the Moravian Church in Southern Africa, which manages the hamlet, said many of the historic buildings, including 53 homes, would have to be demolished.
"None of the houses can be saved. The old house that belonged to Leipoldt's family, it's irreparable. That's a pity."
Some residents said the fire started when two people blew smoke into a beehive so they could extract the honey, but Abrahams said a forensic team was still investigating. He told a community meeting the church would not "turn the other cheek" if it was necessary to lay criminal charges.
The inferno was so intense it warped the instruments of the hamlet's brass orchestra, including trumpets, trombones and a valuable tuba, rendering them useless.
Band member Hernice Phillip said townspeople had moved the instruments from the community hall, one of the first buildings to catch fire, and placed them on the rugby field for safety. But nearby palm trees went up in flames and the heat "actually melted" the instruments.
The night of the fire was horrific, he said. "Women and children, you could just see their faces crying. Shouting, screaming. You are running around trying to rescue things, and throw water on houses - it was not a nice scene."
By the time firefighters arrived from Clanwilliam, 35km away on a winding, rutted dirt road, it was too late.
Donations of clothing, food and toiletries are pouring into the hamlet. "That is a beacon of light," said Valentyn...

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