From Boatsheds to Battlefields 44 Race to Market

End of 43rd Entry: Then a boat hoisting sail set her course for Table Bay. Instantly the fleet ceased its fishing and in a few minutes, every boat was racing for the markets.

The Easterly wind had dropped soon after snoek had been biting and until noon the sea was like glass – as soon as the boats started off home, however, a strong Westerly wind was coming down, and with a good beam wind the ‘Violet’ went crashing Sou’ West through a welter of rushing white horses.

Soon the coast a mass of black jagged rocks rose threatening before her, but the skipper held on till near the breaking surf – then round into the wind swung the boat, hesitating a moment with fluttering canvas – the headsail filled and bore the bows round, and as she paid off the mainsail swung over, filled – and off went the ‘Violet’ roaring out to sea aslant the wind.

When well to the windward of the snow-white beach at whose edge the ‘Alice’ was already lying Violet’s skipper once again brought her head into the wind, round she came and with sea and wind behind went flying down on even keel and a little later a merry crew were casting fish after fish on to a pile. When the catch was altogether the crew shared equally, this done each man threw an eighth of his share to go to the boat’s owners.

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“Three stockfish and thirty snoek apiece” quoth Mick gleefully to Jack as he turned to bargain with the Indian owner of a fish hawker’s cart – “Come on Sammy fifty bob the lot.”

“Twenty shillings,” said the hawker “Berry much snoek to-day.”

“Garn – the ‘Alice’ crew only shared out two stockfish apiece – ‘Violet’ got all the snoek no Cape Town boats – 45/- – Sammy!”

“Me give twenty-five!” but eventually he paid thirty and retailed the lot at £2/5.

District Six fish merchants

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 43 Harvest of the Sea

End of 42nd Entry: There seemed no bottom to the sea – fathom after fathom of line ran out – however the rush of line at last slackened and gently hauling in the fishermen got the true depth and slowly raising and lowering their lines kept the baited hooks a foot or two from the ground.

Suddenly Mick felt an added weight to his line – instantly he struck hard across the gunwale and began hauling in with heart and soul. Now and again he felt the weight stirring feebly but there was no live, fighting demon, hooked only a solid mass it seemed.

An eternity of hauling and a big-headed, slimy bodied fish came to the surface and began to make a weak attempt to struggle – lifting it into the boat Mick swung it between his knees picked up the cudgel at his feet and with a smashing blow stunned it. Unhooking the fish he rebaited the hook and dropped the line overboard.

Dawn was slowly breaking and now and again one of the crew hauled in a fish, but it was deadly slow, monotonous work, and Mick found far more excitement and interest in the distant view of Table Mountain, the surrounding boats and the faraway peaks of the Drakenstein and Hottentot Holland Mountains.

At last the sun broke from the horizon and soon after what little activity had been shown by the fish ceased. Boats now began to pull away back to the distant shore and the ‘Violet’s’  skipper with a grunt started to haul in his lines.

“Three a man and two for the boat – it is good,” he remarked in Cape Dutch. He was satisfied with the catch – stockfish were selling at 1/3 to 1/9 apiece and anything over 3/- per man was a good day’s earnings in the slack season – when the great shoals of snoek came men would earn up to £2 a day – but meanwhile – a few shillings a day from fish, a few shillings from precious mountain flowers gathered at infinite risk and with much labour was plenty.

Living cost little or nothing and one could get drunk for a shilling. Life was simple and presented few worries.

A light easterly breeze sprung up soon after the stockfish banks were left and as the first cats’ paws darkened the water the mast was stepped – at first the sail made little difference, but it was not long before the breeze freshened, and the ‘Violet’ with added impetus started to forge ahead as the light duck bellied out to the wind.

Soon the boat heeled slightly over and her bows diving into the playful wavelets sent a chorus of gurgles and splashes into the soft warm air. The oars were laid in and sprawling on the thwarts the fishermen lit pipes and gave themselves up to slumber, Mick taking the tiller and mainsheet.

More to kill time than out of seriousness Mick, finding little to do in the light breeze, opened his line box and fitted a trolling line – a great barbless hook bent on to two feet of stout picture wire softened by fire had a tiny circlet, from which dangled a dozen narrow strips of sharkskin, slipped above it – a long cone shaped lead covered with a burnished brass skin was passed down the wire to hold the lure and help it – making the wire fast onto a strong fishing line Mick flung it overboard, let it run perhaps twenty feet and fastened the line around his leg.

Now and again he hauled in and flung out the line but with little interest – suddenly as he was hauling, something swirled at the surface Mick felt the line almost torn from his hands and with a wild yell of “Vas – Snoek you blighters” the youth hauled with might and main at something which fought like a thing possessed.

At his shout, the boat’s crew galvanized into mad activity – line boxes were flung open – similar trolling lines to Mick’s hurled overboard and every man began to pull in, throw out, haul back like a set of demons, meanwhile Mick brought a streak of burnished silver with long narrow pikelike jaws to the boat’s counter.

The thing fought desperately – it’s back a ridge of cruel spines standing erect, it’s doglike teeth snapping viciously, seizing the wire close to the devil’s mouth Mick heaved four feet of furious fighting fish under his armpit, slipped a thumb into one of it’s eyes, his fingers closing hard against a ridge under the lower jaw and releasing the hook flung it overboard. Bending he picked up the cudgel cracked Mr. Snoek neatly on the centre of his skull and dropping him, grabbed again at his line.

The others had not been idle and as the boat sailed easily along her sides were filled with silver flashes. For five minutes the work was fast and furious then the shoal either all caught or diverted by something was lost. Though far from other craft their activity had been seen by some keen Malay eye, and a score of boats turning from the homeward course was racing down, the crews bending backward and forwards like automatic figures.

Mick scrambled back to the bows and the skipper resumed his position. Again came the cry “Vas” and once more the crew flung themselves into furious work. Other boats sailed by – some cast anchor and dropped over baited lines and for two hours with brief spells between shoals, the fishermen laboured at gathering the harvest of the sea.

Then a boat hoisting sail set her course for Table Bay. Instantly the fleet ceased its fishing and in a few minutes, every boat was racing for the markets.

 

 

 

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 42 The Romance of Sail

Cape Town slept peacefully beneath the sheltering mass of grey old Table Mountain. Now and again a belated cab or a wagon of farm produce clattered, or rumbled noisily through deserted streets – the tramp of policeman sounded eerily in the stillness. The yellow flashes of his lantern cutting long beams through the air laden with sea and valley mists.

Below Adderley Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, some two hundred heavily built fishing boats lay massed on the tiny beach of Rogge Bay and though midnight had not long passed dark figures singly and in pairs, in little groups were already appearing from the town and gathering in knots around their craft.

Rogge Bay.

Soon a move was made – sixteen wiry powerful fishermen collected round one boat – stout poles were slipped through rope nooses in bow and stern – the men lined out four on either side of the bow and four on either side of the stern, bending they got their shoulders under the poles and on a sharp order from the boat’s skipper lifted the heavy boat and staggered down to the water’s edge.

Once the work started it progressed rapidly three or four crews combining to carry each other’s craft down. The co-workers tally of boats complete mast and sail wrapped in stout tarpaulin, heavy stone anchors, anchor rope, oars, line boxes, cudgels for stunning fish and other gear were swiftly brought down and stowed – oars were slipped and soon boat after boat rowed into the dark covered night.

Two of the fishing craft, ‘Violet’ and ‘Alice’ seemed strangers amongst the rest of the fleet, and no helping hands appeared to be extended to their crew. ‘Alice’ a lighter type than the standard fishing boat presented no difficulty to the two crews easily carrying her down. ‘Violet’ on the other hand was an exceptionally heavy, five-oared craft, and the air around her was sulphurous as seven men and a white youth vainly endeavoured to half carry, half drag her.

“Damn these Malays” ejaculated Mick “they wouldn’t help an outsider if he was starving – I’m not going to strain my back or heart – say, Jack, what about cadging a bit of help from one or other of the boats?”

“You can try Mr. Osmond” answered the other powerful, bearded white man – “mebbe hearing your winning tongue a miracle might happen, but I ain’t bettin’ on it.”

Explaining his intentions to the others, a wild looking lot of Cape Coloured men, Mick dived into the mass of busy fisherfolk and in the dim light sought for one of the old pureblood Malay skippers. A white-bearded turbaned man, short, stout and evidently of importance was soon found.

Gravely the skipper listened to Mick’s tale of woe and answered in a merry full voice “Young Gentleman my people do not like these Clifton people – they are drunken scoundrels and it is not good for young white gentlemen to be with them. However, for your sake, I will give help” and in a few words sent half a dozen Malays to Mick’s help.

“Proper gentlemen the old Malay people are” remarked Mick to Jack as they helped stow away the boat’s gear after thanking the helpers.

“Aye Mr. Osmond” answered the fisherman, “Malays, Blacks, Chinese, and South Sea Islanders, they are all gentlefolk with manners and morals, until white man’s religion and white man’s civilisation spoils ’em.”

The two boats soon pushed off – their own fishing station was some six miles by land from Cape Town but the previous week a howling North West gale had caught them at sea, and the skipper after a stern battle had turned and run for Three Anchor Bay only to find the surf running too heavily to venture in. Cape Town then remained the only resource so squaring away the two boats went tearing down before the strong wind and heavy following sea.

Mick had been in ‘Alice’ the lighter of the two and had found all the thrills he wanted. This time he was pulling the bow in the ‘Violet’ and it wasn’t long before he was cursing freely for the boat was as heavy to pull as to carry. The ‘Alice’ had taken three men beside the skipper, leaving the ‘Violet’ the same number which made her two short for a full crew.

Slowly the fishing boat was pulled across Table Bay passing by many sparred Sailing Ships, rolling slowly at their anchorage, under the towering sides of huge cargo steamers, in amongst dainty racing yachts until a mile from the beach they rounded the gates of Cape Town’s docks and entered into a world of ghostly creakings, manifold smells and weird shapes and shadows.

Here the fishing fleet gathered under the skeleton arms of monstrous cranes, besides great ocean liners, next to sea battered sailing craft, beside slimy green coated wharvers, and began to reap a harvest of small fish to be used as bait for bigger relations.

Holding candles and lanterns close to the surface of the water and liberally sowing breadcrumbs, the fishermen soon had shoal after shoal of a small type of herring swimming up to the lights – a large scoop net on the end of a pole was then brought into play and before long the boat’s flooring boards were covered with beautifully tinted fish. As each boat satisfied its’ wants it began to move off to the far distant fishing grounds.

There was no wind so as the boats gathered way, crews settled into the long Cape Stroke each man rising to his feet and with all his weight pulling slowly and steadily until his body sat once more on the thwart and the oar loom was against his breast – the skipper reversing the process and pushing against his oar.

The sea, black and noiseless, heaved slowly in mountain-like rollers and deep hollows, but as the oars dipped into the dark water and rose back into the air, molten streams of violet fire ran from the blades.

“Terrible lot of phosphorous to-night Jack” called Mick from the bows.

“Aye, it will have been that Nor’ Wester done that” answered Jack spitting overboard – “tis a good sign for fish and a spell o’ quiet at sea – it’s pretty stuff. Wish to blazes we could get a breeze though – it’s about ten miles to the Stockfish banks and from there ’bout fourteen to Clifton – Blast fishing I say ’tis a crool hard life – but there’s wuss.” he ended emphatically.

“What’s worse, Jack?” asked Mick laughingly.

“Afore the mast on a windbag” answered the other. “Foolish folk make pictures and write books and poems about the romance of sail, and weep ‘cos it’s days are passing. Damn good job says I – them that likes sailing ships let them vige with ’em” says I “it’ll learn them not to be foolish minded I reckon. Three pun ten a month and that stolen at the end – a body full o’ sores – a constitution ruined by wet – all crippled and broken with work and livin’ on stuff what writers and poets and suchlike wouldn’t give their dorgs they wouldn’t, and if they did the dorgs wouldn’t eat it not they. Blast sailing ships I say.”

Three hours of hard work brought the ‘Violet’ to her fishing ground an hour before dawn – all around the night was alive with the splash of oars and creak of hole pins whilst muffled voices sounded faintly from the dark. It was too deep to anchor so two men gently held the boat against the drift of current as the other three dropped their thick cotton lines overboard – each line was weighted by a heavy cone-shaped sinker of lead above which there were three immense barbed hooks baited with whole Cape Herring.

There seemed no bottom to the sea – fathom after fathom of line ran out – however the rush of line at last slackened and gently hauling in the fishermen got the true depth and slowly raising and lowering their lines kept the baited hooks a foot or two from the ground.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 19 Parenting Advice

End of 18th Entry: “Smartly done me, lad! Smartly done!” said the Skipper laughing as he dropped his line overboard.

For an hour the crew fished catching a few of the reddish white Silverfish and a couple of large-mouthed goggle-eyed red bodied fish called Jacopever whose name was supposed to come from a resemblance to an old sea captain of that name.

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The fish were not biting briskly though and Old Jack’s grumbles became a source of irritation to the Skipper who at last gave the order to weigh anchor and make sail.

“You’d make a darn good success driving a hearse Jack,” said the stroke oar a taciturn worthy “Pity your mother didn’t smother you when you were a kid.”

Growling some indistinguishable reply Jack proceeded to slack away the anchor rope from the bow-post and slip it on the small wheel over which it was hauled. The rest of the crew tailing on the rope soon had the anchor up and hoisting it aboard proceeded to make sail.

“Had a good day, Mick? asked the Skipper as he shipped the rudder and slackened off the sheet.

“The best of my life!” answered the boy enthusiastically.

“Well if your people will let you, I’ll take you out on a real fishing trip – be at the boatsheds at four on Saturday morning.

“Oh! Thank you, Mr. Pienaar, I’ll be down, no fear.”

“I don’t hold with little byes going in boats.” Remarked Jack “I reckons as how boats and sojers spiles byes, makes ’em unsettled and takes them from their learning, if I had a bye I’d learn him better than go mucking about wi boats and ships I would – put wrong idees in byes heads it does.”

“How’d you bring up a youngster, Jack?” asked the stroke oar.

“I dunno exactly – never had one to bring up but the way people brings up byes and gurls nowadays haint my idee of bringing up byes and gurls it haint, take the byes and gurls of this here place, they haint byes and gurls to my thinking they’s wild animals” and Jack expectorated at a passing gull.”

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Mickey gazed at the Old Salt with speechless indignation, then said, “I suppose he likes a blooming milksop in a lace collar and a velvet suit, a girlie girlie with long golden locks!”

“Oh Jack likes everything that’s contrary to other folks’ opinions,” remarked the Skipper grinning.

The boat was running before the wind with the mainsail squared away, and pleasant though the smooth run of the boat was to others, Mick began to yearn for something less tame. The stroke oar had shown him how to tie his fish into a bunch by passing a strip of osies (can’t find a translation) through the gills and mouth – he had asked all the questions he could think of for the moment and at the end of the trip was approaching too rapidly for his liking.

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“Can’t we have just one more run against the wind, Mr. Pienaar,” he asked “Only a small one.”

“Sorry Mick, it’s too late and we are not for pleasure – this is our job and like all jobs, we’re glad to see it over just as you are when school finishes.”

“I said a kid shouldn’t be allowed in boats,” remarked Jack ‘it spiles them and they’re allers in the way askin’ questions and worrying folk – you gives a bye a happle and he wants a cake to eat with it, byes is a worrit to their pa’s and ma’s and to everybody else. I don’t like byes I don’t.”

Mick put out his tongue at the fisherman’s back a feat which drew much silent mirth from the two Malay half-breeds.

By this time Boat Bay had been reached and with a fast dropping wind the fishing craft rounded the reef and the tide being high ran onto the tiny beach.

A tiny crowd of people drawn by curiosity or the desire to buy fresh fish gathered round and proudly Mick sprang ashore noting with glee the envious looks of half a dozen school companions.

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From Boatsheds to Battlesheds 17 Mastering Fear

End of 16th Entry: “Only small stuff biting today – What say, Jack, shall we run out to a Silverfish mark?”

“Dunno if Silverfish bite in the afternoon” answered the bow – I don’t hold with fishing in the afternoon – seems to me fish rests after dinner time, don’t blame ’em I don’t.”

The Skipper laughed “Anyhow there’s a good breeze so we’ll walk down.”

In a few minutes lines were rolled up, oars stowed and at “All hands to the anchor!” the crew hailed onto the heavy rope the boy hauling with heart and soul, feeling that indeed he was a man of the sea and no idler.

The anchor up, came what to the boy was the best of all – the uncasting of sail covers, stepping of the mast and making fast the runners – then, at last, the jib and mainsail unfurled, the jib made fast, the sprit shipped up went the big mainsail, healing over the boat dashed through the water sending the spray flying over the crew – absolutely terrified the lad saw the lee gunwale buried in angry seething water, heard the crash of bow meeting wave, and hanging desperately to the windward gunwale felt the stinging bite of spray and wind – for a few moments he could but cling with wide open eyes feeling death’s icy grip upon his neck.

“Come back aft Mick” he heard the Skipper shout and as one returning from afar and strange land he looked round to see the crew lying comfortably smoking apparently feeling safe as ever.

Instantly the boy’s faculties returned and crawling back from amidships where he had been trying to help make sail, he crouched next to the Skipper. “Cold Youngster? Shove this on.” and the fisherman handed the boy a sea stained jersey.

Proudly Mick donned the garment which, though it would have held a dozen of him, was warm and thick; besides possessing the merit of being a real fisherman’s property.

“I was awfully scared when the boat keeled over so.” He confided rather anxiously, wondering whether confusion would cause the Skipper to think him a coward.

“Well you didn’t look scared which is all that matters, son.” answered the other, “everybody gets scared at times but the man that’s a real man doesn’t show it. Take sailing in a hard gale, the Skipper sees a heavy squall coming – there’s a toss-up whether the boat can stand it, carrying the sail she is, he’s scared white and his heart’s feeling like jelly, but he’s got to light his pipe and look as though its fine fun, if he lets fear get him beat his crew see he is afraid. Everybody would lose his self-confidence and when the squall struck, ten to one the Skipper would do the wrong thing, or a frightened man might grab hold of the tiller or sheet – and over would go the boat.”

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“It’s the same with everything in life – we’ve all got the same weaknesses but the man that can master them can master men. Take old Jack there – you’ve seen him drunk – well that’s because he’s like a boat with a skipper, a squall strikes him, that’s a bit o’ money in his pocket and an open bar door, Jack gets frightened so instead of holding on he casts off his mainsheet loses his way – and Jack swings broadside and over.”

“Avast there” shouted the old fisherman “Taint decent to be making fun of a grown man afore a kid.”

Meanwhile, the boat flew like a bird across the wind, white-crested wavelets rose and fell crashing and hissing around, a few penguins swam easily behind hoping for scraps of fish and offal, now and again a magnificent Malgas, the lesser Albatros, swooped low; rose, high towards the heavens, poised an instant. Then sweeping through the air like a bullet, dived deeply into the sea, clamoured and shrieked, now and again the snakey head and long neck of a cormorant rose like a periscope above the waves.

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Landwards lay ranges of grey haze shrouded mountains, white beached bays and broken cliffs – houses to cling to hill slope or rested amongst the pine woods between sea and hill, along the shore a mass of white surf and distant thunder told of the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and African Continent.

“Now Mick” called the Skipper to the boy who had clamoured back into the bows, his fears vanished and his whole being thrilled with the joy of life, “Come aft and tell me how I must steer to get on the bank.”

Quickly working his way back the eager youngster looked shorewards.

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 15 The Boer War

End of 14th Entry: …the Boer War which was still raging and all the world appeared to be flocking into “The Old Tavern of the Seas.”

Glancing at the crew the boy felt a thrill as he sensed how close reality was to fiction. The skipper had a brother who was a rebel – he himself had uncles and cousins fighting on both sides. His father was in the Town Guard, his father’s brother in an irregular mounted regiment of wild young bloods from the four corners of Africa, refugees from the mining fields most of them – his father’s house was an open home for soldiers of England, lavishly entertained though his family was a large one and his people had to battle desperately to keep their heads up on a Civil Servant’s salary and war prices.

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Cape Rebels 

It was jolly exciting he thought, “wonder what Mother thinks with Uncle Will a prisoner-of-war – darn thrilling having had two Uncles with Cronje, and Uncle Toby and those big Australian cousins of his with Roberts, all in the same battle. What would happen if Uncle Toby charged in and met Uncle Will or Uncle Jack? Of course, Uncle Toby would use the bayonet and of course he would win because he was “fighting for England”.

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British Infantry

Those were the days when England’s Might stood like the Rock of Gibraltar and a man spoke not of Britain or the British Empire but of England and England’s Colonies – as the dwellers in the wild far North trembled and feared the King of Beasts so the Nations of the world hated and feared the Island race, Britannia the Pride of the Ocean: Rule Britannia, The Soldiers of the Queen and “they may build their ships my lads” were the songs of the day and the Union Jack waved proudly Mistress of the Seven Seas.

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Rule Britannia

Looking at the skipper Mick wondered if it was really true that he and the stroke oar were the men, who climbing the buttressed tower of Lion’s Head, had hauled down the Union Jack and hoisted the flag of the South African Republic.

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The Red Duster

They had an armed guard on the mountain now and perhaps the skipper would be shot trying to repeat the daring deed. His eye fell on the two young Malay half-breeds who pulled between bow and stroke instantly his mind swung to a tale of Gomes filled with thrills of Rajah Brooke, Sea Dyaks, Land Dyaks and those champion men of the seas the Malay pirates “The Orchid Hunters” darn fine yarn that.

Sir James Brooke Rajah of Sarawak by Sir Francis Grant

Sir James Brooke

Out to sea, a great sailing ship was coming down the wind like some monstrous white bird. “She’ll be English won’t she Jack? Full rigged ship by the look of her – coming from Australia”. The bow oar cast a glance over his shoulder and sent a long yellow stream from his mouth to meet a curling wave.

“You blooming youngsters think you know a mighty lot when you doesn’t know nothing!” he answered. “She’s Yank – and a four-masted baroque – running afore the wind makes her look like a ship – bringing wheat.” “How do you know she’s Yank?” asked the boy crestfallen.

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“She’s carrying skysails ain’t she? British ships don’t carry ’em any longer, not to my knowledge they don’t and I left the sea afore you was having napkins changed I did.”

A cry of “Hold Water” from the skipper broke the thread of the boy’s musings as to how Old Jack would look as the central figure in a scene entitled “walking the plank“.

 

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 13 To the Crags

End of 12th Entry: So passed four happy years of life spent in continual struggle with wind and wave and though always the mountain loomed in the background and often thought lingered on her cliffs and hovered over her hidden joys of heights ascended, glens explored no opportunity came to wrest them from the unknown, until I reached nearly sixteen.

At fourteen I began to be entrusted with the loan of goels (The Yiddish word for redemption) and to be sought after to take the tiller when surf broke heavily in our tiny cove. Also, I knew just where the fish were and what varieties to go after so more and more I left the canoes and went out from other bays with older fellows or gathered crews for boats I borrowed in the home-place. I found myself always sure of a place in any canoe which put out at times when I was short of hands or anxious for a spin. Gradually some of us began to get in with yachting men and to devote much of our time to sailing in racing craft in Table Bay.

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Then when near sixteen I made a chum of a boy of my own age whose people had come from suburbs lying inland against the mountain. What the sea was to me the mountain was to him and we began to compare the two. I took him out, taught him sea and fish love but always his heart clung to the Crags.

We began walks on the hillside, made a few ascents on Lion’s Head and did one or two cliffs and soon the glamour of the lonely places and the grandeur of the hills caught me so for a while the sea was left in the background and my eyes turned to and were held by the mountain.

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Together we climbed and explored, rent the treasure of flower and heath, faced wet and cold, sun and heat, mist and wind, cliff and crag and ever the fascination grew. Many an evening, many a night and many a day the two of us tramped the hillside, clamoured amongst the peaks and corries, drank at the crawling mountain burns. Often early hours found us perched on the roof of the world watching tiny white-winged craft skimming over the blue main where my old-time chums followed the old ways.

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But I was content. I loved the harsh naked rock walls, the deep gloomy wooded chasms, the wild crags of my new world. Crawling along the narrow ridges, an immensity of space below, a sheer unclimbable wall above; worming through natures chimneys carefully, painfully climbing rock corners, zigzagging a perilous way up some louring buttress I was ever filled with joy o’ life in feeling the thrill of adventure, of surmounting Death’s traps of playing with the grim enemy.

Together with mountaineering I took up cycling and on foot of bike searched the long wonderful coastline of the Cape Peninsula. The fairyland of Constantia – old world farmhouses, set in vineyards and orchards and woodland, clinging to hill and mountainside, backed by frowning cliff and wooded cleft, overhung by gigantic dark ramparts, broken with glen of silvery poplar, intersected with grove and thicket of fir and oak, looking down on blue lagoon and snow white strand with the deep azure of waters of the mountain-locked False Bay fringed with crested wave.

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 12 Four Happy Years

End of 11th Entry: Our light canvas canoes, speedy easily handled and seaworthy dodged in and out of the channel when a heavy boat risked swamping ere she got full way on her and though often our canoes were capsized, now and again broken we all swum like fish and a most merciful providence invariably landed us no further hurt than bruises.

In the beginning, we were content with double-bladed paddles and fishing close inshore or paddling out into the midst of a fishing fleet on in-lying banks. Then one youth fitted his canoe with a pair of skulls and a rudder.

This enterprising individual now made his chum row whilst he steered and when need arose assisted his crew’s efforts with the original paddle. Other owners enthusiastically followed suit and as we were all keen on canoe building the new models were enlarged and widened more well given and space made for two oarsmen.

At this time the majority of us were in receipt of very tiny allowances seldom exceeding a shilling a week. The cost of material needed for a canoe was an obstacle requiring some ingenuity to surmount. We made however quite good money at fishing and material I blush to say came in ways which would have caused our relatives many a thrill of horror.

We required canvas – tarpaulin did splendidly – paint, ceiling boards for ribs, flooring boards for strips, good solid deal (pinewood) for keel shapes and bow and stern posts and in many a mysterious way they arrived. We never manifested any curiosity as to where our friends procured their necessities and most certainly we evaded all reference if any was made as to how we got ours.

But now we longed for swifter flight over the bosom of the Atlantic and sailing experiments came to the fore whereby our people were left puzzling over lost bedsheets and tablecloths though soon the money made fishing enabled us to have real sails, masts, booms and sprits made by sailmakers in town and we took our places as equals nay superiors in sea craft amongst fisherfolk.

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So passed four happy years of life spent in continual struggle with wind and wave and though always the mountain loomed in the background and often thought lingered on her cliffs and hovered over her hidden joys of heights ascended, glens explored no opportunity came to wrest them from the unknown until I reached nearly sixteen.

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 11 A Beautiful Present

From 10th Entry: For long I had been a pet amongst them and often I had begged to put to sea and at last as they ran the boat into the water Jack, the skipper, shouted “Jump in Youngster!” and in a second I had tumbled into the stern sheets and was embarked on a great adventure.

Often I had ridden the rollers in imagination and pictured and felt in my mind the sensations of climbing the mighty rollers and rushing into their trough but now I found the reality far more wonderful and glorious than the wildest flights of dreamland had given me. Clambering into the bow I faced the breaking white horses, reveled in the salty twang and bite of the wind, caught my breath as a wanton wave smashed against the boat and buried me in foaming water and spray.

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A couple of miles out we threw anchor and soon the crew were busy with fishlines and great was my delight at hooking and hauling in a few mackerel. But soon the smell of old half rotten bait, the violent pitching, and rolling of the boat brought on violent seasickness. However, the bout did not last long and when eventually we hoisted anchor and set sail for shore I had given myself altogether to the sea. A year or two went by and I went out more and more often. Barely a Saturday, or holiday but I managed to evade authority and get out to sea or wandered along the coast.

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At twelve I entered the cadet corps and for a while took soldiering seriously for the Boer War was just ending. During the three previous years, I had seen and heard much of the rear lines of the fighting army. We were armed with old Martini-Henry carbines and often I smuggled mine out to sea with looted cartridges and practiced at seabirds, or hunted the mountainside for rare and strictly protected game.

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Then came the present of a beautiful decked canoe, a craft seaworthy, unsinkable and able to stand fairly heavy sea. Every moment I could now steal was devoted to fishing and most of the catches I found little difficulty in disposing of to buyers on the beach. Other youngsters now took up the life and in a year there were a dozen boys rivaling the fishermen at their own game and with the daring of boyhood faring forth in weather the men feared facing.

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Our light canvas canoes, speedy easily handled and seaworthy dodged in and out of the channel when a heavy boat risked swamping ere she got full way on her and though often our canoes were capsized, now and again broken we all swum like fish and a most merciful providence invariably landed us no further hurt than bruises.

 

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 10 In the Service of the Wild

Excerpt from 9th Entry: … bellowing a stream of Danish oaths Jansen with a tremendous twist of the steering oar sent the boat spinning round and as her bow came seawards……

I was ten years old when first I ventured into the open sea and from that morning I date my life begun in the service of the wild.

Well even now more than a score of years after do I remember the scene, a cold leaden day, the sea a vast expanse of white-crested breaking wavelets, the hills and mountains half hidden in swirling mist all – sea, mountain and town cheerless and chilled.

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Our Subcraft possessed a tiny torturous channel through the rocks into the open sea and in a barely sheltered cove stood half a dozen or less rough sheds of wood and iron in which were stored a few boats and a mass of sea gear – ropes, sails, oars, salt, stained clothing, fishing lines and nets – caves of Aladdin to imaginative boys soaked in romance of the sea.

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The owners and crews of these craft were ordinary townsmen to their friends but to us dauntless heroes in disguise. Often I laugh now at how we looked upon staid Lawyers and Clerks given to fishing and mild rowing and sailing as worthy fellows of Morgan, Kidd and Teach and how many a night we lay wondering whether they were running cargoes through the wild weather outside.

Devoutly we prayed that our stout policeman was not hidden near the sheds ready to lead forward a rush of sailors from whatever warship lay in the dock. Often I shivered and held my breath with horror as I pictured some particular hero who had let me carry fish or gear, being cut down by a cutlass wielded by some brawny salt and I always prayed that the smugglers would get away and drag with them our unfortunate constable whom I doomed to the plank, the stake and marooning on Robben Island.

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But if the amateur seafaring men were heroes, the crew of our one real fishing boat was of those admitted to the highest circle of the Elect. That they ventured to sea at night, went on to offices, lived in tiny huts on the mountain, craved all weathers, spoke a real jargon of the sea and looked prototypes of our book heroes – ragged bronzed hairy, burly, seafaring men stamped them to our minds as hell marked.

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From these men of the sea I had learned to splice and knot, to distinguish the rig of different craft which passed going in and out of the Bay and much of the life of the forecastle. Only three of the fishermen had been deepwater seamen but they ventured many a year in sailing ships and varied the life of the ocean with all manner of spells ashore. Today I think back but even now my thoughts of two are good thoughts and rough and wild as they brought very little of evil into our minds.

For long I had been a pet amongst them and often I had begged to put to sea and at last, as they ran the boat into the water Jack, the skipper, shouted “Jump in Youngster!” and in a second I had tumbled into the stern sheets and was embarked on a great adventure.

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