It is my hope that putting this voice out into our world has value, not only for me, but for others, as well. I admit to sometimes entertaining dreams of it going viral, of infecting the world with my vision. But most of the time I am content to be motivated by Gandhi's assertion: whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rowing into light

"I think you should go through the dunes and grainfields to Salamander Bay one day in the spring, when the wildflowers are blazing in the sailors' cemetery. There are ghosts of ships and seamen in that old harbour, but the ghosts of Salamander harm no one ...”

lines from Lawrence Green and immortalised for me by a yellowing piece of paper on which they hung above the large table of our childhood family holiday home, nearby.

Phoebe's grin is centred in the frame, and stays there. If she shifts, I remind her to shift back, to keep us balanced. The slightest imbalance is discomfort in the oars. Her long hair flows outward from the centre of her scalp. And behind that stretches the transient mark of our passing – little eddies that live fleetingly and then return to stillness. There is something about the stillness in this place that speaks of deep connection. The stillness and the light. This is a place that has held me for as long as I can remember, and holds me still.

Constable Hill in the misty distance gives some verticality to the picture. Otherwise all is low and flat and balanced. From down here at water level the wreck is an almost imperceptible dark line, barely protruding above the mixture of water and light through which we seem to row. The ungainly grunts of the flamingoes, otherwise such graceful creatures, are muted, like the wreck, by light and distance. And the rhythmical sound of the rowlocks is the auditory equivalent of our wake, cutting through the stillness.

My sister believes that it is important to know how to row, that it is an essential life skill albeit one that is somewhat out of place in the largely urban lives we live. For us it was. We needed rowing to engage with our wonderful world of childhood family holidays. It was our ticket of independence into that expanse of water over which we could voyage, first to the little granite islands of discovery and childhood fantasies, that lay close to home and then further afield to the rocky point where rays glided silently below the surface, along the endless, sandy shorelines of bubble weed, to white rock protruding high into the distant light, and the far shore, known to us all as the other side.

And it is in the same little boat in which I learnt to row almost 40 years ago, that we now make our steady rhythmical progress towards the wreck. And it is across the same water, pretty much. And the same light – light that is perhaps like nowhere else on earth, especially in the winter, when the veld is green and the land less bleached, the sun warms rather than burns and the light through the fresh, clear air is at its richest.

The boat's name is The Pram. Sebastian asks me why and I realise that I have never thought about why it would be called that. It is just what it has always been. But I realise when I give it some thought, that it served us at a certain stage as a pram would a child in a town – an essential carrier for early explorations along life's journey. 

My sister is out somewhere ahead of us on the water, a small, dark shape below moving paddles. She is with the boys. I am with the girls. I have a very clear image in my memory from long ago of us together in a boat, rowing. We are in a place, not far from here along these shores, whose name has always conjured up romance and mystique for me, and perhaps now even more so, as it is a place, like the place of our childhood holidays, that is out of bounds: behind the barbed wire of a military fence. I remember it as a place of half sunken wrecks, and of beauty: Salamander Bay.

When the right swells are running in the wild, open ocean beyond, they can make it around the South Head to curve as small neat lines into the flat sheltered waters of the lagoon. There is a small, momentary, translucent curl before they break, onto the white ribbon of sand along the shore of Salamander Bay. It is just beyond this translucent curl that we are rowing. It is winter. And in the image my sister and I are laughing, laughing with the pure abandonment and joy of children.

Such energy from the open ocean does not reach this far up the lagoon. The waves that crash onto sixteen mile beach continue their landward journey over the empty dunefields only as sound, providing a background roar that accentuates rather than disturbs the stillness. Here the water silently engulfs. And we now glide slowly over sandbanks that earlier lay exposed in the distance.

I notice how for Phoebe and her cousin Kira, who sits centred in the boughs, the experience of this voyage is different to mine. Although it is different for each of us, I am confident that on all it works its magic. When you row you face backwards. The girls face forwards and so Phoebe and I look into each other's eyes in the centre of our respective frames. In mine the background retreats. Hers is all about approach and anticipation. Mine is about stillness and reflection, hers about excitement.

My view is out across our wake and the water beyond it to the line of houses on the low ridge in the distance. I take a rough bearing from the land, but with the steady run of the tide up the lagoon and the lack of definition in the low strip of land, I must ask the girls from time to time if we are still heading the right way. They answer, “a little this way” or “that”, and so we stay on course, more or less.

The two of them are mostly chattering excitedly. Later they are pointing out starfish on the sand below us. When their “there and there and there...” becomes a continual stream I peer overboard, intrigued as to whether this is childhood imagination or adult reality. And yes, hundreds of starfish do continually flow through the sandy bottomed field of my under water view.

As I watch, I realise that this field is like the negative of a night-time torch beam. Its edges are not lost all around into darkness, but into light. And it is inverted too, for the expanse of stars is not above, but below.

Phoebe is more comfortable with the shallower water over the banks, than the deep waters of the channel. To be held over the unknown is disconcerting, even if it is an unknown of such exquisite blue.

There is always a part of this voyage to the wreck in which the row of tiny houses behind doesn't get any smaller for a long time and the dark line of the wreck, although distinguishable now above the light, doesn't get any larger. But rowing is about rhythm and patience. And this part of the voyage is a beautiful reminder that nothing about the retreating houses or the approaching wreck matters, now. All that matters is the sound of the rowlocks, the dip of the oars, the lapping of the water along the fibreglass hull, and the fleeting existence of the little eddies in our wake

The wreck smells strongly of salt and cormorant. It has borne honourably the passage of time in its dark rusted iron and weathered wood. From a distance it seems to float on the light, but once underfoot its heavy solidity is firmly grounded by the sands that shift around it. It is a steadfast witness to each slow inflow and outflow of the waters. And I like to think it lies here as firm, rusting testament to the hope that us humans, brief visitors to this timeless world of tides, can indeed establish some continuity of presence here, across the generations.

Curiously one of the shiny, black row of cormorants doesn’t take the low, graceless, flapping departure that the others do. It remains in place as we board. At first it is a little ill at ease about our intrusion, but over time it seems to accept us and gets on with its preening as if we were not there.

I row too little. I know this because for several days after our trip, my butt hurts when I sit. Softened by car seats and office chairs, it is unaccustomed to rough wooden seats and enduring the labour of long, steady, pulling rhythms. My hands, though, are up to the task, used as they are to a much harder hold than the roughly worn grain of the oars, accentuated by salt over much of their length, except where they are polished and thinned by years of rubbing on rowlocks.

On the way back from the wreck Kira sings “I have peace like a river”. Whoever wrote that song has never rowed across the lagoon from Stofbergsfontein on a brilliant winter's day, when the westerly is barely ruffling the surface of the water. If they had, they would have made more effort to fit the rhythm of the song around the word lagoon. But in fact, this lagoon is an ancient river, one that in its wisdom now knows that it has nowhere to go, nowhere to get to. And it simply breathes, in and out, in and out.

When she finishes the song, Kira is keen for a turn at the oars. I am impressed with her competence, wielding the oars which are so much bigger in her hands, than in mine. We make some progress, with me looking forwards instead of backwards, and our bearing remains more or less towards the shore. Later my sister takes the boys out in the rowing boat, but she complains bitterly about their inability to row competently.

I hope that will change. I hope that our whole next generation, like Kira seems to have, will buy into my sister's conviction about the importance of rowing.

All photos by Byron Hofmeyr

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