FAMILIAR SHORES: How South Africa taught me to love the coast

FAMILIAR SHORES: How South Africa taught me to love the coast
The North Yorkshire coastline, home (Matthew Walsh, 2020)

I had always known my mum wanted to move away. Whenever we would take childhood trips through the Lego-model villages and sweeping valleys of the Dales or the Lake District she would always remark something along those lines. “When I retire and you two have gone off, I’d love to live here”, she would say, always with a blissful sigh. It was always the pleasant serenity of the countryside for her, always the thatched cottages and fields clad in sheep and summer hares. So, imagine the surprise when she announced that we were moving to a railwayman’s terrace in the centre of one of England’s busiest tourist towns.

I distinctly remember my incandescence at the time. My sister had long since left for university and the pursuit of an independent life, but I was pushing seventeen, still at college, still attached to my childhood friends, still five minutes from the rest of my family. I understood why, but that still didn’t stop me from being selfishly upset about moving so far away.

For a while I hated it. My trips home from university in the Midlands to the Yorkshire coast found me bored. I felt stripped of the amenities I had become so used to in my formative years, a short bus ride into a city centre, a cinema, fast food, chain stores, all those moreish modern draws. I didn’t appreciate the coastal setting at all as a result, without friends and far from “home”, I was fairly numb to it all. And then came an unlikely hero.

I first encountered my saviour in January of 2020 while studying for a degree in animal behaviour at university. The South African coast was like nothing I could have ever expected.

I had seen the documentaries. The ones where Sir David Attenborough would tell me all about the wild, untamed, jagged, rugged, battered, freezing, turbulent (you get the idea) Cape region. Yet I stepped out on that unexpected evening into unadulterated calm.

The serene beauty of Bhanga Nek, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa (Matthew Walsh, 2020)

From the tangled coastal forest, I hadn’t even noticed the sunset burning away, brazier-bright over the Indian Ocean. I looked long down the beach. Awe. The dying golden light struck across the hills to the south. They were verdant and bright, flecked with pockets of sunglow yellow and deepening shadows under the trees. The sands were as flowing as the sea, rising high into a bank of dunes crowned with nests of low shrub and green webs.

This was Bhanga Nek. Set on the edge of a wetland reserve not much more than ten miles from the Mozambican border, it was a spot on the Earth unlike any I had seen before and one I knew little of. The air was a refreshing cool breeze after weeks in the stifling interior of the country and the swashing darkening blue was a welcome change from orange dirt and veld. I stayed out on the cooling sands late into the night, watching the stars rise and swirl and shoot.

As a point on the globe, Bhanga Nek and the east coast of South Africa couldn’t be further afield from my town in Yorkshire. Home was grey sands and sheer rock, hawking gulls and ploughed fields. Africa was bright sands and leisured hills, chattering Samango monkeys and untameable palms. If I so wished it and could risk a river crossing or two, I could happily walk from that very beach all the way down to Durban without my feet leaving the sand for almost 250 miles. At home, I am rarely a few hundred metres from a sheer cliff. I chose to take it back with me. To take the extent of unbroken beauty, the sights and sounds, (not the monkeys), and I chose to let this help me, to let myself pick each aspect out of my memory when I was back on my home coast.

Sometimes I’ll open that little lockbox of a memory of Bhanga Nek, and I’ll be able to see things a little differently. The wash of the sea will sound the same, the North Sea breeze will cool me down on a hot day, and in the summer the fields will be as bright and green and golden with rapeseed as those South African hills were.

I returned to South Africa two years, a university degree, a career change, and a pandemic later, alone.

My view of home had regressed. A sedentary couple of years on the coast had only raised my ire. Yes, I had got out a little more, there felt something rebellious about a walk through a virally emptied tourist town. Yes, I had got to experience the cobbled streets and miles-long beaches without the crowds, without the stress and distraction, but still, I could not and did not appreciate it. The memories of Bhanga Nek seemed to be fading into somewhat of a myth.

Tsitsikamma changed that.

The spiny rocks of Tsitsikamma National Park, Western Cape, South Africa (Matthew Walsh, 2022)

It was the alley of pines that first caught me. This was nothing like Bangha Nek, I thought, it felt more south Mull than South Africa. A cool day somewhere in the mid-teens, clouded, grey, low mist on the hilltops and a dew on the pine needles refreshing enough as to star in a soft drink advert. It all felt familiar. A strange level of comfort washed over me (this was, after all my third week alone on another continent and in another hemisphere). It was something that was nagging in my subconscious, did this feel like home? Breaking out of the pines, and finally facing the sea, I was struck again by the familiarity. The ocean here was grey, even violent in places, it felt dangerous and cold and intriguing all at once. The coastline itself felt violent too, Bangha Nek’s tropic-bright greens replaced with the cold almost blue vegetation that hung to threatening cliffs. At a gorge a short walk further around, the water hurried in and out in a frightening manner and trees clung at MC Escher angles to the edges.

But I felt calm there. It felt, well, normal. And so now, I choose to find things that remind me of there when I feel isolated.

The wind-gnarled, hanging trees at Tsitsikamma National Park, Western Cape, South Africa (Matthew Walsh, 2022)

The cliffs of Yorkshire feel familiar now, they are no longer the edge of the world but a part of mine that I can appreciate. I could hark back on that calming feeling at Tsitsikamma, those sounds of an angry sea fighting with steadfast rock, the sight of a cormorant skimming the waves, a smell of fresh salt. They were all here now, my mind dragged away from the selfish inconvenience of moving away and onto the fortune, I have of living in a place so changeable, so charismatic.

No two days can ever be thought of as the same on the coast now. I can no longer look out over the North Sea to a monotonous view. Every day there is something new. The river that flows through the town is never at the same level, sometimes there will be a cormorant sunning on a buoy, a seal visiting the harbour for the day, or rowers paddling downstream. Sometimes the sea will be a frothing warzone and others glassy as if frozen. And now, sometimes even glimpses of that most Shangri-La beach at Bangha Nek can creep in when a summer sun clips the horizon, and the sea lies sleeping and day wanes to night and I see the same stars I always have and always will.

In those moments, anywhere can feel like home.

The sun hangs low back home (Matthew Walsh, 2020)

Matthew Walsh
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Matthew Walsh is a travel and nature writer and wildlife photographer based in North Yorkshire. With a passion for solo-travel and his background in animal behaviour and wildlife conservation he has spent time on six continents exploring the world’s wildlife and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.

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