Last Saturday, a friend I’ve nicknamed the Almighty Jarr-Jarr (due to his remarkable gymnastics abilities) invited me to watch him and his Fire Tribe group celebrate (or mourn?) the departure of one of their group members through an evening of fire-dancing on Cape Town’s Clifton 2nd beach.

Now, for those of you who have not yet been to Cape Town, Clifton 2nd is one of the four beaches that make up the luxurious Clifton area, small enclaves of rich sand, beautiful rock formations, and an icy Atlantic ocean (the coldness of which, for some bizarre reason beyond me, does not deter anyone from diving in), set against the steep cliffs (hence, Clifton) that eventually rise up to form Signal Hill, the smallest mountain to frame Cape Town’s Table Mountain, now one of the seven wonders of the world. The cliffs are strewn with exquisite mansions and upmarket apartment buildings, literally rising up out of the vegetation. The beaches themselves are only accessible by labouring down steep and narrow stairways, and regulars quickly learn to double-check that they haven’t left anything in their cars to avoid climbing up again unnecessarily. The path down leads from the very busy Victoria Road past backwalls and through alleyways overgrown with vegetation, and it always feels to me like I’m on an adventure through some mystical portal to another world.

So, here I was, fighting my way through the mystical portal, and eventually emerged victorious at the other end, greeted by the calming sound of the waves, the friendly squawking of sea gulls, and glistening, sun-kissed bodies. Hello Clifton! I couldn’t spot the Almighty Jarr-Jarr, but I did spot a group of hippie-looking people with long braids, colourful pants, and drums and guitars, and, relying on my perhaps inaccurate knowledge of stereotypes, I’d figured they’d be the ones most likely involved in fire-dancing. Maybe it’s something about being in touch with nature that draws them to fire-dancing; my parents certainly taught me playing with fire was a bad, bad idea. But, alas, here I was, curious about the unconventional. I walked towards them and, to my luck, spotted Jarr-Jarr resting against one of the rocks at the back of the beach area, overlooking the crowd. I schlepped through the sand towards his group, was offered a blanket to sit on, and together we waited for twilight and the magic to begin.

One of the hippie dancers set up candles in white paper bags to demarcate a large circle in the middle and, as the sun began to set, dancers slowly emerged from the crowd. At first there were only three or four, skilfully swinging their fire poi (not fire ‘balls’, as my friend explained, though that’s what they looked like) in circles and infinities around their bodies, some dancing alone, others manoeuvring into weird acrobatic positions with other dancers for an even greater effect. Soon enough, the demarcated area was filled with dozens of fire dancers, not only swinging poi, but also using ropes and hula-hoops, or engaging in more adventurous tricks like fire-eating.

There was something mesmerising about watching these artists move to the ritualistic beat of the drum, making their fire dance with them. I was reminded of sparklers on New Year’s Eve, the gentle flames lighting up the dark night sky against the dark roaring ocean. I was lost in trance, forgetting about time, forgetting about the reminders of civilisation on the cliffs behind me, and imagined myself on a lost island with a band of savages engaged in some magical ritual. The city disappeared and there was nothing else but the dark beach and the half-naked people and their fire. True, the juxtaposition of nature and city characterises all of Cape Town and certainly is one of the many beauties of this place, but this night just brought it to the fore all the more. Perhaps it was the beating of the drum, perhaps there was indeed some magic in the air, but, as I left to go home that night, I knew that I’d definitely be back to experience it again. Maybe playing with fire wasn’t such a bad idea after all.