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Transkei memories — rusty fishing pliers and a faded...

South Africa


Photographs and memories — a pair of rusty fishing pliers and a faded Instamatic snapshot

Halcyon days on the beach at Port St Johns. (Photo: Supplied)

As I take out the old fishing pliers, I can smell the sea on the old Transkei coast and hear the surf against the rocks. I can feel the scratchy wool of my father’s jersey as he cradled me in his arms and taught me to fasten a sinker, a hook and a wire trace to a swivel using these pliers.

Today I am hanging a picture on the wall. My wife has visited an online auction and found a painting she loves. I long ago learned to trust and admire her judgement in decorating the house. And her creativity never ceases to amaze me. It does require, though, that I am present and accountable for certain practical necessities in helping to realise her vision, and today my job is to fit wire onto the back of the frame and hang it on the wall.

I pull out my toolbox from the cupboard in the kitchen. In the top plastic section lies a simple pair of fishing pliers from the early 1970s. I haven’t used them in a long time. They lie half-forgotten among screwdrivers, spanners and drill bits. The chromed longnose jaws are slightly rusted, especially at the edge of the wide-toothed fish scaler. The blue plastic-covered handles are worn and frayed.

As I take them out I smell the sea on the old Transkei coast and hear the surf against the rocks. I can feel the scratchy wool of my father’s jersey as he cradled me in his arms and taught me to fasten a sinker, a hook and a wire trace to a swivel using these pliers.

Hamilton Wende fishing on the beach with his father
Fishing with my dad. (Photo: Supplied)

Strictly speaking, he was my stepfather, but he raised me and my brother alongside my youngest brother and sister when my own father couldn’t do so. My mother was brave to leave a troubled marriage and walk into the unknown with two young children. John, my stepfather, stepped up to the challenge and gave us love and a life we could never have had otherwise.

I ran sobbing into his arms and into that same scratchy woollen fishing jersey when I was 12 years old and the telegram came that my father had died.

John passed away, too, some years ago, and those fishing pliers became a trusted inheritance. They reminded me of his genius with engines and machines, and of how he patiently taught me what he could about how to look and see, really see, for myself, how a certain machine worked. He was a poet of the mechanical world, of the finely measured shapes and rhythms of steel and wood.

On the revolving bookcase that he renovated for my 40th birthday stands a photograph that was taken the summer he bought those pliers at the fishing shop in Port St Johns. It was a long time ago, and my dad’s been dead for far too many years now, the emptiness of his loss still reverberating through my days. Not every day, sometimes the busyness of life fills one’s day too beautifully or with so much exhaustion that I do forget him for a while. But he always comes back, gently reminding of the tiny promise he asked of me when the cancer was desiccating his body.  “Please think of me from time to time,” when we were alone together in the living room filled with medicine containers, a urine bottle and a few other accoutrements of the humiliation of dying.

Those pliers and the photograph taken that holiday are talismans of the past and of what my dad meant to me. The picture is that of a young boy on the Transkei coast who was once me — his face caught in the moments before youth begins, still with a childhood innocence, a trusting uncertainty as he glares into the African sun. I wish now I had been able to love that boy more. If I could have only given him something more of courage and hope to help him face the difficulties of youth and of so much of just life that he had no idea of which lay ahead of him.

He is an African boy, a privileged white South African boy to be sure. In today’s South Africa, with its realities of poverty and anger, there is no way to blur that out. It is an indelible, unfaded truth that sentiment cannot overlook.

The photograph stands in front of my desk, and I see it whenever I look up from my computer. It is a palimpsest of memory whose contours shift and dwindle as the afternoon light creeps across the window behind it.

The colours are pale now, and the angle of the cheap Kodak Instamatic camera is skewed. My mother took the picture while my dad and my siblings looked on. 

It is no work of photographic art, and yet in its awkward simplicity, it holds a secret to my whole life. Or, perhaps, more accurately, an epiphany that I have tried to hold onto in the harder times of living, a distant hope recalled when there seems so little else to cling onto. We all have these, or, at least, we all need them.

Fifty years ago, my parents used to take us to Port St Johns for our yearly holidays. We slept in a small cottage with a thatched roof, white walls and no electricity.  It was a clean and simple place, a world away from the streets and suburbs of Johannesburg. I see now that by bringing us here my parents gave us something of Africa, showed us something more than the limited prejudices of white suburbia under apartheid. As children, we learned that there was much to value in the lives of the people around us.

Hamilton Wende's little brother at their Port St Johns cottage
My baby brother on the stoep of our cottage at Port St Johns. (Photo: Supplied)

The man who taught us so much of that was someone everyone called “Nine”. Even the local Xhosa people would hail him across the beach or on the dirt road that ran alongside the Umzimvubu River as “Nine”. He had worked on the mines up in Joburg and somehow — my childhood reminiscence doesn’t stretch that far — he had lost a finger in an accident underground, hence the nickname Nine. He had to return to the Transkei, and he became a fisherman and a guide to white tourists like our family. 

There are no simple South African stories. His was a life of hard labour, servitude and a clear tragedy that had scarred his body and his life, and yet he was a powerful man, respected in his community, and making the best of what the world he had been born into had to offer him.

My dad and he clicked immediately. There was, of course, no way to phone him from Joburg, but every year that we came down my dad would send word out and a day or so later, Nine was at our cottage. In the year that the photograph was taken, I was 11 and it was time I learned to fish properly. 

And so, I had two men who mentored me in their own ways. My dad took away my thin, reedlike fishing rod with its coffee grinder reel, so easy to use, and gave me a long black heavy rod with a Penn 49 reel. He took me onto the beach at the mouth of the Umzimvubu and showed me how to cast. I learned to cast on the beach, and I practiced for hours while my younger brothers and sister built sandcastles on the beach or paddled in the surf while my mother watched.

Hamilton Wende casting his line off the Port St Johns beach
Hamilton Wende dreaming of big fish, casting his line off the Port St Johns beach. (Photo: Supplied)

But it was Nine who taught me about the sea. He would take me onto the rocks near the mouth with my new rod, and we would linger. He squatted on his haunches while I stood next to him, holding my rod like a waiting sentry. He watched the ocean and the ebb and flow of the waves. He judged the hunger of the sea by the tides, and the wind, with an instinct honed by years of living within its patterns. I wonder now how much he must have learned as a boy like me from his own father, but we never spoke of such things. Nine never talked of his past, never explained about his finger. He would simply hold up his hand and show the scarred cicatrice of the stump, and laugh while we children looked on in awe and, yes, I do remember, with fear — the unkind terror that all maimed people instil in those of us who are more or less whole.

From time to time, as I look at the photograph in front of me, I think of Nine and wonder how much pain he hid behind that hoarse, bitter laugh.

After spending so many holidays in Port St Johns, I had learned only a few words of Xhosa and his English was serviceable, so we had few words between us. 

And, too, he was a black man and I a white boy in the years of apartheid.

There was a gulf between us that our world decreed must exist, and it was somewhere in the midst of that broken racial geography, and in the natural reticence of men and boys to talk of their feelings, that we both met in some way.

Finally, after watching the sea for what seemed to me far too long, Nine would nod and grunt and we would move cautiously across the mussel-strewn rocks to where Nine judged the fish would be most plentiful in the rise and fall of the swell.

He knew which fish lived where and what the best bait was to use for them. From the bag he carried he would take out the bait he thought was the right one. Chokka, red bait, sardines: I remember it like a mantra of wisdom whose infallible attractions for different fish I yearned to master. He would take a piece of one of these pungent, sometimes stinking, lumps of dead sea life and give it to me to bait my hook with. Then he would hand me the spool of elasticised cotton to wrap it fast around the stainless-steel curve of the hook.

I would use the pliers my dad had bought to fasten steel wire to the swivel, to cut a nylon line or to cinch a lead weight to another part of the line. Those pliers seemed to me the essence of innovation. They had a pair of notches at the end of the pointed nose for removing a hook from between a fish’s sharp teeth, and they had, too, that serrated edge on one of the steel jaws for scraping the scales away from the newly dead silvery skin. I couldn’t wait to use those on a fish of my own.

I wielded the pliers eagerly to create my own imperfect fishing traces, and bait them as best I could — usually with far too much cotton thread holding the smelly meat to the shank of the hook.

With growing hopes, I cast my childish handiwork into the rising and ebbing swells, just as my dad had taught me, and let Nine show me how to keep my line taut and my rod ready to strike as the sea moved it tantalisingly and mysteriously across the invisible rocks and gullies that lay beneath its waves.

But, day after day, I caught nothing. No matter where Nine chose to take us; no matter how far I cast, no matter what bait I used, I couldn’t catch a fish. My brothers and my sister all caught fish — small ones, to be sure, but real fish, pulled shining from the sea in their desperate, flapping and suffocating transitions from their life to death in our world.

So it went on for the whole two weeks of our holiday. We all would cast our lines into the heaving surf. I would stare at the thin nylon line as it weaved in the swells, hoping I would catch something. It was an eerie run of bad luck — I never got a single bite.

I tried to be brave about it, but I would lie awake for hours in bed under the thatched roof of the cottage watching the geckos run across the rough plastered white walls, listening to the pounding of the surf and trying to sleep while the frustrating waves of doubt and childish self-pity ebbed and flowed in time with the crash and whisper of the withdrawing waves on the beach in front of our cottage. I couldn’t believe that I had been cursed, but it was the first time in my life that I felt the debilitating vertigo of despair.

Each night, and each day that followed it brought me nearer to some painful sense of deep, private shame as the holiday grew to a close. I was still young enough to believe in magical thinking. I hoped for something — I wasn’t sure what — that would overcome the pitiless logic of the sea’s vast mystery. I knew the sea had a potency that was both utterly different and almost entirely unknowable to my 11-year-old mind.

Nine and my father seemed to understand it though — they caught fish, big fish, and reeled them with an adult eagerness and confidence that I could not yet grasp, but dared not allow myself to feel the poisoned temptation of envy. Their fish and the sea-hollowed depths they came from were beyond my understanding. I accepted that as I watched them on the foam-flecked rocks, holding their rods and moving them in time with the sea’s immutable self-knowledge; but I desperately wanted something of that certainty for myself. I felt somehow unworthy without it.

Looking back on it, I see that I wanted to discover something of the secret of manhood, by the act of defeating this unhappiness that had come unbidden into my life. To catch a fish, even one, then, as the holiday drew rapidly to an end, would have been an oracle of hope that I had only then come to understand that I might need. It would mean that I had found some way to mould the contours of my still vulnerable boyish self to the rhythmic omniscience of the sea, which rose and fell beyond the rocks I stood so unhappily on, holding onto my rod and fishing mutely for some act of invisible grace to emerge from its green, swirling surface, scaled with the uncertain light of the late afternoon sun.

But, no matter how I tried, it eluded me.

On the very last day of our holiday, Nine and my father decided that we should try fishing in the river mouth, only a little way upstream from where the brown of the river met the green of the sea.

We fished for an hour, perhaps two. I seem to remember my father caught something, and one of my brothers did too; but my line stayed taut and motionless, not a single fish was tempted by the bait on my hook.

We were just about to pack up. My father handed me his big fishing rod to hold while he brought in my mother’s line. Suddenly, I felt a tug on the line, and another one. Then the tip of the rod plunged downwards. 

“It’s a big one,” Nine shouted. “Hold on.

It was all I could do to hold on. The tip bent and wavered in front of me.

“Slowly, take it slowly,” my father said.

Nine shook his head. “It’s a sand shark.”

My heart beat. A sand shark was no good, you couldn’t eat them.

“Maybe,” my father said quietly. “Just keep the rod up.”

I held on with my skinny arms and cranked the handle of the reel. I had a very big fish on the end of my line. Slowly, I worked the fish through the muddy water, hoping that it wasn’t just a sand shark but a proper fish — one that I could be proud of.

The line grew shorter, the rod heavier. Nine stood at the edge of the water with a gaff. My father stayed beside me. It wasn’t a fish you could bring in on your own when you were only 11 years old. It was too big for that. It needed all of us to do it: Nine, my father, and me.

There was a flash of silver in the dark water. I caught my breath. Nine jabbed the bamboo handle and the hook of the gaff. He had the fish perfectly, just behind the gills.

A huge Cape Salmon lay gasping in the reeds and mud in front of me.  When Nine held it up on the gaff next to me, it was nearly as long as I was tall. I couldn’t hold it up without using both hands. Nine chuckled delightedly.

“You’ll have to clean it yourself,” my father said. “When we get back to the cottage.”

A fish as big as you are — caught on the very last cast of a summer holiday, at 11 years old.

Transkei: 11-year-old Hamilton Wende holds up a Cape Salmon
Eleven-year-old Hamilton Wende and his Cape Salmon. (Photo: Supplied)

I don’t remember exactly, I was too excited with my fish to notice much else, but Nine or my father must have used those fishing pliers to remove the hook from the fish’s mouth. I remember cleaning and gutting it, removing the scales after my mother had taken the photograph of me with my fish that stands in my study as a faded reminder of that day

I’m grateful that, as I pick up these pliers from the toolbox in my own home, with my own family, I am still alive to catch that moment in memory again, and hold it, just for this while.

As I grip the handles of the pliers, I feel the joy my father felt as he and Nine stood fishing on the rocks with me, my mother, and my siblings. I feel his work-roughened hands touch my softer, writer’s palms.

I begin to twist the wire for the picture that will bring my wife such joy on our dining room walls, and I feel his spirit come alive in me — a simple pair of pliers, the gift of a father to a son to live on in memory and, one day, to be passed on to my own children. DM

Hamilton Wende is a South African writer and journalist who has worked on a number of television projects and films for National Geographic, CNN, BBC, ZDF & ARD, among others. He has published nine books based on his travels as a war correspondent in Africa and the Middle East, and two children’s books. His latest thriller, Red Air, reflects his experiences with the US Marines in Afghanistan.



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