Today on our literary journey through the pages of my novels we’re returning to the beautiful Berg River where it meets the wonderful West Coast of South Africa, one of my favourite places. This time we’re going a little way inland from our previous visit to Laaiplek where the story of ‘Song of the Sea Goddess’ first seeped into my imagination.
The Berg River rises in the mountains almost 200 miles to the south east, flowing north then west, disappearing and reappearing from a second mountain range, having joined up with a handful of seasonal streams from where it meanders towards the Atlantic Ocean through mudflats, reed beds and sandy scrub. In the summer at low tide careful navigation through the riverine channels is required.
Just a mile or two before the estuary at Laaiplek, the Berg River flows through Velddrift, where we find numerous little jetties reaching out into the river to which the local fishermen moor their little boats. One small section, Bokkomlaan, is particularly delightful. Bokkomlaan (Bokkom Lane) is named for ‘bokkoms’, small whole dried and salted fish (mullet) which are caught in this area. There are lots of little eateries to choose from, river trips and even an art gallery, all packed into one little lane by the banks of the Berg River. Let’s drop in for a spot of seafood and a lot of birdlife!
Bokkoms are something of an acquired taste in my opinion, but the fresh mullet, called ‘harders’ here, are delicious sprinkled with coarse salt and cooked over the braai (barbeque). Bought from the local fish shop, they are incredibly cheap and absolutely delicious, especially if helped down with a chilled bottle of one of our local wines.
Now, if you’ve finished licking the salt off your fingers, let’s join fisherman Sam as he takes his little boat up the river – a man on a mission with something to hide and a rumbling belly.
Excerpt from ‘Song of the Sea Goddess’
Sam slows Porcupine’s engine. This part of the river can be tricky to navigate, especially when the water’s low. It is now well into the dry summer season when all the upland waters have already flowed down from the mountains. There is no more left to replenish the river until the rains come again. Sandbanks lie just beneath the surface of the water, waiting to catch the unwary, and Sam has no wish to run aground and risk becoming stranded. It gives him an idea though. He remembers there’s a tiny island a little further upstream. It’s only accessible by boat and it’s unlikely to be visited by anyone. There are no roads leading to this part of the river and no farms or dwellings near the river’s edge. Only the soggy reed beds. Sam smiles to himself and presses on. Birds dip and dive into the water in Porcupine’s wake, and Sam can see eddies where fish are being stirred up as the little boat progresses. There are plenty of them here. Sam’s stomach rumbles. A tasty river trout would be perfect for his supper.
The island comes into view around the next meander. There’s nowhere to tie up, so he drops the anchor.
Sam looks around. Up and downstream, and across over the open, empty marshland either side of the river. There is no one about. All is deserted apart from the insects that hover and the birds that stalk among the tall reeds. Beyond the marsh, cows graze on a strip of green, and in the distance, the purple and ochre of the distant mountains rise on either side of the wide river valley. The headland where Jannie found the cave, looks down on him. It dominates the landscape and looms over the ocean beyond. It too is deserted.
He listens. Only the sounds of nature and the water gently lapping against Porcupine’s hull reach his straining ears.
He opens the bow end storage compartment and takes out his fishing line and bait tin. There are still a few scraps of dried fish. Enough for him to quickly bait a couple of hooks. He throws the lines over the stern and secures them to the rail of boat, then kicking off his worn takkies, he grabs his spade and jumps over the side into the warm waist-height water. Within a couple of strides he’s standing on the grassy bank of the island.
The island is oval-shaped, no more than four times the length of his little boat. One small, solitary tree stands slightly off centre, its branches spreading low, dipping into the water at the upstream end of the island. He attacks sandy ground with his spade. It’s pretty hard work, since the sand keeps sliding back and refilling the hole, but slowly, slowly he’s making progress. After a few minutes more of steady digging, the spade strikes something hard. Not rock though. It makes the dull metallic clunk of metal on metal. Sam drops the spade and crouches down, scrabbling away at the sand with his hands.
Soon he’s uncovered a square metal box the length and width of his forearm. It’s rusted with age, but still sound. He feels around the edges, his hands seeking a way in. He locates the lip of the box and starts to dig down with his fingers. The sand is damp at this depth and separates from the side of the box easily. He peers into the hole. The lid of the box is a little deeper than his hand and is secured with a rusty hasp and staple. There’s no padlock though. Sam carefully pulls on the hasp and tugs open the lid. He reaches in and finds that the box is deeper than his forearm. He kneels down and peers in. It’s empty apart from a few pebbles and a thick layer of sand. He probes around with his fingertips. The box is sound; moreover it’s the perfect size in which to hide his treasure.
Sam jumps up and wades back out to the boat. Let me get this done quickly, he thinks to himself, as he clambers aboard. He drags the three sacks to the edge of the boat, then jumps back into the water. One by one, he swings the sacks from the deck onto the island then hauls them over the sand to the waiting box. Soon the gold is safely buried and Sam is smoothing the sand back into place. He scatters some twigs and stones over the site. No one would know that the ground’s been disturbed. He fixes the distance from the tree in his mind. He’s confident he’ll find it again.
Sam sits back on his heels and glances over his shoulder at Porcupine. The little boat is bobbing up and down in the water. Noticing that one of the fishing lines is straining, he hurries over to the edge of the island. Sure enough, something’s taken one of the baited hooks. He jumps into the boat and hurries over to examine the line. The river water is murky where it’s just been stirred up, but it must be a fish.
He wraps the line around his hand and starts to pull steadily. The line moves easily at first, but then the fish begins to fight. It must be a big one. Sam lets the line slacken a little to allow him to wrap his other hand around the line. As it tightens again it bites into his flesh, but Sam’s not going to let go. He pulls again steadily, ignoring the pain in his hands. The hook’s holding, so he puts all his effort into the struggle, bracing one foot against the boat’s rail.
Then he tugs sharply on the line. The silvery head of a large trout breaks the surface, but something’s holding on to the fish. Two slender hands appear, the long fingers wrapped around the belly of the fish. Sam gasps: what in the world..?
Then she breaks the surface. Sam is confronted by the face of a pretty young woman with bright blue-green eyes set in a pale oval-shaped face, which is framed with long dark hair that clings to her skin.
‘Let go of my fish,’ she cries indignantly. ‘It’s mine, I saw it first. I’ve been chasing it for ages and now it’s got caught in your stupid line.’
Sam opens his mouth, but words fail him.
‘Give me my fish,’ she says, tugging on the slippery creature, whose mouth is also working now that it’s out of the water. ‘Well..?’ Her eyes flash angrily.
‘I… I…’ stutters Sam.
She glides towards him and his eyes are drawn to the slender body, which is still submerged just beneath the surface of the water. Her hair swirls around her naked shoulders. His eyes travel down her back and, at first, Sam thinks she is wearing a tight silver skirt, but then he notices the glistening, fish-like scales.
It seems that Sam has caught a mermaid.
Photo credits: westcoastway.co.za, Cliff Davies