Chapter Excerpt from Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant
Actually, this bit of coastline has other significance to me. As a family we had holidayed in Durban and on the South Coast from as far back as my memory stretched. Besides the obvious attraction of having had my aunt Liz, her family and my grandparents in Durban, we had visited and stayed in various places up and down the coastline: Scottburgh and Uvongo spring first to mind. These were happy memories filled with endless sunshine, beaches, family and friends, including many co-vacationers from back home in Zimbabwe.
In later years we tended to stick to the environs of Durban and visited the north coast instead, aligning our holidays with those of our Harare cousins and shared family in Richard’s Bay and nearby Empangeni. These trips in my late teens and early twenties were of a different sort, bittersweet and nostalgic. In effect the South Coast mapped out many of the memories of my younger, more spontaneous and less complicated self. However, there is a caveat to this retrospection. Almost bang between the holiday towns of Scottburgh and Uvongo is another sleepy little coastal town called Hibberdene.
In 2003, whilst I was studying towards an Honours degree in geology at the University of Pretoria, otherwise known as Tukkies, we had visited Kwazulu-Natal and its environs during our mid-year field excursion with the second and third year undergraduates. Being well inland of the coast, just north of its larger and better known twin, Johannesburg, many of the students who hailed from Pretoria had never ventured to this part of the South African coast. To me it was terra familiare rather than terra incognito. We had entered the province to the north and journeyed south down through Richard’s Bay where we visited the RBM heavy-sands and dune mining operations. We had by-passed metropolitan Durban and arrived in Hibberdene via the N2 coastal motorway on a windy, grey afternoon sometime in June of that year. Arriving quite late in the day we were granted leave to venture out along the beach and do as we please.
I have included this recollection almost as an afterthought. I find it difficult to objectively recall the series of events that follow, let alone that year as a whole. I was one of six or seven Honours students that year, greatly outnumbered by the second and third year classes. As such we the de facto senior students on the trip. Broadly speaking the Honours group fell into two groups: the Afrikaans lads who had studied at Tukkies since first year and were bound not only by the bonds of friendship but to some degree by their language and origin. Me and Kelly, the only female member of the class at that point, had come from other universities and were not native Afrikaans speakers, although Kelly seemed to understand the language well enough.
I recall Kelly as a shy girl who kept to herself much of the time, but shared in the laughter of the others whilst I, for the most part, didn’t understand. I didn’t begrudge the other lads speaking their native language and on the other occasions there had been open discussion and presentations in English during class-time I had been able to participate. These moments were often supplemented by Guan Greyling, a highly intelligent and amusing young man, slight of build with thin sandy-blonde hair and sparkling grey-blue eyes.
My introduction to Guan had been memorable: whilst I had been nervously reaching for a canned beer at the departmental introductory party on the campus I had been splashed with icy water as someone had deliberately lobbed another can of beer into the tub. I had recoiled in shock, but when I looked up it wasn’t obvious who the perpetrator was. Guan and some mates were laughing about something amongst themselves but I couldn’t be sure who it was. I cautiously stepped forwards again and in the moment I took me eyes off the bystanders and reached for another can, ‘plop’ went another with the same result. This time round Guan laughed loudly and unashamedly.
“Man, how did you fall for the same trick twice?” he asked rhetorically with a broad grin and a twinkle in his eye. Thereafter Guan had proven to be the unabashed clown of the class. Not only did he elicit all the answers with apparent ease but he exhibited a great sense of humour. During one Powerpoint video projector presentation, for which he had evidently not prepared, he inserted some unconventional slides after the title page. “So what can I say about this topic?” he began suggestively, giving us, his audience, a meaningful pause. With our respective attentions captive he flicked to the subsequent slide of some flowers or some cuddly kids; then to one shaded blue; and finally a blank, white page, announcing each with a singular word so that together they spelt out: “sweet-blue-nothing”. Needless to say his audacity was met by hoots of laughter from our end and a stony silence by our German lecturer, Dr. Wolf Maier.
The truth of the matter was that Guan was a sensitive soul who was experiencing some deep insecurities. His girlfriend, a pretty Spanish girl called Jennifer, had recently broken up with him and it was common knowledge that he was struggling to come to terms with it. Sometime, not long before our mid-year fieldtrip, I had managed to talk with Guan one-on-one. We found a surprising amount of common ground – estranged fathers, shared interests and a yearning desire to find fulfilment in what we were doing. Was he as lonely as I’d found myself being? I can’t say, nor can I say how much the break-up with Jennifer had affected him.
We had tentatively arranged to meet up for a drink sometime in the near future. Going forward to the mid-year excursion, Guan had maintained his position as the clown, most likely enjoying the attention as he sought to plug the hole opened up by the break-up. One evening in camp he had discreetly climbed a tree to some ungodly height before making monkey noises and startling those of us below. “Come down Guan before you break your neck” someone had shouted up to him. Eventually he had and I recall a little later he, myself and a couple of English-speaking second year girls had crouched in the eve of a dome tent and laughed about it as we sipped wine from plastic cups. He was very gregarious, moving between the various groups, talking with one and all. In contrast the other lads in my year, Pieter, Chris and Johan, stuck mostly to themselves.
What happened on the beach that fateful day was this: we had all gone walking up the beach, spread out in little pockets of friends, ostensibly to find a safe place to swim. Pieter and the others took up the front whilst the rest of us followed. Guan had walked alongside me for a while, chatting about nothing in particular. I remember him wavering for a second before sprinting off to catch up with the other three lads up ahead. I had with me a green towel with my name embroidered on it and a picture of a tiger. It had been a Christmas present from my father, although I had never thanked him for it. We were barely on speaking terms back then, and writing now I can feel the dull ache of that fracture return. I also had a black Frisbee disc which I lent to two second years.
I lost both items that day, although their loss is immaterial in the face of a greater tragedy. A few of the second years, growing tired of walking had stripped down to their shorts and leapt into an opening between the rocks where the sea encroached upon the shoreline. It was choppy and it’s greyness mirrored that of the unsettled sky above. I remember Anton de Beer swimming out effortlessly for perhaps twenty metres or more, then treading water and looking back to the beach. Emboldened, others pulled off their shirts and waded into the waters. I remember feeling uneasy and glancing up the beach to where the others from my class had disappeared around a bend.
Maybe I said something, maybe I didn’t, but unwilling to be shown up I too entered the water alongside Conrad, a friendly second year student. I remember the strength of the backwash, relentlessly pulling on one’s legs as we both struggled to keep our heads above water. After a few minutes we struggled ashore, a quick glance from Conrad acknowledging what had been left unsaid: this was a dangerous sea. Only a strong, experienced swimmer like Anton could negotiate the riptide and swim as far as he had. On my last trip out to South Africa in 2010 I’d stayed with a friend in Johannesburg. One day whilst walking through Rosebank Mall I passed Conrad walking in the opposite direction. We made eye contact and I saw a flicker of recognition. It was only a little while later that I realised that it had been him by which time he had disappeared amongst the crowds of shoppers.
Harking back to that time at the beach in Hibberdene seven years before, I recall that after re-dressing I started walking further up the beach, meeting my four classmates as they returned from whence they had been. “What’s it like PW?” I had asked Pieter, whose full name was Pieter-Willem, abbreviated to PW.
“It’s all the same,” he had replied, or words to that effect. I’m not sure if I explicitly asked if there was a swimming beach round the bend, but I assumed that if there was he would have mentioned it. Nonetheless I can hardly take the moral high-ground when I myself chose to swim in an unregulated area. I’m not sure if all of them entered the water where Anton, myself and the others had done so because I moved off to explore the adjacent rocks where my friend Izak was sitting, staring out to sea in quiet contemplation. It was at some moment whilst I was on those rocks that Guan’s life had slipped away from him, drowning in the treacherous waters.
As I arrived back on the beach, Anton, Pieter and one or two others were struggling to get him to shore. When they finally did his body was limp and lifeless, his body white and pale and his face a blueish-grey. Pieter had dashed off up the beach, returning a few precious minutes later with a young, white lifeguard. He had given him CPR for what seemed like an age and I remember the copious amounts of foamy water that he elicited from Guan’s flooded lungs. I remember too the moment he looked up into my eyes whilst I stood a short distance away and shook his head.
I asked PW about the occasion many years later, after having moved over to the UK. “It was all a blur,” he wrote. “I guess I must have known there was a bathing beach around the corner but it’s all a blur in my memory.” The anger I felt dissipated as I realised that the tragedy was unforeseen and the responsibility of swimming where we had ultimately rested with each of us as individuals. If Pieter had seen the bathing beach then so had Guan.
My pain lay in feeling inadequate and unneeded. Pieter had later given a eulogy to Guan back at the university. It was entirely in Afrikaans so I had understood very little. Afterwards Pieter showed slides from the rest of the fieldtrip and a daytrip we had made a few weeks earlier to a local site of interest. Although I had submitted a few photographs of my own which had been scanned to CD these weren’t included.
There was a picture of me talking to a chap called Francois, brother to a second year student in the department. He was a bit of an awkward chap who battled to express himself. He had approached me with some short lines of childish verse, written in English. I recognised in him the desire to write poetically, but an inability to translate that into meaningful prose. After chatting with him for a short while I discovered that, like me, he possessed a love of nature and concern for the well-being of the landscapes, animals and people that we felt so deeply about. It wasn’t difficult to connect.
I noticed that he was shunned by many of the others and his sister, Lizelle, would look slightly embarrassed when his eccentric behaviour came up in conversation. When the picture of us appeared unexpectedly in the slide show Pieter looked across at me and commented with regards to Francois: “Leo se nuwe vriend [Leo’s new friend]”. I squirmed as some of the audience chuckled at my expense.
I am tempted to write about how much I despised PW and his haughtiness, but the simple truth is that I don’t. I may have my failings and eccentricities but I do possess a fairly keen awareness of other people’s moods and states of mind. From what little he subsequently said via correspondence and what I observed directly back then, a picture of a young man wrestling with his conscience emerges. That he was proud of his people and his language was obvious, but beneath this I dare to venture were doubts, serious doubts.
He was a natural leader, and had assumed that position amongst the undergraduates in the department. Under different circumstances I think we could have cemented a friendship once we had come to respect each other’s differences. What he later told me was that it was a terrible year for him and I can only take his word for it. For me it ebbed and flowed, but mostly I remember the loneliness. It was there before but in foreign surroundings it was acute.
So much I didn’t and still don’t really understand. In my mind those memories still have the power to bring me down, a source of negative energy. The trick for me is to remember that they are just memories of a transient situation. Despite the pain they can elicit, they are part of my story, and as valid and instructive as any other chapter of my life.
It is doubtful that the Pretoria I remember then is the same city that it is now. It was a time in which the changes initiated by independence barely a decade before (1994) were only beginning to take hold. Relict overtones of racism still lingered, evident in the student council elections that year: “Why vote for a dark one when you really want a milky one” was the slogan from one banner I recall being translated to me from Afrikaans, a questionable attempt to link the colour of chocolate to racial affiliation.
I like to think that these remnants of the old order have been dispelled and dispersed. To some degree they probably have. There’s no going back to the previous system of apartheid in the world as we know it today and despite what I may have felt about some people and some things, I remember most of my compatriots well. Both Chris and JC were kind and intelligent, and Izak is a remarkably perceptive and thoughtful individual with whom I still correspond. They all still reside in South Africa to the best of my knowledge.
Pieter did a further year’s MSc before emigrating with his new wife to Australia. He tells me that his parents emigrated to the UK not long afterwards and that, from time to time, he still visits his hometown Pretoria, and on those trips back he visits Guan’s grave to sit and talk to him and recall their friendship. And so it was with me this time around, on the trip to Ifafa with my uncle Derek. Although I didn’t think about it right then and there, the sea around Ifafa beach on that day was as full of life as Guan was whilst he was alive. Whales breaching, dolphins riding the shore break chasing the shad: Guan would have been smiling on a day such as that.
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