Caesar's Reach

The main attraction at Knoetzie, as far as the tourists are concerned, are the castles. It's quite an entertainment, when you sit on the stoep of the cottage that Jamies grandfather built, to watch the tourists as they reach the sand. It's a long walk from the car-park above and you'd think that they'd stay a while to see what else is there or even just find a shady spot to rest. But, generally speaking, they walk out onto the sand, turn around in the half-moon bay, and take photos of the castles. Then they look at the castles for a bit longer, pointing and suchlike, and then they walk back up.

I suppose it's quite a thing, the castles. Someone built the first one, really just a huge multi storey house but with the parapets and windows and all the castley bits. Then someone else decided to also build his house in that style and so on and so on, and now Knoetzie is the beach with the castles on it. But if you spend any amount of time there, like a week or two, then after you've left you don't really remember these temporary confirmations of mans vanity. You remember the constant sound of the sea, the stillness of the forest way up the river that feeds the lagoon, the sharpness of the rocks and the feel of salt drying on your skin.

There are a few ordinary houses as well, and the cottage that Jamies grandfather built was the first building on the beach. It's right at the edge of the beach, up on wooden stilts with stone steps leading from the stoep down to the sand. Under the house there are mounds of oyster shells from the feasts of decades, and there are old champagne corks nailed to the door frames inside with the dates and the names on from the romantic holidays of bygone days. I always think of the fun they must have had, before we were all born. Now the affairs and the divorces have all settled down, the baton's been passed to us and I'm not sure that we're not making a bigger mess than they did.

This particular holiday was Jamies family and my family, the week over Christmas. About three days into the holiday, once we'd all settled into the slow sandy toed pace of things, Jamie decided that he and I would go and get oysters for everyone.

Only the rocks at Knoetzie itself didn't have any oysters left, so the plan was to up and through the bush on the wing of the east side of the bay and into the next one where they were still plentiful. The only problem was, that bay was in a reserve. Now for what happened next I have to claim a lot of the responsibility. Jamie wasn't a fisherman and wasn't aware that things like catch limits, permits and general sea conservation had become a really big deal in recent years. But being a regular angler, I suspected that we were chancing our luck somewhat, especially as the oyster season was actually closed right then to boot. But when I voiced my reservations to Jamie, I felt very foolish in no time. Jamie didn't see it that way at all. He explained it all to me. His family had been coming to Knoetzie for three generations. His grandfathers cottage was the first one to ever have been built on the beach and they were the closest thing to royalty that Knoetzie had, even if they didn't have a castle. If, on one of their visits, they wanted to take a few oysters, it was a right that nobody could deny them. Besides, if we did get caught, why then Jamie would just have a word with the head ranger who would surely understand.

Hearing Jamie explain his heritage in this way made me wonder why I had even considered the rule of law in what was obviously a claim above and beyond the laws of man. So off we went with a bucket and a knapsack containing two small crowbars and some beers.

We had a few minor life threatening adventures on the way there, Jamie also having inherited, along with the cottage, a lack of fear. There was a bodysurf in the middle of a ferocious rip tide that had swept Jamie out to sea and obliged him to come cheerfully back in some way down over some savage rocks. This experience perked him up no end; following, as is it did, a fingertip climb up a rock column which was reached by jumping across a slippery gulley which the sea thundered through at regular intervals. I must say that the view from the top was rather spectacular.

Anyway, once the stretch of beach between the two bays appeared to have exhausted the possibilities of serious injury, we arrived at the next bay and set about the oysters. They were plentiful, we broke of rafts of them and soon had the bucket filled. Then we stashed the bucket and crowbars under a rock and had beers. Presently a ranger appeared from the far side of the bay. As he made his way across the sand we could only hope that we'd hid the evidence well enough as, being in his line of sight, there was no prospect of doing anything. We played it cool and drank our beers as he approached.

He was a coloured guy, wearing a green uniform and sporting a gun on his hip. He greeted us rather humourlessly and asked us what we were doing. We told him we were swimming. He nodded suspiciously and seemed about to move off when he saw some broken oyster shell on the sand.

He demanded an explanation, even more humourlessly. We swore blind we'd never seen it before, it must have been there when we arrived. He then asked us if we were aware that it was an offence to take oysters from this bay and that the season was in any case closed. We assured him that there was no thing farther from our minds than oysters at that moment. In fact we didn't particularly care for them, slimy things that they were. He glared at us and then moved on. We watched him disappear into the bush path that led over the neck into Knoetzie bay. Before going back ourselves, we decided to transfer the oysters to Jamies rucksack, Jamie would go first with the rucksack on his back and I would follow with the empty bucket. If he was waiting for us, he would assume that I had the booty. In retrospect, this was not the brightest plan we could have made. We should have done what the local poachers do, stash it and come back later. As I came over the summit of the neck, I walked straight into two rangers plus Jamie. His rucksack was on the ground, the contents spread around it. The rangers were very businesslike, we were to wait with the one that we'd met on the beach while the other went to fetch the head ranger.

We all sat down, the ranger lit a cigarette with quiet satisfaction.

"There was nothing I could do", said Jamie to me, "they just stepped out of the bush."

"Well, we'll probably just get a fine" I said.

"Nah, don't worry china", Jamie assured me, "I'll sort things out with the ranger.

In a short while the other ranger arrived back with the head honcho, who was a short, bearded white guy of about fifty. His manner was quite pleasant in contrast to his surly juniors. For a moment I even felt that Jamie would indeed be able to sort this little misunderstanding out, one white man to another. Jamie pointed out his grandfathers cottage. He spoke about how long his family had been at Knoetzie, how civic minded they were in regards to beach matters, how they only came up a couple of times a year and therefore weren't in touch with things like restrictions and how we certainly didn't fall into the category of these poachers who were stripping the rocks bare to make money.

The head ranger listened to Jamies story with genuine interest, nodding along with apparent sympathy. Then he said that he was very sorry, but he was going to do us anyway. He'd take the oysters to his office where they'd record the details, he would come down to the cottage the next day to tell us where we stood. The rangers put the oysters back into the rucksack and walked off.

Back at the cottage we told the story to our wives. Jamie was outraged. It was so unfair. It didn't help to watch a plump woman with a wide brimmed hat disappear at the path to the reserve and then reappear an hour later, walking casually up the beach with a bulging onion bag in full view.

Things did not improve the next day with the head rangers visit. He had a measuring ring, and said that the law required him to measure the oysters in front of us. There were several undersize ones that passed through the ring and we felt another burning injustice. There were two types of oyster, the flat wide ones and the narrow, cupped ones. The latter contained more meat, yet they passed through the ring. What was this merciless ring of officialdom that ignored all distinctions? It did not look good. The head ranger said that we would get a court summons, which would mean a six hour drive back for the appearance, and we'd get a fine of between fifteen hundred and two thousand rands. We were devastated. He said that ja, it was a lot of money, but the courts took this kind of thing seriously these days. The laws applied to everybody and it was the publics' duty to make themselves aware of any restrictions from the literature that was freely available.

The oysters were lying on the stoep, still alive with the shells shut tight.

I suggested to the ranger that, seeing as they were the most expensive oysters we'd ever had, we should at least be allowed to eat them now. The ranger thought that this was very funny for some reason, but had to refuse my request. He bid us good day, after taking all our details, and headed off.

The day had a numb feel about it now. I kept thinking that I should have and did know better. The new focus on conservation was a good thing all round. But sometimes it was not of the world. The elf season only opens in December, even though the main run often takes place in late November. Can you blame a man for putting a few in his bag if he's lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time? An elf caught in November has obviously not read, in the government gazette, that he's not due in the bay for another two weeks. If a man has been standing on the shore all day and has nothing to show for it, can he be blamed for keeping the one steenbras he catches, even though it is one centimetre under the size limit, when he knows how nicely it will fill his frying pan? But no, I had to admit that this was not in the same category. We would have to take our lumps.

Jamie was very quiet, he sat on the stoep and chugged beers. Every now and then he looked sorrowfully at the piles of oyster shells under the house and I felt his pain. The world had encroached on his haven, Caesar had found them and it was no longer the special place for his family.

But things picked up later in the day, due in main to the conversation of women. Our wives were having tea at the neighbours house. She was a long time resident who ran the local paper and she knew everybody. She would see what she could do. She popped into town and came back an hour later. It was all sorted out. We would not have to come back up to appear in court. We would still have to pay a fine, but a greatly reduced one of eight hundred rands. Relatively speaking it was a fair consolation.

At sunset we were having the usual supper braai at the fireplace on the sand in front of the cottage. The beach was deserted and all ours, the reds and golds of the sunset reflecting on the wet mirrored sands of the low tide flats. Our children were playing in the sand, our wives were lying back in deck chairs and soaking it up. Jamie had gone in to fetch a beer, I was tending the meat and watching the colours change. Jamie came back out of the cottage and stopped at the top of the steps.

"Look" he cried out, pointing to the end of the beach. We all stared to where he was pointing. Right at the waters edge, barely discernable in the soft gloaming, a daschund sized creature with three smaller ones in tow was making its way across the beach.

"What are they?" chorused the children.

"Otters," said Jamie happily, "it's a mother and her babies".

We all watched them in silence. They were closer now, in front of the cottage. We could see the thick tail and smooth head of the mother, she trotted quickly and stopped to nose things here and there. The young ones lolloped behind her, play fighting with each other and requiring the mother to chivy them along when they dawdled too long. They made their way across to the far end of the beach and disappeared. Then everybody started chattering excitedly about what we'd just seen. I complimented Jamie on his sharp sight.

"Ja", he said, "it was a lucky thing". And it had been a lucky thing, a magical thing. Jamie was beaming and I could see that the world had redeemed itself for him, that there were still places that were beyond Caesars reach. By then the meat was ready so we went into the cottage and sat around the old wooden table. Then, with the corks of bygone days watching over us, we had supper by lamplight.