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Time to Pack Up and Go Home

By Dave Charles

If someone told me that they had just done a 400km round trip to rescue an ecologically and commercially irrelevant small fish, I would probably consider them challenged. It makes no sense and yet that is what I have just done, and I feel quite emotional about it. Here’s the story.

There is a place in my mind that I return to whenever I think about happiness. It’s where my dad taught me how to tie a fishing knot and bait a hook, where my mother lovingly applied Sea and Ski to my four-year-old freckled face and showed us how the sea anemone closes if you tickle it. This is where my cousins and I fought imaginary battles based on the Commando and War Stories in Pictures comic books and where my sisters and I bought sweets from the Happy Days trading store opposite the narrow-gauge railway along which the terrifying steam engines thundered, flattening the coins that we put on the line and dropping sticks of sugar cane. This was Hibberdene in the old days.

To get to the beach you had to run the gauntlet down concrete stairs through thick coastal bush teaming with imaginary green mambas and other unseen terrors to the sand that was too hot to walk on barefoot.

We bought green cold drinks and Simba Chips from a hatch in the Bar where our dads were engaged in a raucous game of darts while our mothers were taking tea on the veranda. 

We had meals in the children’s dining room until we were considered old enough to graduate to the main dining room – how I longed to be old enough to enjoy that privilege.

It wasn’t fancy, but to me, it was the finest hotel in the world. Owned and run by a great aunt and her husband, The Alexander was a typical family hotel in Hibberdene on the South Coast in the days before air conditioning and highways. 

Every year we made the pilgrimage from our smoky East Rand industrial hometown to reconnect with extended family and friends who came together from other parts of the country to enjoy the Christmas or Easter holidays at the seaside. 

The journey was part of the adventure, always leaving in the darkness before dawn, hoping to get to the coast in time for afternoon tea. The road trip was interminable, stopping only for petrol and the occasional break to stretch the legs and enjoy a sandwich or hard-boiled egg – travel food before the advent of fast-food outlets at filling stations. 

Holidays at Hibberdene were magical – lying in bed listening to the crashing of the breakers until the tea tray arrived, delivered at the appointed hour with a knock on the door. Then, it was down to the sea for a swim in the tidal pool before the gong announced that breakfast was served. The gong was ceremonially played to announce every meal as well as morning and afternoon tea. I loved that gong. There was nothing really to do by today’s standards, and yet there was so much…and the days passed in a whirlwind of fishing and swimming and eating and fun. I loved our holidays at Hibberdene and to this day, those memories fill me with a longing for what can never be relived. 

My cousin, Mike, who also lives in Ballito now, is similarly drawn to the ghosts of X-mases past on our beach of dreams and this prompted us to plan a sentimental day trip from Ballito to the South Coast to visit them. 

We set off with high expectations. Little did we know that these would shortly be shattered.

The drive down the coast was quite enjoyable, but Hibberdene has not weathered well and almost nothing remains of what we remember. The old hotel buildings have been replaced with budget style rental apartments and everything looks a little run-down and sad. The lush coastal milkwoods, a protected species that were so ubiquitous there, have been hacked out with the rest of the coastal bush, leaving the beach quite desolate and exposed.

We stood on the almost empty beach, near the ruined tidal pool watching a fisherman reeling in and discarding a toby – a little puffer fish – that we had caught so many of as kids when the sea turned bad. The toby was a sign that the fishing conditions were sub-optimal and that it was time to pack up and go home. 

I looked at the little puffer lying helpless on the beach and almost without thinking I retrieved it and returned it to the sea, happy in the notion that this great, great, great, great…. great-grandfish of the toby I once caught there would live to swim another day through the gulleys and reefs of my dreams.

But for us, clearly, it was time to pack up and go home.


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