March 5, 2010
South Africa part three: Kasouga and the eastern Cape
Kasouga (pronounced Kasuka) is the type of place that coastal developers think they can make from a blank piece of ground, but they can’t. Huge coastal dunes cradle a cluster of leafy little streets between houses that mostly started life as holiday homes. Little more than a seaside settlement, it grew out of land owned by a handful of families, one of which was my wife’s great-grandmother’s family. The majority of the settlement is still owned by the descendants of those original families, although there’s now many surnames scattered across four generations and who knows how many layers of relationship. A great many people were introduced to me as a “cousin”. Perhaps because of this high level of family ownership, Kasouga hasn’t gone done the path of so many seaside villages. There’s no shops, no bar or cafe, in fact the one shop that used to be there closed down years ago. This may make Kasouga unique in the entire world.
Located on the coast a couple of hours east of Port Elizabeth, Kasouga is supposed to be bathed by the warm Agulhas current. I can only surmise that this current does some eddying and swirling along the coast to mix with the roots of the very cold Benguela current, because the water was far from tropical while we were there (and before you think I’ve gone soft from living in Australia: the southern part of the Agulhas current pushes 25 degrees, while the Benguela current is more likely to be 13; we had a changeable mix somewhere in the middle). Fortunately for everyone’s thermoregulation, the air temperature being plenty warm most days, the river at Kasouga stops short of the sea in a lagoon behind the beach. The locals use this as their swimming pool on the frequent days where the surf is too big or the water too cold for swimming. Oddly, almost none of the locals seem to surf, even though the break on the point was really rather nice. On one of the days when the sea was warmish and the sun was hot, the swimmers were out in force but the only surfboard in evidence was an original Australian thruster from the back of someone’s garage. I was tempted to suggest he sell it as a collector’s item…
Kasouga being more-or-less undisturbed, there was plenty of wildlife to get excited about (for biology-geek definitions of excited). Star performers were some huge black millipedes, whose local common name I’ve forgotten (except for the version uttered by my wife’s young cousin: “sholololos”). Also common, to my delight, were weaver birds. These little guys are related to sparrows, and the brightly-coloured males build their amazing globular nests in an often-vain attempt to attract females. Most of the discrimination seems to hinge on her impression of the inside of the nest, and our hero waits outside, fluttering his wings expectantly, as she pops in for a good look around. Sadly, her next move is often to emerge looking a bit nonplussed and fly away. Males seem to build nest after nest until they hit upon the right combination of architecture and girl. As a consequence, the trees are full of dangling nests at various degrees of completion, fluttering yellow males, and bored brown females. Somewhere along the line some chicks must be reared.
Nearest neighbours to Kasouga are a couple of smallish towns, Kenton-on-sea and Port Alfred. Kenton-on-sea is undergoing the kind of mindless brick-and-glass development you see near the beach all over the world; I say mindless, because with this last summer being a fairly dry one there was serious talk of them running out of water… need I go on? Just in case I was finding it all too familiar, the manager of the Kenton-on-sea supermarket was shot dead last year, just taking the money across the road to the bank.
Port Alfred seems to be less attractive to the 12-bedroom-holiday-home set, possibly because it’s more of a river town than a beach town. Driving around these places gave me the chance to observe what I was learning to think of as a typically South African scene: men and woman, immaculately dressed, waiting by the side of the road for a lift or taxi-van. Black people in South Africa dress really well: a woman in a nice dress, with gold earrings and a tidy hat, is probably off to a cleaning job. I spent a lot of my time in Africa feeling under-dressed.
Some way inland from Port Alfred is Bathurst, locally a bit famous as a place to buy art and crafts. We went up one stinking hot day, you’ll never guess why, and found it a lovely little place. Emphasis on little, but with a couple of potters, and a few curio type shops. Notably nice were the teapots, but personally I’m not brave enough to try and put a teapot in checked baggage, multiple times. So my life is less rich by one African teapot. Now here’s a tip for tourists. When a craft shop in Africa tells you that something is made of recycled phone wires, what they actually mean is “stolen” phone wires. None of my wife’s relatives in Gauteng have landlines, because the phone company refused to keep replacing the wires. So don’t buy anything made out of copper wire, eh? Let us not judge Bathurst by one duplicitous shopkeeper, however. We had a nice pub lunch under the shade of some huge old trees, and talked about how many owners the other pub (and self-proclaimed restaurant) in town has had since my wife first went to Bathurst as a small child (the consensus: many).
We left Kasouga early on a cloudy morning, to go to Addo Elephant Park and thence the airport and Johannesberg. I could describe it for you, but I suggest you look at the pictures instead.