Swakopmund was a town that seemed not only to be isolated in space, it seemed to me to live in its own time zone. On 5th June 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated; he died the next day. I only heard about it two days later…
Murray & Stewart, the company for which I worked, arranged a company fishing outing that Saturday. Some of the men were discussing the event, and that was the first I’d heard about it. It seemed all so remote. I had to page back my diary to write it up, and that’s all I wrote – no comment, no horror…
But back to the fishing. With three Land Rovers in convoy, we went to Sandwich Harbour, some thirty miles south of Walvis Bay. Travelling as light as I was, I had no gear and was lent a spare sea-rod, but after a couple of casts, I gave up and went for a walk to the only dwelling there. A Coloured couple lived there. Middle-aged, with a deeply weathered face, the man had lived there most of his life. He didn’t invite me in, but his wife bought up a cup of tea which we balanced on top of the garden gateposts. He gave me a wealth of stories about Sandwich Harbour, its history and amusing and interesting incidents that happened in the area.
There is no harbour, and the name either comes from a ship of that name or from the corruption of a German word for sand-shark. At that time, the fertilizer company, Fisons, came once a year to collect guano, and their shed was the only other building there. There was a long sand spit forming a narrow lagoon, with a reed-bed that survived on the fresh water that filtered in under the sand dunes from a relict river. It was also the source of potable water for the ‘mayor’ and only resident of Sandwich Harbour, beside the myriad birds. It was also a twitcher’s paradise.
Permits are required to visit the place as it is in the forbidden diamond area. The man told me of a fellow who came by, heading south, who said he was not going to be told where he could not go. A day later, four policemen came by, following him. A few days later, they all returned with the fellow in irons!
Beside a few steenbras, nobody had much luck with the fishing. I suspect that I had the most satisfying time of them all.
Being one of my fellow workers, Nico Burhoven-Jaspers made all welcome at his home. They were one of the kindest, most hospitable families I have ever known. Ernst Burhoven-Jaspers and Trix, his wife and baby, Nico, were amongst those Hollanders expelled from Indonesia around 1950 with not much more than the clothes on their backs, and settled in South Africa. Their twin daughters, Elizabeth and Greetje, were born in 1952, followed shortly by Marianne and then Franz. After a few years, they moved to Swakopmund in South-West Africa. All the children, except Nico, were still in school. Ernst and Trix spoke Dutch to each other; the kids spoke Afrikaans and were fluent in German, but their English was not terrific. Ernst was away often, a sales rep, I think. Trix worked in a chemist’s assistant. She was actually a qualified chemist, herself, but locally she would be required to do further studies to enable her to be accepted. They had a house on the main road, and the adjacent filling-station-garage which they rented out. A lot of us from the bridge found it to be a home from home. One night, some of us were treated to rys-tafel, (or rijsttafel) a Dutch Colonial-Indonesian feast of many exotic side-dishes to go with variously prepared rice dishes. Superb!
The term ‘Skeleton Coast’ is not a misnomer – while I was there, there was an average of one shipwreck per month. The sea mists and spurs of submerged rock accounted for hundreds of ships tearing themselves to shreds. The ones that ran aground south of Walvis Bay were sometimes covered by the shifting dunes, only to be exposed again, years later, and covered once more. Those that were doomed in my seven months were mostly fishing trawlers, but a small coastal merchantman, the Vipava, a Czech ship, went aground at ‘Mile 17’ north of Swakopmund. Nico and I went out to look at it being whipped to destruction by the merciless, cold Atlantic. We considered swimming out to it, but it was too rough.
What an extraordinary place. And more of that to follow.