Monday, August 13, 2012

SOUTH AFRICAN Family Vacations 1960's. Coffee Bay and Port St John's.


Xhosa people of the Transkei

Henry, Zackie
Charel, Quintin, Frikkie.

When we were kids my father could only get away during the winter months for two weeks ,so we use to go to warmer climates for vacation in August. My parents had five boys by this time .I was around 11 and Quintin was a baby.
Both my father and his brother Johannes, loved sea fishing so twice the Transkei was the holiday destination. The first time we went to Coffee Bay en the second time Port St John's.

Nelson Mandela

Transkei is where the second biggest South African Tribe -the Xhosa's-live  .The most famous Xhosa is surely the first African President of South Africa  Nelson Mandela .He was born near  Umtata (Mthatha) in 1918 and married his second wife, Winnie  there in 1958.

Umtata (Mthatha)

Rural Transkei

The Transkei is situated between Natal and the Eastern Cape. It borders on the Indian Ocean and  is known as the Wild Coast of Africa .In the early 60's it was a very rural  and the inhabitants still followed  the tribal life style. Men and woman painted their faces with clay and even washed their blankets in the red/brown  clay of the area to give it an unique color. The women wore  lots of copper bangles on their arms and some of the  women smoked pipe.  In the traditional way unmarried woman went bare breasted .Once they got married they would cover their breasts.

We drove from Johannesburg and met my uncle and his family in Umtata (Mthatha).We then drove to Coffee Bay on the Coast.

Coffee Bay

White Clay- Coffee Bay.

We arrived in Coffee Bay and found the house that we rented. It was a big colonial white washed  house with a big porch .It was very close to the ocean -as they advertised it -but an enormous sand dune in front prevented us from seeing the ocean. We had to walk quite a way to get around the dune to reach the beach . The house was located next to the only store for miles ,so we saw all the coming and going that went on in Coffee Bay.

Transkei 1963

Transkei Store.

To us as kids all this was fascinating. This was a Africa that we did not know. This was tribal Africa and they dressed different and spoke their own language .We could not communicate with them as we were use to Africans speaking English or Afrikaans in  Johannesburg. Daily they would come to the shop, after walking for miles to buy the stuff  they needed. They were just as intrigued with us, as we were with them. My Aunt Dina was fascinated by all the bangles the women wore. Their forearms would be covered from wrist to elbow in copper bangles that was put on when they were young girls. These bangles  would never be taken off again.

My father, uncle , some brothers and cousins went fishing all day and had a good time.The had a local Xhosa take them to the best locations and would spend the day on the rocks fishing. After a while everything smelled of fish! I don't remember the beach being that great either .I was more fascinated by the locals visiting the shop and spending the day there smoking their pipes or resting in the shade of the trees before starting their long walk back home.

A couple of years later my parents decided to give Port St John's a go. This is where the "muddy and mighty" Umzimvubu River mouths into the sea. My uncle Johannes and his wife Dina, joined and his  us once again. Their four  kids were Uys, Wilna, Annetjie and Gert. By this time our family was complete.Me the eldest was 13. Zackie, Frikkie, Charel, Quintin and Carin was a baby.

Port St John's 1963.
The town on the left looking up into the Umzimvubu River .

This is Port St. John's today .In the middle the river mouths into the ocean .On the  left bank is the town of Port St. John's.We rented two house on the hill of the right bank ,looking over the sea as well as the mouth of the river.

Those day my father drove an navy colored German made  Isabella Borgward station wagon with tan leather seats. We met my uncle at Kokstad and then decided to take a short cut from there to Port St John's. We were driving through a very desolate area of very high mountains and on a dirt road, when all of a sudden the car gave a hiccup and stopped in its tracks!
 I was not trilled as I was already feeling uncomfortable with driving through this uninhabited area instead of the main road- and now this....
 My uncle was ahead and it took him about an hour to realize we were not behind him .He then turned back ,and came looking for us. By this time it was already around 4:00 pm. He and my father tried  working on the car and realized it was the petrol pump that was giving trouble. It was getting late so they decided that my uncle would take the  wives and kids to Port St John's and try and find some mechanic to come and help us. Me and my two brothers,  Zackie and Frikkie as well as Uys, my cousin,  stayed behind with my father. He  was taking off the petrol pump and trying to fix it .He asked me to sit behind the wheel and pump the accelerator whenever he needed me to do so. 

All of a sudden three young Africans appeared. They were dressed in their traditional way and there  faces where painted .They were intrigued by the chrome on the car and the lights. I don't think they ever saw a car up close. Whenever they would come too close I would rev the car and they would move away. Us kids were rather scared and I think my father was not too comfortable either but he did not say anything -just worked on the car.  .I don't think they meant any harm ,they just wanted to take a look at the car. After  while they got bored and moved on.

Soon after that my father got the petrol pump to work again after he removed a piece of cork that obstructed the petrol flow-and we were on our way .Just before dark we met Uncle Johannes on his way  back to meet us. We then drove to Port St Johns and reached it well after dark. The owner of the store in Port St John's also owned  the two houses that we rented. He had some Africans help us with our luggage  down to the river where two row boats were waiting. It was a moonless night and very dark.

The Umzimvubu River Mouth .

On the right bank is the town of Port St Johns. Our houses were on the left bank.
In the distance we could hear the ocean, but in front of us now, was the "mighty and the muddy" Umzimvubu River and we had to cross it in the dark of the  night to get to the houses.
 We were helped into the boats .Our party consisted of four  adults and nine children . Two African girls and two African men that had to row the boats. That was roughly ten people in each boat and the luggage divided between the two !

The two African girls that my aunt brought from the farm to help with the kids, where whimpering as they have never seen such a big body of water. My Aunt had to speak very sternly to them and had them get into the boat with her. They laid flat on the bottom of the boat as they did not want to see what was going to happen!  When we hit the high mountains driving during the day, the two of them also spent the trip on the floor at our  feet, not wanting to see the mountain and the valleys. Where they came from in the Western Transvaal, the country was flat .Now after the mountains they had to cross a river at night -it was almost too much to bear. I must be honest I was not feeling that brave either. Truth to be told neither were anybody else- I am sure.....,

Transkei Mountains

We stared crossing the river and slowly the lights of Port St John's became smaller and smaller and we were in the middle of the strong current of the river. Because of the current we could not go straight over but had to cross the river at an angle .After a journey that felt like hours, and not about twenty minutes, we reached the other side of the river. Because of high tide the landing jetty was covered in water .The suitcases and other luggage ended up in six inches of water when they were off-loaded. We were all very thankful that we made it and started the trek , in the dark, up the hill to the two houses. There were no electricity so candles were lit and soon we could make out what the place looked like that would be out homes for the next ten days. Everything was left as it was, and we all went  to bed as soon as possible. We were all exhausted after the dramas of the day.

Port St John's beach.

When we opened our eyes the next morning to the sun and bright ocean in font of us, all the night's travails were forgotten.There were very few people around and we had the beach to ourselves- literally on our doorstep! One could see, smell and feel the ocean unlike our visit to Coffee Bay where the hill obscured our view.

Town of Port St John's

As we were on the other side of the river we were rather isolated from the rest of the world .On our side there were about 5 bungalows and a big old Colonial house. If we wanted to go to Port St John's we had to wait for one of the Africans  to come over with his rowing boat to fetch us. We as kids could  not call them over on our own ,but had to have an adult with us to go to town. We did not care much as the beach was on our side of the river, and the town had very little charm for us.

My father and uncle went over to the town to find  a local African that could take them to the best fishing spots in the area.The older kids climbed aboard the boats and went along. Our host from the night before owned just about everything in Port St John's as well as the bait shop. While were there some other fishermen came back from the ocean to pick up more bait. They leaned their fishing rods against the wall and went inside.

All of a sudden we heard the whizzing sound of the fishing line being pulled off the roll and a dog in pain. The dog ate some of the bait of the hook that got caught in its lip . It was a small fox terrier and the more he pulled and barked the deeper the hook went. The adults came rushing out and tried to catch him and  get the hook out of his lip. After  while he calmed down and one of the fishermen  had to cut his lip to set him free. The next day I saw the little dog again and he was fine , but he kept  his distance from the bait shop!

On the other side of the river  all our clothes that were in the suitcases that got wet ,were on the washing lines to dry. That was about all that reminded us of our close  call with disaster the night before. The local Africans would arrived daily with stuff to sell. Fruits like Bananas or Mango's or Leechies.They were delicious and they sold them for very cheap .They would also bring bead work and other home made stuff  for us to buy. Transkei  was a beautiful place and so unspoilt.The people were also very tribal and was dressed so different than we were use to. We could not understand each other but with smiles and gestures we battered along till everyone was happy with the results of the sale.

Two days before we had to leave, I was with my mother and aunt in the row boat on the way back from Port St John's after doing food shopping. All of a sudden the African rower  started pointing up river and he got very excited. He started to shout at the people on the river banks .

When we looked at what he was pointing at  , we saw hundreds of fish swimming back to the ocean from up river where they went to lay their eggs. They were "Kabeljou" or Silver Cobs as they are also known. They were starving and dashing back to the ocean for food. When they got close to the boat we could feel them scraping the bottom of the boat and even lifting it now and then.

Silver Cob

When the people on shore saw what was happening they  rushed to the river mouth and started spearing and catching fish by hands. There were so many fish that they could not get through the mouth of the river into the ocean fast enough. My father and uncle happened to be close by  and rushed down as well. At the end they caught three fishes, all around 80lbs. Zackie even caught a "Grunter. "After all the excitement  the problem was what to do with all this fish! My mother and aunt decided to can the fish and make curry fish. Once the rush was over they took the row boat back to town to buy curry powder, onions and bottle to can the fish. The two African girls started frying the fish as soon as my father and uncle cleaned them up and cut them to pieces. It was then canned  into a curry sauce with onions and then the bottles were sealed and cooled. They fried and canned fish until everything smelled of curry fish. We were leaving the next day so the canning went on until late that evening.

Curry Fish

After all that I could not bear to eat it. Months later my mother opened the last bottle for lunch one day ,and I had piece. It was very good and I could kick myself for not eating it before.

Canned Curry Fish,

Fish and seaweed.

My uncle decided to keep one fish and take it back with them to the farm. One of the local Africans said if we wrap the fish in seaweed with paper around- and tie it to the bumper of the car- it would stay fresh. It did work .They drove through the night  and the fish arrived fresh and in one piece in the Western Transvaal. My uncle  could  show it to his buddies , and prove to them that this was no ordinary fish story!
Our trip back to Johannesburg was uneventful but it was not easy to get use to city life again, after living so close to nature and being free to roam around the whole day.
Our winter vacation was over  and we had to get back to school.

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