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Published: October 14th 2008
That'll leave a mark
Blue bottle jellyfish.
“TIA: This Is Africa.”
-Danny Archer, Blood Diamond
Early Thursday morning I boarded a Greyhound bus and made the day-long trek across the country to Durban on South Africa’s east coast. The little red lines of the Indiana Jones map dotted as we stopped at many small towns and large cities along the coast. We stopped in Port Elizabeth, where they are building another stadium for the 2010 World Cup, and the city of George, where they played the 2003 President’s Cup that resulted in a tie after Ernie Els and Tiger Woods couldn’t finish the playoff due to darkness. The bus was cramped with people, mostly poorer people who carried on with them bags upon bags of clothes and food. I started to feel more like Steve Martin in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” rather than Indiana Jones by the time the bus arrived in Durban, but fortunately I didn’t have a Del Griffith character sitting next to me the entire time.
Durban is South Africa’s Miami or Honolulu. It’s located right along the coast of the Indian Ocean, and surfing is a lifestyle for the locals. The hostel I stayed in was located in the Bluff Region, which
is a beach peninsula, and the windy roads were lined with giant, beautiful beach homes. Our hostel was right across the street from the beach, so we could walk right down to the Indian Ocean at any time. Unfortunately, while walking across the beach with the waves crashing right into my feet, I found a blue bottle jellyfish. The blue bottle, or “bluey,” isn’t as dangerous as some of its big brothers like the box jellyfish, which according to Animal Plant’s “Most Xtreme,” is the most venomous creature on the planet, but you’re not helping yourself by stepping on one. I kept walking and pretty soon there was another blue bottle. And another. And another. If you’ve ever seen the movie Mouse Hunt, there is a scene where the two main characters set a mousetrap on every tile in their kitchen and trap themselves in the room because they don’t want to step on the mouse traps. I had a similar feeling as I gradually stepped farther and farther away from the water, careful not to step on one of the jellyfish.
Unfortunately, this ruled out surfing at least for the amateur like me, but I watched people surf
and realized that I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much as snowboarding. Much of surfing, at least from an armchair surfer’s perspective, is waiting for the waves. Many of the surfers would paddle out, and they’d just wait and wait for the right wave before riding it. At least in snowboarding the snow is always there, you don’t have to wait for the perfect slope, and you don’t have to worry about poisonous jellyfish smacking you in the face or a shark mistaking you for a seal.
I did a token swim in the ocean just to claim that I have swam in the Indian Ocean. The waves were huge and I only waded about four steps into the water before a wave broke on me and tackled me into the water. “Ooh, a wise guy eh?” I thought. But as soon as I stood up another giant wave crashed atop me and tossed me under again. I quickly realized that, like everything else in Africa, the Indian Ocean isn’t just some wave pool you bring your inner tube and swim noodle in and splash around in.
If you’re brave enough to venture into the water and
avoid the jellyfish, the second trap Africa sets to hurt or kill you in its never ending Kevin McAllister Home Alone house is the rip tide. Because I’m a graduate of the George Costanza School of Marine Biology, I read the sign posted on the beach and boardwalk that explained how to spot a rip tide: If there is a large gap between wave troughs, or if the froth from the waves is moving out to sea, you might have a rip tide on your hands. It’s not as obvious as water rippling from a t-rex’s footprint or the fin of a shark, but if you pay attention, you can see it. A rip tide is the oceanographic equivalent of someone pulling a rug out from underneath your feet, only instead of falling hard on the ground; you get pulled out to sea. Of course, as with the cruel irony of many dangers, by the time you notice a rip tide is forming, you’re probably already in the rip tide.
I know some of you might be rubbing your palms together reading about the beach, but that’s where the saying TIA (This Is Africa) comes in. Yes, there are a lot of dangers down here, but if you keep your eyes open and be smart about everything, you can enjoy everything the country has to offer. Of course, if I was typing this with my left hand because my right hand was paralyzed from jellyfish venom, or from a deserted island in the middle of the ocean with polar bears and Others, I might be saying something different.
In addition to surfing, people wake boarded and kite surfed, which is standing on a surf board while holding a parachute-type kite that moves with the wind across the waves. The guys we watched kite board could flip in the air and carry themselves off the water for an extended distance. The Bluff area reminded me a lot of the old Nickelodeon cartoon Rocket Power, where the kids grow up in a southern California/Hawaii-type beach town and do nothing but surf and skateboard all day. There wasn’t a cloud all weekend and the waves were huge, another typical day in Durban.
Even though the bus ride back was long and uncomfortable, it was the best way to see all of the South African countryside. We stopped in small towns, such as Kynysa, which had a beat up gas station and crumbling buildings, to the wine region of Stellenbosh. The bus ride wasn’t a folksy, Simon & Garfunkel-esque cross country bus ride, but there wasn’t a better way to see all the different ways of life strung out across the country. Even though the Durban lifestyle is the idolized beach bum style, I still enjoy having four seasons in the year, and I like walking onto a ski slope without seeing blobs of blue jellyfish scattered across the snow.
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