You have teeth, and because you are no longer a cave-person with a life expectancy of 25 years, you have to look after your teeth. This means visiting a professional dentist who spent six years learning about the hole where the food goes in and the complaints come back out.
I know a dentist, and I was curious to know what we patients do to piss them off. So I asked her/him for a list of 10 things we need to stop doing when we get our chompers serviced.
1. Faux phobias – “It’s nothing against you, but I hate dentists”. I hear this 5+ times a day. I understand that what we do is invasive and can feel unpleasant, but it’s for your benefit. If you plan to live you need to eat so suck it up, it is not that hard.
2. Being told how to do my job – “I’ve had this throbbing toothache for weeks, I think I need just need a filling though”. A filling won’t stop your pain. I’m happy to explain the pathophysiology of your pain if you give me a moment, I’ll do some tests and take an x-ray. “Do I really need an x-ray?” Yes it’s essential to diagnose the issue “My last dentist just placed a filling”. Things have changed a lot since you saw them two years ago. “Can’t you just give me antibiotics?”. This isn’t an infection, it’s inflammation, if you’d let me explai……
3. People who don’t turn up for appointments. Or cancel with an hours notice. That’s like someone approaching you while you’re on your job and saying “I don’t think you should get paid for this hour”. Even being 15 minutes late for your 30 minute appointment is annoying. All you have to do is remember the appointment that we called you to confirm yesterday.
4. It affects my social life – I can’t go on a 3 day bender and roll onto site with an iced coffee and a cigarette to get me through until I few normal again on a Wednesday.
5. People that say they can’t have the chair leant back – “That’s as far as I can go thanks”. You will be in this position for no more than an hour, I have to be in this position for 8 hours a day. My neck already feels like a rusty bike chain. How do you sleep at night?
6. People assume you just want to make money – I became a dentist because I thought it would be practical, science-based and I could help people I know. The costs reflect the extremely high costs of running a clinic and the unique skills and knowledge we studied for years to gain. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
7. People who don’t take responsibility for their health – “My mum and dad both had all their teeth removed before they were 50, I think it’s genetic”. The evidence doesn’t support this. I think bad habits and laziness are more likely to be genetic.
8. Genuine neglect – “You see little Timmy, that’s what you get if you don’t brush like I tell you to”. He’s 4 love, he doesn’t have the dexterity to clean properly. It is your responsibility to ensure he cleans his teeth.
9. Bad science – bad reporting about science and pushing of pseudoscience too. Amalgam fillings and water fluoridation are the big ones. Google will tell you anything you want to find out. Ensure it is peer reviewed before you let it change your beliefs.
10. People with big tongues – They protrude from the corners of their mouths as they sit in the waiting room. They block my vision, they touch everything I touch. They forcefully fight against the gentle contact of my mirror as I try and hold it out of the way of my diamond bur rotating at 36 000 rpm. My fingers ache and I feel sorry for the poor person who has to kiss you.
I love language. Language makes it possible to express moments, feelings, desires and fears. I love it so much I paid, or rather I will pay, 5 figures to study it. Words, sentences, grammar, all of it. It is the best. It is my craft and I have devoted my life to mastering it. The journey to mastery is long and riddled with tyre punctures and dented fenders, but I am on my way.
There are many things I can write about, and write about well. As those of you familiar with my work will already know. But still, there are subjects that I dare not write about. For to butcher an experience with the wrong words is to ruin that experience forever. An Ayahuasca-induced astral projection is one such experience. Dancing to Italo-disco in a smokey basement is another. My words would only serve to destroy these things.
This is why I refuse to write about the natural beauty in Namibia. At this point in my life, I cannot fathom the right language to describe it. Instead, I will use photos to communicate the truth.
So now you have begun to understand, how these things came to be. Namibia is much more than just sand, sky and sea.
H F Peniston
Don’t fucken drive for 20 hours to arrive in the middle of the African wilderness at night. That’s what we did. Looking back, the journey to Botswana’s Okavango Delta brought us all a lot closer. Closer together, and closer to death.
We traversed a fairly docile 1200km from the north-east of South Africa to the north-west of Botswana. The landscape outside the car window consisted of dirt, rocks, shrubs, small trees and a few buildings. I slept for a lot of it. Rat put in a noble effort keeping the driver, Johan, company. The man in the passenger seat should always stay awake to support the driver. Play some music, drink some coffee, eat a chocolate bar. Whatever, just don’t fall asleep. That’s what bastards do.
By the final afternoon we are all starting to fizz. Some jokes are made that would have received an awkward silence in most social circles, but are met with rapturous laughter from our depraved and fatigued minds. Maun is our penultimate stop. This is where we – and everyone else heading out on safari – fill the jerries with diesel and stock up on food and wine.
The sun sets when we’re about halfway between Maun and the southern end of the Moremi Game Reserve. The sky is really beautiful. Purple, orange, yellow etc… You know what a nice sunset looks like. There’s a dust cloud behind the car. Everything is really fucking nice.
We all go wild as we pass a few elephant herds. Johan steers us into a small campsite called Dizhanna. They have a couple of free sites but the best ones are taken. Johan says a bit further up there is another campsite called Dijara. Off we go again, with the light quickly fading.
The road there is flooded so we take a detour, a sandy track that skirts the flooded area. Harry spots some hippos bathing in a pool. While we are ogling the big fat family of secretly deadly mammals we almost run into a couple of buffalo. The collective excitement inside the car is at fever-pitch. A bunch of Australians are absolutely losing their shit at the sight of huge African animals casually walking around the car.
So much so that nobody has been paying attention to the state of the track. As Johan goes to set the car in motion, it grinds into the ground. The car tyres are buried in deep sand.
The doors open and everyone sets off in a different direction with their own idea of how to get the car out. Johan, the only one of us with real experience, yells at us to stay by the car. Oh yeah that’s right, the animals.
A few cars come by and stop to help. Some of their drivers are blind drunk. The first few attempts at digging and pushing only serve to fill our orifices with fine sand. Finally someone rocks up with a snatch strap and pulls us out. Onwards we plow.
Johan keeps the pace of the vehicle at a brisk 50kmh. This makes for a bumpy ride but greatly reduces the risk of becoming bogged again.
We arrive to where the Dijara campsite is supposed to be, only there is nothing here. No reception, no fire pits, no toilets. A few small clearings indicate where the sites used to be. The unanimous decision is to charge back to the first campsite. This decision is a good one until we come to a fork in the road.
“Left,” I shout, pretending to know my way around the labryinth.
So left we go, down a straight sandy track that gets softer and softer. Johan accelerates more and more. The car is slowly biting in. We all hold our breath. The track only gets softer and we come to a stop. Bogged again, but thanks to me we are off the main track with little hope of rescue.
All hands get to digging the car out. Until this point we had kept ourselves relatively clean but now our shirts are off and we’re down in the dirt shoveling the chassis free. Tom and I are working at one side, Johan and Harry on the other. Rat lends a hand where he can. If we were attractive men this would be an outdoorsy woman’s wet dream. The full moon lights our predicament. We shove mats under the tyres. Johan reverses out and just keeps going, gunning it all the way back to the fork.
The four of us, left behind, huddle together. I’m brandishing the spade ready to spank any beast that dares attack us. Steadily we walk towards the car. As we get close we hear some rustling in the bushes a short distance away. The noise gets a little louder, the thing a little closer. We pick up the pace and whisper aggressively,
“SHH!!! What was that?”
Finally we reach the car and pile in. The second we shut the doors the biggest elephant ever stomps across the track behind us. The thing is bigger than a Winnebago. No doubt it would have crushed us if we had gotten in its way. Unless, of course, I gave it a good smack with my spade. Safe to say all members of the party were thrilled to be on our way the hell out of there.
Back at the original campsite we all work in unison to unpack the car and set up our camp. All the stories from the journey are told and retold with unbounded enthusiasm. With the fire going, dinner on and two bottles of wine being passed around we look up and see the moon is halfway through its eclipse. Not a bad end to our first day in Botswana.
H F Peniston
I had to say something to stop the argument. The two blokes arguing were never going to stop.
We were sitting at the top of the line at Mozambique’s most popular wave, Tofinho. An elderly South African man and a young, dark-skinned, Mozambican man were debating almost fucking nothing. The old boy felt like the young man was getting too many waves. The young man was upset because the old boy caved the tube in on his last one.
“Ya catching too many waves,” the old boy says.
“I’m getting the inside ones nobody wants.”
“Other people would go them if you weren’t snaking them.”
“Doesn’t give you the right to cave in my tube.”
“You weren’t going to make it anyway.” And so on and so forth until sparks were shooting from my ears and smoke was rising from the top of my head.
“Guys, there are plenty of waves around,” I say, putting a stop to their petty nonsense.
They both turn to me, shrug and roll their eyes at me like, ‘I know right, what a freakin’ jerk.’
Later on, the same old boy dropped in on a young, pale-skinned, Mozambican man. This incident was a clear-cut violation of surf etiquette. Another argument ensued. The old boy, bafflingly, did not feel he had done wrong. I didn’t stop this one, I caught a wave in instead.
Why did the old South African man have such a shit attitude? He was paddling around like he owned the joint. Odd thing for a South African to be doing in Mozambique.
When it comes to surfing and localism, lines can be blurry. On this occasion, the line was clear as day. The old man had come and gone from the area for the past 10 or so years. He owned an eco resort about a kilometer from the wave. Setting up shop in a small community, taking what you can and giving back the bare minimum does not make you a local. Especially when compared with the two younger lads who were born and raised in Tofinho.
I was trying to figure out the whole scene when an idea grabbed me by the shorts and pulled them down to my ankles. I had seen this happening over and over again. I’d seen it in Indonesia, Central America, parts of Asia and now Africa. All over the world there are old white men sitting at the head of a peak snarling at anyone who tries to get a good one. In their mind, all it takes is starting a surf school, hiring a gardener or blowing a cop to be granted status in a lineup.
Well fuck that. There is a pecking order. At the top of that pecking order are surfers who cut their teeth surfing the area. Guys who put in the work and make a meaningful contribution to a community, regardless of how small that community is. Next in line are guys who have integrated so well people forget they weren’t born there. After that, nobody gives a damn. If you own a business or some property but piss all over the place then that puts you in with the rest of us. Taking advantage of a burgeoning surf community does not make you the man. It makes you a deplorable sycophant. The world needs less of you.
So many people take surfing so damn seriously. Relax a little bit, have some fun, unfurl your eyebrows. At the end of the day, it is just surfing.
H F Peniston
Fuck me it is cold. The leaves from the ground won’t light because they are covered in frost. How the fuck are we supposed to make tea? I run around blowing on my hands, rubbing them together, picking up sticks and lighting matches like my life and Tom’s life depend on this fire and cup of tea. My water bottle was outside overnight. The water is now ice. Using toilet paper I get a small fire going and use it to rescue my hands and dry more wood.
Hiking up the 2,359m Garden Castle mountain I’m thinking about the guide book in my back pocket. Better not to read it. Tom does not have one and that must make his experience more pleasant. Anyway, that guide book has given us more grief than it is worth. Telling us to cross streams that do not exist or walk along fences that are no longer there. Inner-hut fireplaces mentioned in the book have been sealed shut with bricks. The guide must have been written at least 10 years ago. Fuck it is hot. We have gone from wearing all the clothing we have to wearing pants and a shirt in under an hour. From freezing our tits off to sweating and cursing at the sun. The heat and the climbing and the strenuous summation of the past three days start sending me into a delirium.
On day one I was wrestling with my mind, trying to slide it from its normal busy state to a mellowed out state.
The second day the two opposing states of mind were ebbing and flowing casually until I smoked a small joint. After that I spent the afternoon blissfully absorbing the wilderness.
On day three I guided my thoughts gently, letting the butterflies drift in and around and out.
Today, my mind is behaving like a series of intersecting out-of-control carousels. Without any warning I am spun around one train of thought and flung onto the next in a swift exchange. Carousel after carousel. The horses’ laughing faces lit up by flames. I do not choose what I think. Or when I stop thinking one thought and move onto the next. It just happens in a series of misfiring connections.
Fuck it is hot. Not much water and no streams. Man I miss those streams, should have filled up my icy water bottle all the way to the top. Jackson would have loved this hike. If he could handle it. I’m sure he could. I see him walking in front of me, a pack full of his own food like we have. Me being a bit of a dad. Tess might have thought these thoughts about me when she did hikes on her travels. “The man in me will hide sometimes, to keep from being seen. Something, something because he doesn’t want, to turn into some machine.” Bob Dylan. Oooh a lizard, hello! Am I tripping or did that little guy not have a tail? Maybe it’s a drop trail lizard. You can go about a week without water and a couple of months without food. How do people not know that. I remember Kingsley telling the class that in year 2. And I remember the sleeping lion game. Ha! Tom Purvis and I hated each other then. We were rivals vying for acceptance in Harry Marsh’s crew. Funny that we became best friends in high school and have remained so.
Fuuuuuuck!!! Remember that Little Athletics carnival when Matt Kevill chased me down on the 1500m? Of course I do. That was the greatest sporting comeback I have ever been a part of and I was on the wrong side of it. Coming into the fourth and final lap Matt was in second place over half a lap behind me. I could actually see him in front of me he was so far behind me. I noticed him starting to gain ground so I put on a little gas to keep him at bay. He kept coming and coming. Halfway around the last lap I checked over my shoulder and he had closed the gap to less than 100m. At the 100m mark he was only 20m behind me and steaming along with a warrior’s expression on his face. Or looking like he was squeezing one out. He drew level with 30m to go, we were both throwing our bodies along the grass, neck and neck until a few metres before the finish line. He snuck in front and burst through the tape. How did I lose that? Snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That burned grass bush looks like a porcupine. What was that book I used to read when I was a kid? Some tale about six or seven Chinese brothers. They each had some special, ridiculous skill. How did I get here? What am I thinking about? I’m thinking about what I’m thinking about. “When it comes to compensation, there’s a little he would ask.” More Bob Dylan. “Lala lala la la la la lah la lala la.” What is Tom thinking about? Hmm, KFC or a pub feed for dinner tonight? KFC would be a surefire success. A good pub feed would be better. But a bad pub feed? That would be a huge bummer. Fuck it is hot. Maybe Jackson wouldn’t love it. The wind in the willows. How now brown cow. What the fuck is going on in my head? Who knows. Ha! Those white mints dad used to always have in the old Magna wagon. Pop one out of the packet, suck away while listening to the radio. Damn where is that lake. Or was it a waterfall?
On and on my mind jolts, with a mind of its own for the rest of the day.
Recently I had been wondering if – given there were a supermarket at the end of today’s leg – I could load up on more supplies and set off for another four days hiking. Physically, I think I could. My body was aching on days two and three but now it feels a little better. It is getting used to the weight of the pack and the hours of walking. Mentally, it seemed a cinch. Until today, that is. I was sailing on an unalterable course bound for rocks. Upon seeing our final destination my mind came back under control. As if insanity realised it was defeated and let go. But without that end in sight, with just more hiking and no human contact, I might have lost the plot. Forever walking and chewing nuts and yelling at those goddamn streams and imagining dinosaurs roaming around in the valleys below.
Actually, that doesn’t sound too bad.
Until next time,
H F Peniston
Another beautiful day ahead it seems. Today’s hike is quite long, we start early after a no-nonsense breakfast. What will I think about today?
Ahead is yet another clear cobblestone stream. I am getting a bit sick of the things. A swinging bridge crosses it. A sign instructs the reader not to rock the bridge. We rock the bridge. Luckily for us the wood and wire structure holds up. Next we scale Little Bamboo Mountain. Why did they name it that? I have no fucken’ idea, there is no bamboo in sight.
Today my mind is relaxed. Thoughts flutter in and out like butterflies searching through a field of flowers. Most of the butterflies are black and purple, thoughts without emotion attached. These butterflies are thoughts like, “there is not much wind right now, it is blowing from the west,” or “left foot, right foot,” or “I wonder what sort of dinosaurs I would be looking at right now if it were 70,000 years ago.” Two more come along, “Oh wait, dinosaurs never existed,” “well… maybe they did but I certainly could not have existed at the same time to be looking at them.” A bunch of separate black and purple butterflies coming and going. A Monarch butterfly passes across the field, “Hang on, why did we spend so much time learning about dinosaurs at school, and so little learning about Aboriginal history?” And then, a yellow, black and white spotted butterfly comes into the foreground, “That’s okay, I promise to teach myself more about Aboriginal culture soon.” Then another black and purple butterfly comes along. And so on my thoughts meander a little more innocently than usual. This pattern of calm thoughts and the pure surroundings render my face with stupid glee. The sea is placid, sailing is smooth. A gigantic wave would have to appear from nothing and strike the bow for me to be knocked from my blissful crow’s nest.
Steadily we pass a mountain lake surrounded by burnt grass. Forestry have been conducting controlled burns to manage the landscape so we cross strips of burnt land quite regularly. These strips disrupt a mountain like a shaved patch on a dog’s neck post-surgery.
For lunch we stop by a pool in the Killicranckie Stream. A peanut butter sandwich, an orange and some nuts. We dip our feet in the almost icy water and read our books with our shirts off again. I would like to lie in the sun for the rest of the day. Tom reminds me we still have a long way to go before we get to the huts.
The trail goes in a different direction to what the guide book instructs. This is not the first time the trail and the book have had different opinions, but it is by far the most their opinions have differed. There are no farmhouses where it says there should be. There is no stile across any fence. There is no dam in a trout stream. Nor is there a second dam in a second trout stream. After some self-doubt and speculation, we decide on the best and only course of action… Keep walking. Clambering down a steep, rocky section we slip and gather several times each, the loose surface threatening to send us to the bottom of the mountain in seconds. First comes the ripping sound of a foot skidding on the dirt. Second, relief in the form of a high-pitched “woop!” Lastly, a chuckle. Repeat, all the way down.
We have been walking for a couple of hours since the guide book last made sense. Still there are none of the features we should have seen by now. I do not think worrying thoughts. Only butterflies.
You know, out here with one other human bean there are only a handful of things to busy oneself with. There are the essentials; walk, rest, eat, collect wood, cook, and sleep. There are the few available leisures; play cabo, read, drink scotch, maybe roll a little spliff. Now, at the pace of normal life one could get through the essentials and get bored of the fun stuff with still four hours left in the day and nothing else to do.
At any one time, there are only a couple of options ahead so I tend to do a thorough, focused job. Then I spend some time staring into space, maybe reflecting, maybe watching flames, maybe wondering how long I could live this way. The next task that requires an action will surface and when it does, I will approach it steadily and clearly.
In this way, the few things at hand take up the whole day just as normally 100 things would take up the whole day. Only I have been spending a lot more time with my mouth open looking at the air in front of my face. Genius, I know.
Finally the track leads us across a road and over a hill to the Winterhoek Huts. We are elated to find mattresses on the bunk bed frames. After gradually getting through the evening routine we load a rusty wheelbarrow with bricks we had put by the fire and wheel it into the hut.
The small room warms quickly.
“Be in the moment,” I’m thinking to myself, “Today is only nine kilometres. You can just go slow, take it all in.” The same grass fire from yesterday still burns. It covers the mountains in a light smoke so they appear a stack of all different shades of bluish-grey, lightening and losing detail the further away they are. We climb quite high to a ridge overlooking many peaks and valleys. Some of this climb I’m thinking of ways to describe this experience to friends but for most of it my attention is grabbed. Grabbed by small flowers, a bounding roebuck, a few baboons, fungi growing on rocks in strange patterns, spiderwebs in the half-dead grass, animal poo and then for a few seconds I admire the broader scene. Tom spends a solid chunk of his time thinking about his future bakery. Stone countertops and tables, white tiles, enough wall space for rotating artworks, all hopefully in a store on the corner of two tree-lined streets.
My thoughts are mostly right where I want them. Paying attention to little details in the immediate environment. Asking and answering soft questions with myself. Questions like, what creature is making these tiny little holes on the edge of the trail? Maybe snakes. But how would a snake dig the hole? It does not have the appropriate apparatus. Must be a little marsupial, maybe a bush rat or maybe a dassie.
Sitting on a giant boulder with a panoramic view of valleys and streams I meditate watching a slowly migrating troop of baboons.
By the time I look up, the wider scene has changed. Ten minutes of daydreaming the some peaks that were there before are now hidden by other peaks. Did someone move them? It is possible that I’m not actually going anywhere. That I’m on an earth treadmill and when I am not paying attention some giant thing is shuffling the landmarks around. Perhaps to confuse me or perhaps there is a good reason. It could be a vital task.
As the trail curves around a mountain a lone tree sticks out from the trail’s edge. The path is not visible beyond the tree, only more mountains higher than the one we are on now. Down the mountain to our left is an oak woodland by a large reflective lake. Among the woodland lies a cluster of round white huts. The oaks’ leaves are purple and black, some look orange from the sun. Smoke drifts up from one of the huts. It does not feel like winter in South Africa. It feels like Autumn in Oregon. A little bit of Arizona too. Funnily enough, I’m basing those claims on what I have seen on TV. I have never actually been to either of those places and can not for at least another nine-and-a-half years.
We cross yet another stream and arrive at Mzimkhulwana hut. Even though we had a relatively short distance to traverse today we have reached our destination quite late. We underestimated the distance and have spent a lot of time not walking but sitting or standing still. The sun will go behind a mountain before the end of an hour. None of the bunks in the hut have mattresses. There is no place to have a fire. There is no firewood. Despite this, we collect as much dead wood as we can find in the little patch of bushland between the hut and the stream. Once broken up and stacked, it looks like enough fuel to last us tonight with a little left over for tea and breakfast in the morning.
No mattresses and nothing to substitute them with we keep the fire going as long as possible. We drink scotch and play cabo (good two player card game) and stare at the fire until the last logs are fading into ash. I hope I am drunk enough to get to sleep on the wooden bed frame.
I shove my hands deep into the pockets of my jeans to warm them up. After adjusting the straps on my backpack, I shove them in again. The sleeping bag is off-centre. I adjust it, hands back in pockets. Hands out as I almost trip over the edge of the trail, then back in the pockets.
Tom and I have just left the tarmac and joined the bush outside of Underberg, South Africa. Between us we carry four days’ food (fruit, nuts, biltong, boiled eggs, noodles, rice, beans, bread, peanut butter, two blocks of chocolate, and a bottle of scotch). As well as cooking utensils, sleeping bags, and a few items of clothing. The trail we are hiking is called the Giant’s Cup Trail. The trail is 48km long and takes four days. We will sleep in forestry huts along the way. This time of year, the weather is fine with an average maximum of about 18 degrees. Ideal weather for hiking, just hot enough that you do not need any extra layers. The hike hovers mostly just below an altitude of 2,000m but sometimes pokes above. Some far-off peaks have a little snow on top. At night, temperatures will fall below zero.
As we walk alongside a cobbled stream, my pack settled, I try to think my own simple thoughts. Thoughts about right now. About the stream swimming past, about the water trickling down a sandstone rock face to our left. Despite my attempts at controlling my own thoughts, I find myself thinking about the guide book in my back pocket, about how far we might have come and how long until we stop for morning tea. What will I eat for morning tea? Being the first day I better not eat too much, but today is also the furthest we walk so I need to eat enough to keep my energy levels in a good place.
How far have we come? Where is that pool with the wooden bridge we should have come to by now? How am I supposed to get paid to be a writer? Do I keep pursuing a job at one of the magazines I read? Or do I make a compromise and find anything that will pay for now, follow the dream later on down the track? I try to keep my mind in the present, to find peace. This is a self-defeating aim, I know. A bit of a contradiction. Thinking hard to not think too much. Regardless, I keep trying.
We cross a pool, hike up under a waterfall and then around a mountain and stop beside a boulder for some biltong and nuts. In the plateau below, a section of forest is on fire. The thick smoke drifts across the path a few hundred meters away. No birds circling the smoke, shouldn’t they be on the hunt for prey escaping the flames?
I bore Tom by telling him about the Kerouac novel, “The Dharma Bums” and how I relate it to this trip we are on. As I finish my spiel I remember my favourite line from the book, “Comparisons are odious.” The irony slaps me in the stomach. Here I am implying that we are in a similar situation, on a similar journey to the characters in a book, when that very same book taught me never to compare two things because nothing is ever the same.
Gazing down a grassy valley we sit down again to watch a herd of elands (giant cow slash antelope, look ‘em up) nervously stumbling along in front of us. Tom screams at them to see how they react. They don’t. Two young bucks butt heads at the back of the line. “Dude! stop running into me,” I imagine one saying to the other.
“The ants go marching three by three; hurrah, hurrah,” I chant out loud.
“The ants go marching three by three; hurrah, hurrah.
“The ants go marching three by three, the little one stops to chuck a wee, they all go marching, gotta get out of the rain. Gotta get out of the rain.
“The ants go marching two by two; hurrah, hurrah… and so on.
More and more I am forgetting about life. Still I think of the extraneous. How far until lunch, what will we eat there, how long until we reach the hut, what will I be like in five years? Except now I spend about half my time staring at the landscape around me and basking in the refreshing lack of human presence.
On a long sloping rock by a bend in a stream we take off our shoes and shirts and lie in the sun reading our books. We both nearly fall asleep but are stirred by the knowledge that the last leg of today’s hike has not gone anywhere.
It should only be a short walk to tonight’s hut. And then a long series of short walks. Three more days of it. Should be sweet, right? Yeah…
Progress is slow. Bumping along potholed gravel roads with small ravines carved out by rain, the fastest we travel is 30km/h. At times we have to stop while shepherds guide cattle off the road. Chickens, dogs, and pigs move off themselves. It’s a fine morning. Light winds ruffle the long grass on the short, steep hills of which there are so many the landscape mimics a rough sea.
We have the windows down, the air is warm. Johan lights a cigarette every 15 minutes. Round huts with thatched roofs speckle the otherwise green landscape. These huts are called rondavels, they are made with stones bound by mud and cow poo. Inside a rondavel is enough room for a bed, a cupboard, a table and chairs and a cat. Women are busy washing clothes or laughing or carrying faggots. Kids are busy walking to school. They wear more uniform than I did. Everything outside the car appears to be happening in slow motion. The slow motion scenes rolling by have sent me into a state of languor. Soft guitar strings coming through the car speakers and the mellow rocking of the car add to the effect.
We are heading for a river. At the mouth of this river, we have heard, a wave breaks from the point to the middle of the bay, over 150 meters. Our fingers are crossed but our expectations are in check, South African surfers tend to get a little… overexcited, especially when they are talking about the Wild Coast.
The Wild Coast is a region on the eastern side of South Africa. It is the remote home of the impoverished Xhosa people. Nelson Mandela was born here. Many villages do not have running water or electricity. Locals smoke joints as if they are cigarettes. You can buy a litre bottle of beer for $2, making it almost as cheap as petrol. Or you can buy a sack of powder for $1.50 that turns into 5L of beer when you add water and leave it overnight. I tried this but it came out looking like porridge and tasting like sour milk. I only managed to drink one cup.
A few hippies started surfing the Wild Coast in the 80s. Much of the coastline is riddled with bad access, a lack of facilities, aggressive sharks and an abundance of rarely surfed, high quality waves. These factors combine to give the Wild Coast mystique we could not resist.
At last the ocean comes into view, just a few kilometers away. After an hour of driving at a crawl, gazing out the windows, we arrive at a small gravel carpark tucked inside a headland. A parked tractor is the only other vehicle. As soon as we get out of the car, two perfect waves steam past a crop of rocks and out onto the open sand where they continue to run as far as the eye can see. Without discussion Tom and I take our boards down from the roof, insert fins, apply wax and slip into wetsuits.
What follows is four hours of surfing immaculate waves in warm, crystal blue waters until our arms are exhausted and the wind comes in.
Back on land I feel intoxicated. Tom and I keep staring at each other in wonderment, “what the fuck just happened?” A man approaches, asks if I want to buy weed or hash. I don’t, but I’m feeling so good I want him to feel some. His name is Benny. Has one of the best laughs I’ve heard. It is a trumpeting, stomach-grabbing laugh. While we are talking about diving for crayfish I try to use hand gestures to explain that it is hard to grab the crayfish’s feelers. You can imagine me standing in my wetsuit pulling imaginary feelers atop my head. How does Benny react? He thinks it is the funniest thing he has ever seen, almost turns inside out. We are laughing too.
The decision is made to stay right by the rivermouth so we can be as close to the wave as possible everyday. First we have to stock up on groceries. The closest thing to a supermarket is a dusty, warehouse-sized shed a couple of hours away. Need 20kg of rice? You got it. How about a 3kg tin of coffee? Aisle seven. We don’t need either of those things but we do need fruit, vegetables, meat and a half a dozen tins of assorted non-perishables.
From where we are camping we can see across the bay to the wave. A short bandy down the hill, a paddle across the river and a giddy jog along the beach and we are in a rip getting shot out to the start of the wave. When we are not surfing we are making food, reading books or taking naps. One day I walk into a village searching for crayfish but instead get stoned in a hut. When the guys roll joints they drop buds on the floor and don’t flinch. Weed is that abundant.
Nearby there breaks another, slightly better wave but I cannot write about it because I am sworn to secrecy. A few days turn into a week, then two. The winds are almost always offshore and the surf seldom flat. I can see two weeks turning into two months, two years and then the rest of my life.
Anyway, I would love to stay and chat but I fear you will get sick of me. Take care, I will write again soon.
H F Peniston