My old man and the sea

Posted by Darrel Bristow-Bovey on 25 August 2015 Tags:

One particular walk in Durban holds treasured memories for our columnist Darrel Bristow-Bovey.

Seaside fishing. Photo by Vuyi Qubeka

Durban seaside fishing. Photo by Vuyi Qubeka.


Whenever I manage to get back to Durban, which isn’t nearly as often as I’d like, I drive out along the start of the south coast highway to the Bluff. I take the narrow turn-off on what used to be Edwin Swales VC Drive, go over the first ridge then down into Pigeon Valley then up the ridge that overlooks the Indian Ocean with its lines of faded red-hulled oil tankers. I drive down the narrow grey tarmac of Airlie Road and park close to the pink double-storey house where I used to live on the ground floor, underneath the Houghton family, when I was ten years old. Then I take a walk.

The steps down to Brighton Beach are made of crumbling grey concrete and there’s a metal handrail with chipped paint, although in some places the rail is missing. The steps are steep and run down through dense, tangled bush filled with snakes and vervet monkeys. I’ve forgotten the number now but I used to know how many steps there are because every day I would walk up and down them, and once a week my dad would do it with me.

We moved to the pink house when he became ill, but he would walk the steps with me, leaning a little on his malacca cane, and say, ‘Look at that. Didn’t even stop! Not bad, hey?’

At the bottom of the vertical stairs is a diagonal path down to the beach, with the tidal pool right in front and Cave Rock to the left and the car park to the right with the café where the older kids hung around in their bikinis and baggies, eating slap chips and flirting with each other and swearing too loudly so I’d blush as we walked past and pretend not to hear.

My dad didn’t want me to be like them. I think they reminded him too much of himself at their age. He wanted me to go to school and do well and leave the Bluff and be something.

He would say, ‘The world’s very big’, although I don’t know how he knew that, because he never saw any of it himself.

We would walk down at sunset and he’d sit on the sand and watch while I scoured the shoreline for leftovers from the day. Once I found a T-shirt, and another time a pair of plastic sunglasses.

Then, as time went on, when we walked down he started having to take short rests. At first he pretended to be adjusting his socks or tying his laces, but after a while he stopped pretending and just sat on a step, looking out at the sea. We watched a man catch a shark from the rocks and I wondered how he managed to cast his hook all the way to the other side of the nets, or what?

Once I was at the beach on my own and a couple of the older kids at the café tried to make me smoke a cigarette and laughed at me when I wouldn’t and I went home in tears. I tried not to tell my dad, but he found out and he insisted on going down to give them a piece of his mind. It took him a long time to walk down because he had to stop a lot by then, and I went with him but I was praying that the kids would have gone home already. They had gone, so my dad shouted at some other kids instead.

A little after that my dad stopped walking down to the beach. He kept saying ‘We’ll do it this week, I promise’, but after a while I stopped asking. Then he went into the hospital, then a while after that my mom received a phone call in the middle of the night. On the day of his funeral I walked down to the beach by myself, down those steep steps. They didn’t seem so bad back then, but nowadays when I walk them I’ve noticed they’re getting steeper and steeper.

I did get off the Bluff, and I found that the world really is big, but nothing is as big as the Indian Ocean when you’re sitting on those grey concrete stairs, trying to catch your breath.

 

A few wholly unimportant facts

  1. Durban’s original rickshaws were said to be imported from Japan in 1892, by sugar tycoon Marshall Campbell. Back then, the wooden carts were used as a form of transport.
  2. The earliest steam train in SA made its first official journey from Durban in 1860. The journey is said to have taken just five minutes.
  3. Durban’s waters have plenty of sharks and a bloody history, and the provincial rugby team is even named after the creatures. Google: Black December.

 
 

This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.

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