IT’S our last day and still no brag-worthy kabeljou (cob) on the end of the line. As I watch them row silently out of sight up the dark denim-blue water of the Duiwenhoks, I fear that my ever-hopeful fishermen are on a river to nowhere.
But, while I try to regret – on their behalf – the fishlessness of their hours, it is difficult to sustain a sense of even the slightest gloom from my heavenly perch overlooking the tranquil estuary and scrubby, green bushveld beyond. My holiday lodging is the Heron’s Nest, which is the self-contained apartment above the boathouse that is part of Paul and Bosky Andrew’s river front cottage, Base Huis, in the dinky little dorpie of Vermaaklikheid about 300 kilometres southeast of Cape Town.
Some hours earlier, I had awoken to the telltale sounds of lines swishing through the air and lures gently plopping into the water. Barely raising my head from its cosy pillow, I peered through the open doors, across the rustic-looking wooden deck and down onto the sandy riverbank below. The deep river shimmered gently in the early morning sun. And, of course, there they were, side-by-side, with the little black Scottie dog sniffling about at their feet as they swung their rods in eternal optimism.
“Any luck?” I called, suppressing a yawn.
They turned slowly, beamed up at me – fishermen smile widest in the early hours – and shook their heads in unison: “Not yet…are you ready for your coffee?”
Indeed, there are worse ways to spend long, hot summer days than lolling about in a deliciously comfortable bed overlooking a large, cool river or parking off in the shade of a giant wild fig tree while your fisher-family hunts down the big one. I suffer such fishing expeditions several times each year and I endure them all with an incessant smile. My recent experience of four sweltering December days in Vermaaklikheid was no different.
The remote river village – which is more of a one-pigeon parish than a one-horse town – was established when, in 1855, the Dutch Reformed Church bought a smallholding that Boer, Andries Gous had farmed since 1725. Following the purchase, the church set out a village that was, as you would expect, centred round the church.
It was named Vermaaklikheid for reasons that are disputed. Villager Inis Bower, who has lived in the town for most of his life, is certain that “Meneer Vermaak” was a prominent farmer in the area during the 1800s. Other inhabitants however, are almost as convinced that Vermaaklikheid, which means “entertainment” or “amusement” in Dutch and Afrikaans, was derived from the frequent occasions that local farmers gathered on the banks of the large river to “vermaak”, i.e. to relax and enjoy themselves. It’s a plausible theory, which is upheld by the pleasure you experience when you dive into or (if you are brave enough to play Tarzan on the King Swing, which is a hefty rope suspended from a lofty blue gum on the far river bank) soar over the dark water, and swim with the current (it is a tidal river – Vermaaklikheid is just 10 kilometres from the sea). There is though, also in circulation, a less passive theory that the original “vermaaking” was actually about hunting along the riverbanks.
Origins of the village’s name notwithstanding, inhabitants do agree that the district’s Duiwenhoks (Dovecotes) River was named as such when, in 1689, (another pioneering Boer) Izaak Schryver set up camp on its banks and was gob smacked by the number of pigeons that “cooed the place home”. Their feathery ancestors are among the many birds – more than 100 species, says Bosky – that, to this day, have birdwatchers twitching excitedly on the other end of their binoculars.
For many years after its establishment, Vermaaklikheid flourished. Farmers produced grapes and vegetables, and the community was large enough to sustain not only the church, but also two schools, a police station, a post office and a butchery. When however, in the 1950s, the government introduced grape quotas, Vermaaklikheid was left out in the cold and farming practically ploughed to a standstill. With many farmers leaving for fields afresh, the schools and butchery closed their doors. Today, all that remains along the dusty main drag is a fuel pump, a tiny shop that sells the absolute basics, a surprisingly large restaurant and, of course, the church.
In effect, Vermaaklikheid is a forgotten place. A ramble along the peaceful sandy track between the river and the village takes you past shuttered cottages and farmhouses with rows of rusty implements lining saggy fences in overgrown gardens. Notably, some of these houses display architectural features that are unique to the village and the nearby seaside hamlet of Puntjie. (In particular, this applies to the way that buildings are thatched with a distinctive additional ridge at the top that has apparently also only ever seen in a single district in Holland.) Ancient rock walls surround vacant paddocks, and weeds and wildflowers have invaded forsaken vineyards and once-ploughed fields, albeit prettily.
Certainly, Vermaaklikheid had a previous life. On the other hand, the past 25 years or so have seen a small number of city folk – like the Andrew family – seeking a 21st century flavour of “vermaak” along the Duiwenshok River. Accordingly, the Duiwenshok Conservancy was established to protect the area, which is also a Nature Conservation Protectorate. The new band of settlers purchased land and cottages, and some built new homes on the water’s edge to retreat to. Many of these homes – including Base Huis and Heron’s Nest – are available for rent by other town clowns seeking pastoral retreat – and for sure, pastoral is what you get.
At first and last glance, nothing seems to happen at Vermaaklikheid. You can only be certain that the river is actually flowing once you dive in and find yourself swimming against the tide. You can walk along its watery edge and through the fields for more than three hours, and neither see nor hear another person in all that time. Cows laze, unfazed by your presence, in the grass on the banks of the river, and you have to stop and consciously stare at them to catch one actually chewing her cud. Even the big blue dragonflies are more inclined to dragon than fly.
But wait, something has happened at Vermaaklikheid. I hear the fishermen rowing eagerly back down the river in my direction. They are chatting elatedly. They have been gone for five hours, and yet they appear as energetic and keen as ever.
“Any luck?” I call cautiously, glancing up from my fourth best-ever-read of the holiday from my happy post.
“Yes,” comes the cheerful reply across the water. “We caught a kabeljou. It was beautiful, but only weighed about 700 grammes. So we put it back. We’ll have lunch in the village, shall we?”
At first and last glance, nothing seems to happen at Vermaaklikheid. If – eventually – the fish bite, they’re the little ones. But the seafood, fresh from Puntjie, at the Duiwenshok Restaurant is scrumptious, so it really does not matter.
At first and last glance, nothing seems to happen at Vermaaklikheid – and that, I think, is exactly how it should be.
(This was first published in The Weekender in January 2009. Photographs: Penny Haw.)