A short piece written for a Getaway collection titled “my favourite place in South Africa”
A long time ago when life was cheap my great-uncle Jim built a modest house with a wide green veranda in Hermanus, on the slopes above Voelklip beach, on the last plot of land before the nature reserve begins and the Kleinrivier mountains rise sheer and stony. There was almost no one in Hermanus then, just the whales and the cliffs and the glittering beds of kelp that gather in the summer months.
He came there to swim at Voelklip and to fish from his tiny wooden rowboat and walk the length of Grotto beach and collect driftwood and spiral-stringed shark eggs, and when he had a family he brought them there too. I first visited the house in 1990, just out of school and heartbroken in love. It was a family gathering, and on Christmas day my Aunt Maureen had a quarrel with my Granny and they both stormed out of the house in different directions and disappeared for hours while their husbands shrugged and cheerfully organized a rubber of bridge. That qualified as an unusually tranquil gathering for my family.
My great-uncle Jim is 103 and hasn’t made it down to Hermanus in twenty years, but the keys are available to family members. I go back whenever I can, and whenever my wretched sister hasn’t booked the place. For a long time I went every year on my birthday, to find some comfort in solitude and to make a terrified peace with the passage of time. I wrote my last book there, or half of it anyway, shivering alone through an unusually icy winter’s month, walking up the mountain behind the house – it’s either Maanskynkop or faces Maanskynkop, I’m never quite sure – strolling the cliff path with its fragrant smell of fynbos and occasional chance sightings of mongooses and dassies and once a small buck. I have visited with friends and girlfriends and fiancés. It was my favourite place to take my wife, who is now my ex-wife but no less dear to me for that. Once we spent a week there over a Christmas with my sister and her wife, and although my sister and I had a terrible shouty quarrel which resulted in my leaving in a huff, we lasted five whole days out of the week, which qualifies as a successful stay in my family.
Hermanus has grown larger now, and the houses are bigger and over the season it’s choked with cars and families and in truth to love it quite as much as I do, you have to still be seeing it with the eyes of twenty years ago, but it’s still tranquil on the green veranda, looking out over the blue whale-choked water to the distant town on the clifftop, with the smell of braai smoke drifting through the warm air. The house itself is tatty and crumbling – the curtains and the paint and the furniture and carpets are precisely as they were in 1990, and they were already fifteen years old then. The photographs of Uncle Jim and Aunt Maureen, happy and young, are still on the dressing table in the bedroom, but they’re fading now. Uncle Jim’s son lives in New York, and when Jim dies the house will probably be sold, and someone will build a mansion there.
Getaway, October 2019