I didn’t really know I was a beachcomber until I discovered a little book called Beachcombing in South Africa by Rudy van der Elst. The truth is I’ve been beachcombing for years and didn’t know it.
I’ve always been drawn to the sea. The wildness of it. And the possibility of finding interesting things that have washed up from the depths or far off places. From history even.
But really, there’s nothing quite like being alone on a long stretch of beach with the waves crashing beside you and the gulls crying overhead.
My interest in beachcombing started out looking for green sea urchins, or see-pampoentjies as we locals like to call them, during a weekend away up the West Coast. We had nothing else to do. After that whenever I found myself on a beach I would point my head to the ground and look for that telltale hint of pale green. Having an eye to the ground produces the best finds – a bit of driftwood (from a shipwreck perhaps), a little green glass bottle and of course, beautiful shells.
Beaches are truly magical places. I remember one cold, windy day at Cape Point standing on a beach covered in the ghostly husks of dead pufferfish. Suddenly all the legends of the Shipwreck Coast seemed real.
During my first road trip to the Eastern Cape I discovered the glittering shell beaches of Jeffrey’s Bay, where every morning the tide would deposit piles and piles of new treasures to sift through – perfectly intact pampoentjies, cowries, topshells and limpets. Buckets of them.
And of course, the hag stones that make my witchy imagination run wild. They’re meant to ward off evil and protect you from all manner of ailments. I make hanging garlands out of them.
We travelled to Jeffrey’s Bay three times last year. Our favourite holiday haunt is right on the beach, so it was all too easy to fall into a routine of tracing the shoreline every morning after coffee to look for shells. But we quickly found ourselves getting up earlier and earlier to beat the other beachcombers. Now I consider us seasoned shell collectors.
Often I would resort to Twitter to ask friends to identify certain finds – like the chiton shells that had us stumped one spring tide morning. As a writer, there is absolutely nothing worse than visiting the same place day after day and not knowing the names of things.
Beachcombing in South Africa is a handy guide to take with on beach adventures to help you name your surroundings. That pale patch of coastal shrub – sea pumpkin. That interesting bit of dried coral – sea fans.
This little handbook tells you everything you need to know about the South African shoreline and its bounty – from the best time to look for treasures and how to deal with bluebottle stings, to the correct name of shells, coastal plants and the little fish that inhabit tidal pools. It also hints at some of the real treasure that could potentially be found along our coast, like silver pieces of eight that went down with early European vessels.
I was able to finally identify the shells that came home with us. (I adore my collection of pink cowrie shells that has grown in the past year.)
I don’t need to ask my friends on Twitter for advice anymore. At least now I really have no more excuses for not leaving the phone at home and just enjoying nature.
Beachcombing in South Africa is out this month from Struik Nature.