5th October 2003
The start goes back 2 weeks, to the arrival of Rowan in South Africa . A lot of you will have met Rowan, who I’ve been friends with since primary school. He is in much the same position as me, having just graduated university but with no job lined up. A post uni trip had been mooted for some time (you may have heard mention of a plan to canoe down Lake Malawi ), but when we found out that Thom needed crew it seemed the decision had been made for us. Ro has been living a bit of a jetset lifestyle recently, spending the summer in Uganda doing research into the native wildlife, flew home to the UK for a week, then came and joined us in SA.
His arrival was unfortunately delayed for a day after he got his check in and departure times mixed up. This left him wandering round Heathrow wondering why he couldn’t find a check in desk for his flight, then eventually confusing a Virgin attendant by trying to check in bags for a flight that had left twenty minutes earlier. The result of this was a slightly sheepish phone call and a slightly worried Thom wondering what kind of crew he had taken on. Fortunately Ro learnt from his mistake and managed to make the flight the next day, arriving in Johannesburg then catching the train down to Port Elizabeth , one of the main coastal ports on the east coast of South Africa . The train was delayed as a result of hitting somebody on the tracks, although the situation seemed a little unusual as the train was only travelling at walking pace, fortunately the casualty survived.
Soon we were on the road west, back to Knysna. On the way we passed a small town known as Jeffreys Bay (or J-Bay). Home to some of the worlds best surf, it was a natural place to stop off and check the waves.
The bay stretches for miles, surrounded by golden beaches, their shine dulled by the heavy clouds that stretched across the sky. Our first stop found few waves, but news of the arrival of our resident ecologist had obviously spread through the marine life, as two whales were playing in the shallow water just off the beach. Their fins broke the surface as they drifted on their backs, then they would turn and we would see their barnacled bodies appear above the waves. Consultation of the field guide revealed them to be southern right whales (so called because whalers viewed them as the ‘right’ whale to catch) although it also told us that far from playing in the shallow waters, it was probably a female running away from a male who wanted to mate with her (strangely reminiscent of a club I went to last Saturday). Eventually the whales retired and our first cetacean encounter was over.
The town itself was similar to an out of season British seaside resort, albeit with a slight shark presence. We aimed to complete the illusion by buying chips and eating them on a windy bench outside the shop, although we had to imagine the OAPs for the full Eastbourne effect. The only thing that gave away the towns status as an international destination were the multitude of surf shops that dotted the main street. Keen to avoid the notoriously aggressive crowds that govern the best wave, Supertubes, we paddled out further up the beach into big walls of whitewater. We splashed around a bit, then I decided to try my luck at Supers.
The wave breaks down the left hand side of a point (as in Point Break, geddit?), with surfers waiting in a vague queue hoping to pick up a wave. The position in the queue is broadly related to the surfers ability and status. In general a newly arrived surfer with no local knowledge will join the back of the queue to show that they have some respect for the hierarchy of the wave. Keen not to get punched by a member of the J-Bay Underground, the unofficial guardians of the sea, I duly started paddling between the rocks that lay between the shore and the back of the queue. Unfortunately I misjudged the route, looking up to find waves about to break on my head, but with no water to dive into to avoid them. An unfortunate situation, I got dragged over the rocks back to the beach, where I stood up and tried to look dignified. Eventually it became apparent that the correct entry point was at the tip of the point, taking me straight onto the main peak (the start of the wave). Night was arriving, I didn’t want to paddle straight to the front of the queue, I was starting to get cold. These are among the excuses I gave myself not to try paddling out again, but when it comes down to it I bottled, and still regret it now.
It only seemed appropriate to celebrate Ro’s arrival with a night on the town in Knysna. Warming up with a few drinks in the towns bars, 11:30 arrived and we decided it was time to head for Al’s. It’s presence marked by lights that pierced high into the night sky, finding the club was not a problem. At the door we found out that our estimation of a 2 o’clock closing time was a little inaccurate, with the bouncers telling us that the doors would shut at 6. This explained the emptiness of the club, so we played pool until the rest of the town realised what was happening. Then we drank tequila, then we played pool, then tequila, then pool. A pattern was emerging. Before long we had met some playing partners, two guys who had travelled two hours to get to an empty club. Soon they had suggested we start a bar brawl to liven things up. One of them was very big, so we decided to be friendly, but managed to dissuade them from punching anyone. Ro and I made ourselves scarce, but next time we saw them they were playing pool with some coloured guys. A diatribe on the cheating nature of non whites followed, along with a warning about the danger of immigrants stealing our jobs in the UK . We pointed out that we were full time slackers, and felt that it would be hard for people to steal this job from us. They didn’t really have a reply. The rest of the night is blurry, but Rowan assures me I fell asleep half on the bed, half on the cabin floor. The next day Nick (our sailing instructor) thanked both of us for attempting to be quiet on our return, but informed us we failed miserably by knocking lots of things over. We felt very unwell.
After two weeks in Knysna the time arrived to play the tourist game properly. With a borrowed pick up providing transport, the trip got off to a bad start when we decided that the fuel gauge was malfunctioning, basing this assumption purely on the fact that it showed we were empty. We soon realised the error of this when the vehicle came to an abrupt stop, requiring some hasty phone calling and asking of favours for us to overcome this.
With no real plans about where to go and no road map to guide us, all route decisions were a little spontaneous. Fortunately this worked well, leading us to the most beautiful sunset at the sandy beach of Natures Valley (photos in the gallery). A small town in the Tsitsikamma National Park , most of the houses are only used for holidays, leading to a deserted settlement of palatial houses but hardly any facilities. The evening bought one of those strange occurrences that happens in life, occasionally enough to be unexpected, but perhaps a little too frequently to be pure coincidence. Unfortunately every time I try and write about the situation I can’t find words that match up to the intro, so I’ll trim it to the bare essentials and say that sat on the table next to us were a couple who Rowan had met two years ago in New Zealand. Conversation about the bizarreness of the circumstances dominated the evening, although we did occasionally stray onto other subjects.
The next day I decided that the time had come to make up for my defeat at the hands of J-Bay by seeking out a new challenge. Driving along the road the answer became obvious. Bloukrans Bridge is a huge road bridge on the new road that runs east-west along the southern coast. Spanning a tree lined chasm, the base of the bridge is 216m above the ground beneath, the perfect place to set up a bungy jump. Rowan had done the jump on a previous trip to SA and helped overcome my doubts about whether it was really worth paying £50 to throw myself into space with only a homemade rubber rope around my legs (homemade by the jump organisers rather than by any of our crew I hasten to add). Signing up proved no problem, I was able to stay calm and relaxed, even joking with the attendants. Putting on a harness was fine, even walking out onto the platform. I was the youngest bloke doing the jump, even a girl was going to do it. Unfortunately bravado disappeared the moment I neared the edge. We had been warned not to look down, concentrating on the concrete above our head would avoid us having a last minute change of mind. I’m a climber so don’t care about heights, so naturally I looked down. My eyes remained firmly fixed on the concrete from that point on. The countdown came I had to jump. All I remember is the wind rushing past my ears and then the feeling that my head had tripled in size as the rope pulled at my ankles, a message that my blood seemed determined to ignore as it continued plummeting towards my scalp. Bounce, bounce, bounce. I started to feel good, then amazing. Hanging upside down 30m off the ground, I felt completely tranquil, the trees forming a velvet carpet that would catch me if I fell, the blue sky a duvet keeping me warm. Then I started feeling sick. Hoisted back to terra firma I was glad to have done it, although it has to be said that going in a car with Thom gives a similar rush of adrenaline (a comment on his driving rather than the bungy jump).
Our tourist duties completed, it was time to prepare from our departure from Knysna and our first ocean trip.