Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Pet shopping in Smitswinkel

Does anyone still remember the pet rock fad? According to the pet rock page, the fad was originated by Gary Dahl in California (where else?) in 1975. I remember seeing the books on how to care for your pet rock but don’t remember knowing anyone (including myself) who was actually taken up with the idea even though, many years later, I did have a lot of fun with my kids painting frogs and lady birds on to flat stones we collected from the beach. For years they lay around at the bottom of one of their toy boxes and some of them lay at the bottom of the fish pond but I doubt that any of them survived various waves of culling old toys and the removal of the fish pond a few years ago. But, almost 30 years later, I do still have a large rock I found on the cliffs at Smitswinkelbaai (Smitswinkel bay), an awesomely beautiful spot between Simonstown and the tip of the Cape Peninsula, about 30 kilometres south of Cape Town. Although it’s travelled to England and back and now occupies a comfortable spot in the courtyard at my home in Cape Town, it’s far too large (and interesting) to be called a pet rock

Although most Capetonians have probably driven past Smitswinkel on their way to the Cape Peninsula reserve, unless they are divers or surfers, most of them probably don’t know about Smitswinkel. SmitswinkelbaaiIf I recall correctly, it’s not even signposted and to get there you need to park on the road then take a long, winding walk down the steep hillside until you get to the bottom. There are about 30 houses perched on the hillside, most of them wooden bungalows on stilts. This is no glam seaside resort or secluded, trendy bolthole colonised by wealthy city folk. The houses mostly have a down-at-heel look but the combination of Cape fynbos, dramatic mountain backdrops, pristine beach, crashing waves and a spectacular view across False Bay make the place idyllic. Smitswinkelbaai - beachThe houses may not be much to look at or sport modern conveniences (there is no electricity) but getting a property there is next to impossible, most of them remaining in the same families for generations.

I was introduced to the place by a varsity friend, B, whose mother had owned a house there since he and his sister had been very young kids. I spent many incredible weekends there with him and other friends. During the day we’d body-surf or swim off the small beach with its perfect body-surfing waves, explore the rock pools, caves and mountainside. Nights were spent drinking Tassies (cheap red wine) and OBies (cheap sherry) and smoking dope in the house or around a huge fire on the beach made from dry kelp that would occasionally explode, sending fiery rockets into the sky. We’d mostly eat fish stews and paellas made from mussels collected off the rocks and perlemoen (abalone) found lurking in the deep rock pools. Smitswinkelbaai - beachFor variety or a fix of red meat, we’d braai (barbeque) boerewors, chicken and lamb chops. Because of the relatively long trek up to the road and the relative isolation of the place, once we arrived on a Friday, we didn’t leave until late on Sunday. Every weekend spent there had its many memorable moments but one remains particularly vivid to this day.

B’s sister, S, and her German boyfriend (GB) arrived on the Saturday morning to spend the night at the cottage while we were staying there. I’d met her before but neither B nor I had met the boyfriend as he had only just come out from Germany to visit S. Like S, he was very much a hippy into spiritualism and communing with nature, ie he enjoyed partaking of the weed and spending many hours philosophising about everything. Unlike S (and us), he had no experience of Africa and found much to be in awe or afraid of. That part of the Cape Peninsular is occupied by many large troops of baboons that one often comes across on the road or along the paths that criss-cross the mountains. Although their regular contact with humans has made them relatively unafraid of humans to the extent that they are known to jump into the open stationary cars of tourists and to sometimes demand food, they are harmless if treated with respect. But to someone unused to such large ferocious-looking creatures, they can be very intimidating. Soon after GB’s arrival that morning, he’d come across a particularly large alpha male on the path behind the house. It was totally unexpected and he hadn’t been warned about the baboons – it scared him witless and he’d needed a lot of re-assuring that walking along the cliffs was not dangerous.

Smitswinkelbaai - cottages and seaLater that night, after a meal, lots of red wine and a couple of joints, we lay around playing board games and charades. One of us suggested a swim. We were all up for it apart from GB who was very tired and happy to stay behind reading. It was probably half an hour before we returned and B came up with his ‘baboon idea’, one that S happily went along with. He suggested making ‘baboon noises’ to see how GB would react. We knew that he wouldn’t hear our return if we kept quiet and that even if he were to hear something and look out, he’d not be able to see anything as it was pitch dark outside and the paraffin lamps from the cottage cast insufficient light to light up much more than a couple of metres outside each window.

Like most of the other cottages, it was perched on stilts and we managed to crawl under it without alerting GB.

B and S started making their approximations of a baboon call. They weren’t loud at first but got louder and louder as they ‘perfected’ the sound and in response to the lack of response coming from GB. After a few minutes there was a loud thump on the floor and an obviously nervous shout, ‘Hey guys, is that you?’ It took a supreme effort from all of us to stifle our laughter at the anxiety apparent in his German accent. We could imagine him gradually becoming aware of the noise and wondering if he was imagining things before realizing that something odd was happening. The thump on the floor probably came from him jumping up from where he was lying or sitting. B and S went quiet as we heard him pace towards the window. We could see the shadow he cast framed in the light emanating from the window. Again he called out but we remained quiet until he’d gone back to where he’d been. Using an oar lying under the house, I scraped it along the bottom of the floor boards while B started his baboon noises again. There was an immediate shout, much more anxious this time. He went to the door instead of the window, we heard it open. ‘Who’s there?’ he called out. Stifling our laughs, we went quiet again for a few seconds before B made some more of his noises and I began slow methodical scraping under the floorboards. The door slammed shut and GB went to the window, completely silent. His shadow loomed large, not moving.

Smitswinkelbaai - beach and dried kelpWe could have continued for ages but S decided it was enough. Knowing him better and being more concerned about his well-being, I think that she was more aware of the fear that he was experiencing than B and I did. She opened the door and we burst in behind her, laughing our heads off. GB was sitting on the sleeper-couch, his face white with fear. On seeing us, he immediately realised what had been going on and the dawning relief was rapid and visible. Within seconds it had been replaced by extreme anger.

He may have been stoned and drunk but he wouldn’t speak to us for the rest of the night.

I digress, I was meant to be talking about shopping for pets in Smitswinkel. For those of you who don’t understand Afrikaans, ‘Smitswinkel’ translates into ‘Smit’s shop’. I’ve forgotten the origin of the name and I can’t find any information on it using Google. A Mr Smit probably owned a shop out that way years ago when the area was really remote. There are still a few farms around there but there were a lot more in those days and his shop would have served a small farming community and passers by.

At the end of my second year, B graduated and moved away so I no longer had a place to stay at in Smitswinkel. Although I no longer had somewhere to stay, it didn’t keep me and my friends away. Now and again, we’d drive out that way and spend most of the day on the beach or roaming the rocks and cliffs. It was on one of those later trips that I came across my rock.

Smitswinkelbaai - patterns in the rocksAs you can see from the swirling patterns and colours in this picture taken many years later, the rocks at Smitswinkel are particularly beautiful and interesting. One day, some 2 to 3 kilometres away from the houses, along the cliffs, I saw what I initially took for a Bushman painting. It was about shoulder height and looked like a painting of an African woman kneeling down, baby on back and holding a staff. On closer inspection it was obvious that the pattern had occurred naturally from erosion but I knew that I had to have it. my pet rockFortunately, the pattern was on a relatively small rock embedded into the rock face with sand, stones and grass. With the help of a knife I was able to pry it loose and remove it from the other rocks. It may not have been particularly large – it almost came half way up to my knee – but it must have weighed close on twenty kilos. We carried on with our walk along the cliffs and I collected it on our return. I put it in my rucksack and carried it all the way back to the car, a journey of close on 3 kilometres that involved much scrambling up and down rock faces, jumping from rock to rock and, eventually, winding back up to the road.

My back ached for days afterwards but that rock is still mine.

The pictures don't really do the place justice - they were taken on an overcast day with a cheap camera.

6 Comments:

Blogger SwissTwist said...

sigh.. you've officially made me homesick! I so miss the Cape coast!

Great photos (even with a cheap camera!)

3:04 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

I've officially made myself homesick!

The pics may not be great but they are good enough to convey the wild beauty of the place.

3:17 pm  
Blogger LiVEwiRe said...

And I'm definitely in love. I'll be making it there someday - with posts like this I'll be trying to get there much, much sooner!

2:19 am  
Blogger ChittyChittyBangBang! said...

Your post made me homesick and I love right here in South Africa. Damn you, Alan.
Well written, bru

11:15 am  
Anonymous Vaalie said...

Wel, if the lady is the one im thinking of then i know her 2 children wel. Both blonds. I and D. That is, if we are talking about the same people. My grand parent own 2 bungalows there and we use to spend the Chrismas holidays there. Soccer on the beach, swim, dive, fishing, pinting, Ahhhhh so many memories. And a few beautifull rocks! Changed my mind on where i wanna go for the holidays!

12:50 pm  
Blogger Reluctant Nomad said...

You are lucky to have grandparents who own places there - as far as I know, getting a place there is as rare as hen's teeth!!

We are talking about different people, however. Both Bernard and Sonnil (sp?) are dark-haired. Through Bernard, I also met one of Prof Keen's sons. Prof Keen, who taught me anatomy at UCT medical school has/had a house there.

3:57 pm  

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