ReStory Narrator: James Blignaut
A narrow sliver of back-bending rocks, Buffalo horn-like, ever awash with surf and seagull, protects the entrance to the bay from Antarctica and Australia’s pouring of salty water – a never-ending deluge. Brutal waves, unrestrained for 8 000 kilometres, hit the African shores. In the shadow of this rocky horn, called Walker Point, lies a quaint little village.
Leaving the highway at the road sign that reads ‘Buffelsbaai’, the traveller enters an epoch of yesteryear. The tightest of old railroad bridges to navigate with the road bent in an s-shape and then, all at once, one’s senses are being bent, stunned as a matter of fact. Traversing down the narrow and winding road covered with yesterday’s tar, with overgrown entrances to farms and stalls catering for all pallets sprinkled along it, it is the smell that leaves the first impression. The sharp liquorish-like fragrance, distinctly fynbos, is tempered only by a colourful mosaic of flowers and the shrubby evergreen bushes that wave in the breeze while criss-crossing the undulating dunes. The rich aroma and aesthetic beauty are enveloped by the cleanness of the air: a mixture of farm, fynbos and a tinge of sea.
Abruptly, almost rudely, one’s sensory experience is interrupted. As one reaches the crescent of the penultimate dune, the image of the ocean crashing against the seashore with unrelenting force, with the Goukamma River and estuary forming a freebee side-dish on the right, demand immediate attention. With one’s awareness ripped away from the fynbos, the countryside and old-style living, it is time to slow down. With the road curving to the left in an easterly direction, one enters a space set-apart – the wild side – where angler, seagull, puffadder and a whale carcass for good measure cohabitate in great harmony. Patience is rewarded with unrivalled gold-red sunsets etched onto the calm water of the estuary with the eagle shape of the Outeniqua Mountains as backdrop. One cannot but be acutely aware of the highly fragile yet always-changing coastal belt while driving along the sand-filled road wedged between dune and sea. The vulnerability of this unique and narrow ribbon of in-between land, the sandy strip between the marine and the terrestrial, is unparalleled. For eons of time it has been the edge between different forms of life.
Forcing one’s eyes forward one is greeted by the sight of a tiny cluster of houses on the horizon. The village’s eleven short streets, intertwined and almost nowhere flat, provide access to abodes where the wandering soul can find rest from a world clenched in the clutches of turmoil. House names such as Jakkalsrus (where the jackal rests), Williwêki (do not want to work), Rus ‘n Roes (rest and rust), Hemel op Aard (heaven on earth), Biekierus (rest a bit), Skuinslê (laying down sideways), Kammarus (you can rest), Heeltydspeeltyd (always play time), Pyp-en-Pantoffels (smoking pipe and slippers), and Peace of Heaven, attest to that.
Neatly wedged between the massive fynbos-covered sand dunes to the north, the wild seashore to the west, the sandy bay to the east and the Buffalo horn-like rocky outcrop to the south lies an eclectic mix of approximately 200 houses. Not even one in ten of these are permanently occupied, the rest providing a frequently visited nesting place to migrating swallows in search of rest. The dwellings are a potpourri of colours, shapes and sizes, a mixture of old, semi-dilapidated wooden cottages shouldering arms against the wind’s constant company together with large and modern dwellings. A mysterious but happy blend illustrative of the diversity within which the village is carved out.
With a neat point-break, while also offering a safe blue-flag bathing experience, the bay is a surfer’s delight. The pinnacle, though, is the stretched-out beach and its unrivalled sunrises. A kaleidoscope of colours, each morning special yet never the same. Be it dark, even greyish, red or gold-plated, the early riser and jogger are met with serene beauty, and perhaps even a pansy shell to treasure – not to forget the glimpse of the shiny and agile dolphin and majestic whale. The footprints of each day’s beachside walk, together with thoughts and conversations, are washed away in the wake of the tide – as if they never were.
With the sun’s rays shining on the water and the rooftops we stare into Buffelbaai’s mirror. What do we learn from the reflecting image? Surrounded with this surreal beauty I am – no, we are – confronted with ourselves. Why are we, seemingly unrelenting like the washing of the waves, drawn to a place such as this when in search of rejuvenation? Why do we as humans, when tired to the bone and mentally and emotionally worn-out like old rags, run towards natural beauty? Why do we, when seeking rest for the troubled soul, surround ourselves with the tranquillity of nature, yet when seeking riches, we destroy the same? Each time the visitor, like a swallow, returns from this haven of peace to another world where burdensome and even destructive toil rules supreme. The disconnect between us and ourselves cannot be starker – the mental schism between the source of our material and financial wealth, nature consumed, and that which brings rest, nature unspoilt.
The image in the mirror brings more questions: What do we wish for ourselves and our children? To be constantly ebbing and flowing between making money and seeking rest from its pursuits, or to be content? Can we bring healing to that which provides us with healing? Can we offer a degree of kindness to that which offers us unabated kindness, and that for free? Can we, like the narrow sliver of back-bending rocks that unselfishly protects Buffelsbaai from Antarctica and Australia’s deluge, offer a protective lining to ourselves, our children and nature alike, return the favour, and restore nature and beauty – that which restores the troubled mind?
The outline and meaning of the image in the mirror become clearer like the appearance of the protective rocks, as if from nowhere, in the dissolving morning mist. Buffelsbaai and its swallows are but a microcosm of who we are and what we desire as a people. We all search for a place of beauty and tranquillity that can be filled with stories of restoration; a place where the anxieties of life can be washed away while the soul is being refreshed. Thus, I find the mirror’s reflection equally worrying and inspiring at the same time. The restorative and harmonious blend of well-poised yet fragile diversity, of both that which is man-made and that which is not, is hard to replicate, if at all possible, but simultaneously it provides us with a reference point, a beacon of hope, to strive towards.
Professor extraordinaire attached to the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University, and honorary research associate attached to the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON).
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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the institutions he might be associated with.
All photos taken by the author except for the old aerial picture of Buffelsbaai and the GoogleMaps image.