by Jacqueline Dowling
Early Portuguese navigators called it Cabo de Bon Esperanza (Cape of Good Hope), rounded Cape Point and, depending on the weather, either sank or sailed on to lands of monkeys and exotic spices. Or, they called it Cabo Tormentosa (Cape of Storms), and simply sank. There are some 3000 wrecks along the Southern African coast and, after shivering through our present and extended winter, it’s not difficult to imagine why.
Recently, the lagoon breached in a volcanic fury of mud, bushes, trees and a wall of water which swept away all intersecting sandbanks and clashed with breakers of the high spring tide sending columns of sea and fresh water high into the air , and a river of sludge heaving along the coast. It was an apocalyptic sight: especially when viewed from a car park rumoured to be built on the rubble from the old Birkenhead Hotel, named after a Royal Navy ship wrecked in 1852, with the loss of 450 lives, off Danger Point , at the southern end of Walker Bay. The Birkenhead, at the time, was the largest iron ship of the Royal Navy, en route to the Frontier War.
Today the force and anger of the lagoon is gradually sending the spirit of Birkenhead on yet another journey, undermining the car park in the process. It’s a crowd gatherer, no doubt about it: we stand in the teeth of a winter gale, leaning against the yellow safety barriers and rubber-necking in time with the surging and crashing of the tide. At times it’s almost balletic to watch the human movement, a motley collection of bodies swaddled in polar gear swaying hither and yon as the sea sucks and swells, woolly hats bobbing to the rhythm of their feet.
Recently the Atlantic exploded with such force against the sea wall in the fishing harbour that gates were washed away, windows in the diving ‘hut’ smashed and a trawler sank at its quayside moorings. Seaside homes had boulders delivered to their living rooms, bedrooms and garages on the back of brutal waves which smashed everything in their path. Tents and marquees erected for the annual Whale Festival landed up in trees and out at sea…and everyone agreed that it was the worst winter in living memory.
In time the gates were recovered from the seabed, slightly misshapen, but restored to their rightful place nevertheless. Divers fitted sliding sea-proof shutters to their hut and the pier was strengthened with vast quantities of concrete blocks: chunks of rusted boat were dredged up and sold as scrap. Now there are no more trawlers in the little harbour.
The sea is an icy bottle green: hail pounds the roof of our car as we battle to find a sheltering Milkwood: waterfalls race down mountainsides into the lagoon which, once again has reached saturation point. My mobile buzzes with a text from the municipality warning of heavy rainfall over the weekend , high winds and severe flooding.
It’s the first day of Spring.