Mom hated Schoenies, or Schoenmakerskop, to give it its full name. Maybe that’s a bit strong, but she was bored, bored, bored with the place. Dad was seldom adventurous and since he grew up there in the early 1900s, he kept returning to it like a homesick baby desperately trying to return to the womb. Saturday afternoon, summer and winter, would invariably find us there. Maybe Mom had a spirit of adventure after all. I, however and I think my siblings, loved the place. We kids knew that place like our own backyard as we explored every little bit of it – multiple times.
Main picture: Main gully at Schoenies showing the two islands at mid tide and how the obliquely running rocks form a natural breakwater
For those who don’t know Schoenies, let me try to describe it.
The attraction of Schoenies is its safe swimming gully formed between two arms of rocks that jut out obliquely into the sea thereby forming natural breakwaters. No kid has ever got into difficulties swimming there although it is open to the sea. Two islands provide extra interest factor for kids who can pretend that they are castles to be defended against an implacable foe or merely just to sit on after an exhausting underwater swim from the side. The bottom is rocky which, while not quite as interesting as the Great Barrier Reef, provides a great starting point for aspirant scuba divers at a young age. Although I love the sea, I blame Jaws (1975 movie) for putting a crimp on my scuba diving career. As an adult, I did venture out into the deep blue with Chris Mollison on a number of occasions in search of the ultimate perlemoen or olliecrock (abalone) but I was always a bit of a wussy diver who constantly looked behind myself and strained my ears to pick up the dum, dum, dum sound that seemed to run through the 2 hours of the Jaws movie . So the gully, even as an adult, was where I did a lot of snorkelling as no shark, let alone a pissed off, vindictive Great White, has ever been spotted there. I never owned a speargun so my main underwater activity was to search for sinkers which Dad could re-smelt into his sinker size.
The other interesting sight was the nuns. Further down the Schoenies Road was a retreat for some order of nuns. It must have been The Holy Order of the Great White Whale as after disrobing, one would be confronted with mounds of unhealthy looking quivering white flesh. Luckily they had conservative one piece black swimsuits (what other colour could it have been?) otherwise I would have been really scarred for life. As was their habit (ha, ha) they would come down to the gully early in the morning or early evening and quietly float around the gully without moving. Their pious and predominantly vegetarian diets must have given them a lot of gas as I have never seen anyone float as high out of the water as they did. For some reason we called them spooks, probably because these black things quietly arrived and then some white apparition emerged chrysalis-like to float around a bit before quietly disappearing again.
But maybe I should start at the beginning.
Schoenies is a small village on a dead end road on the southern outskirts of Port Elizabeth surrounded by the Cape Recife Nature Reserve. To reach it one can travel south from Walmer along Victoria Drive for about 8km. The peculiar salty smell of the succulents and the sea slowly becomes apparent as one gets closer to the coast. Coming over the brow of the final hill, we would get our first sight of the sea and we kids would sing out, “I see the sea, and the sea sees me.” Alternatively one can take the 15km scenic route from Summerstrand past Cape Recife all the way along the rocky southern coast through the nature reserve.
It comprises roughly a 1km strip of about 20 houses jammed between the succulents and Port Jackson willows of the nature reserve and the sandy headlands next to the sea.
Our family connection to Schoenies is due to Dad’s mom, Granny Mac. She bought three adjacent plots in the newly established township in 1918 and proceeded to open a tearoom at No. 32, prosaically called The Hut. In 1922 Marine Drive was opened which connected Schoenies to the town via an extremely scenic drive along the coast past Cape Recife. On 10th December 1922 150 Model T Fords set out from the Town Hall in celebration of the opening of the new route and ended up having tea and scones at The Hut. This firmly established Schoenies and its tearoom as a popular spot for the well-heeled over weekends. She eventually sold it in 1942.
As a kid I knew it as the Ocean View Tea Lounge. This was changed to Seagulls but it remained largely unchanged and just as bleak. Finally, it had an extreme makeover and became the Sacramento. The tearoom that I knew was characterless but the modernised version makes me shudder. Maybe déjà vu ain’t what it used to be but progress is not always entirely positive.
The gully is at the foot of a steep sandstone plateau. On arrival in our Austin A70, Dad would park at our peculiar parking spot which was a single parking spot amidst the scrubby bushes and gocums (sour figs) on the extreme left of the parking area as Dad eschewed crowds and social interactions as far as possible. The gully was accessed by a long cement set of steps grouped in sets of four (I think) with short landings between. Our route would be a short cut to enter the steps roughly one third of the way down (opposite to where the toilets are today). As kids we didn’t want to be boring and run down the steps as someone had made a parallel sandy route through the succulent scrub on the right of the concrete path. This was great fun with the possible downside of creepy crawlies or snakes on the overgrown path. Early in the season one had to be a brave kid to fight through the odd spider web as the lack of traffic in winter would have partially closed up the route. One also had to be careful not to tread on the shongololos that are endemic in the area. For those who do not know what a shongololo is, it is a millipede who seriously abused steroids. It can grow up to 30cm in length and as thick as an adult finger but is completely harmless – I think, …. I hope. If disturbed, they roll up into a tight spiral and pretend that they are a mathematical equation. Although I don’t particularly like insects, that is one that I never attempted to kill, torture, bully, intimidate or humiliate as a kid – honest.
The steps (or the parallel path) eventually spill out onto a shingle (crushed seashell) beach. Every family had their own special spot and ours was on the right of the gully at approximately the mid tide point. Although the rocks are generally very sharp and jagged, there were a few flat patches there where one could sit. In fact there was one smooth patch that was long enough for a kid. This was heaven sent as after hours of cavorting in the water as kids are wont to do, one’s core temperature would drop to life threatening levels. We would flatten ourselves on that rock and suck out all the summer heat from it while our shivering slowly subsided. A quarter hour later and we were good to go again. Luckily the hole in the ozone layer hadn’t been invented yet so we were allowed to play all day without sunscreen or T-shirt supervision, not to mention hats. For the modern day wuss , it must be noted that girls of a certain age would use Johnson’s baby oil or even cooking oil in an attempt to magnify the effect of the sun. As far as we were concerned, suntan lotion was to promote tanning and not to prevent it.
When we eventually got bored of swimming we would explore the other lesser gullies or play various kids’ games of catch, hide and seek or whatever. The rocks were incredibly sharp in the main but somehow our feet had hardened that we never wore tackies while we ran helter skelter over them. We were like Dassies (rock rabbits) and never came a cropper. If I watched any of my kids doing what we did I would have had heart palpitations.
At some stage in our young lives Dad made a canoe for two kids (but only one paddle – go figure). It had a pine rib and keel skeleton that was cladded with hardboard. He carefully sealed in airtight compartments at the front and rear in a rare display of concern. Actually his concern was probably more for the irretrievable sinking of the canoe than us. After all, we could take care of ourselves. We stored the canoe upside down under the Norfolk pines on Clarrie Wood’s property opposite to where we parked. After a long winter season it would have become the home to a bunch of undesirable squatters of the insect world. A stick would quickly sort them out but all the way down to the water’s edge I would never be sure that we had got them all. That thought at the back of the mind was like the irrational fear of sharks that followed me through my life. Being made of wood and not some space age material made it quite heavy for two kids to carry down but we managed. On eventually getting it to the sea, our first act would be to turn it upside down and try to rinse out all the creepy crawlies that we had perhaps missed, just in case. We also somehow managed divide 3 kids into a 2 seater canoe (an irrational number if there ever was one) without any bloodletting. For once the McCleland clan was to be envied as we were the only family to have any form of flotation apart from blow up arm bands or the odd car inner tube.
If one got thirsty there were springs all around. Everywhere one looked there was water bubbling out of the ground into little ponds before running away to the sea. The mineral content must have been quite high judging by the variegated algae and spectrographic precipitation that blossomed in the ponds. Although the water was quite brackish I enjoyed it – it was an acquired taste, much like whisky that I discovered later on. People would pay a fortune today for that water if it were bottled. If we got really, really thirsty and really, really lucky, we would be given money to get a Coke or an ice cream at the Ocean View Tea Lounge – hallelujah. This was a very pretentious name for a very ordinary and basic shop. The bare wood floors were tastefully complemented by the basic wooden tables with their plastic table cloths. We never minded its ordinariness as we never ate there. We were only interested in the counter at the end where the Chappies bubblegum and Wilsons toffees and such like were kept in large glass jars. There was a select range of other sweets, Simba chips and soft drinks kept behind the counter. What more could a kid want?
The only down side of Schoenies was going to the toilet. There was an unpainted, weathered wooden box that housed a single toilet just off the path on the way down to the next gully to the west . I seem to remember that it wasn’t a long drop but had a large bucket under the wooden bench seat. As a result really it stank and one was assailed by the full range of the buzzing and crawling insect world in its dark interior. Most times I nervously did my business in the reeds somewhere after carefully inspecting the ground I would be squatting over. The process was, perforce, very quick as a kid does not like to hang his bare arse over a patch of Mother Nature. No matter how carefully the area was inspected, bugs and stuff are known to be sneaky and not to be trusted. Cleaning up was a simple case of going for another swim.
Eventually the end of the afternoon would come and we would have to drag our exhausted and sunburnt bodies up the interminable steps to the car. They say that victory in battle has many fathers but defeat is an orphan. At that stage of the afternoon, the canoe was an orphan and resulted in many internecine squabbles typical of siblings. Being the youngest I would unashamedly play the age card, not always successfully. Eventually we would compromise on some sharing scheme and unenthusiastically get that burden up the steps. It was this thought that prevented us from playing with the canoe every time we visited.
In winter the car would be wonderfully warm and we would sometimes fall into an exhausted sleep on the way home. Driving home was a silent affair as Dad would juggle the transistor radio on his lap with the aerial sticking out of the window as he desperately tried to listen to the Saturday afternoon sports commentary.
Mom, I’m sorry that you didn’t like Schoenies, ‘cos I loved it. I loved trying to see how far I could swim underwater across the gully. I loved the spring tides when I would swim to the end of the gully and wait for the rhythmic wash in and out of the gully. When the time was right, I would dive down, catching the surge, and flipper to the beach, my body inches above the bottom as I twisted around rocky outcrops, pretending I was a dolphin on methamphetamines. Surfacing in the shallows, I would return underwater on the pullback to where I had started. I loved running as fast as I could across those rocks, simultaneously picking out a future path whilst deciding where to put my foot next. I was amazed at Dad swatting mullet for bait with a piece of bloudraad (thick fencing wire) that had been trapped in shallow pools during spring low tides. Thwack, and the thick wire would slice through the water and stun the fish which could then be plucked out of the water. I loved the innumerable rock pools resplendent with their brightly coloured anemones, sea urchins, starfish, shy rock bullies and hermit crabs. I loved sticking little sticks into the anemones and watching them vainly closing up and capturing their non-existent prey. I loved brushing my fingertips over the initials that Dad had cold chiselled into the rock some 70 odd years ago. I loved exploring the shallow sandstone caves halfway up to the plateau. I loved paddling in the minor gullies, whilst not as swimmable as the main one, nevertheless had their own allure. I loved taking my first serious girlfriend down there, having an amazing afternoon and then losing my car keys on the rocks. And I just loved going out fishing in the pre-dawn gloom with Dad and Uncle Bryce. After a bit of fishing we would wolf down sandwiches and slurp hot, sweet coffee in the early morning chill while Toekels, our Scotty dog explored the various gullies. Dad and Uncle Bryce spoke very little. They silently communed with each other, the fish and the sea for a few hours. A hundred words passing between the three of us would have been a lot. We didn’t need to speak.
Nature, in its serenity and majesty, spoke for us.
That was Schoenies – a very special place.