As kids we used to look forward to those Bontebok National Park holidays the most. Over the years we did Kruger, the Kalahari, Addo and even Zim. Hell we even went to France one year. But Bontebok was the place we asked to go back to again and again and again.
We could leave Cape Town after lunch and still get there before dark. We could caravan right next to the river and wake up to bontebok grazing in our campsite. We could keep track of how the resident lawnmower, an enormous tortoise, was doing by monitoring the swathe of shorter grass he cut through the embankment. We could swim and we could fish. And we didn’t have to go on game drives if we didn’t want to.
Lots of my memories of Bontebok involve meeting other campers and caravanners. I guess it’s just that kind of place: friendly, intimate.
I first learnt to fly-fish there: I befriended a group of fly-fishers who went as far as to leave one of their rods with me when they went back to Cape Town so that I could continue fine-tuning the art for the remainder of my stay. When the time came for us to leave I had caught a couple of bluegills and I was hooked. Their generosity turned me into a fly-fisherman for life, and although I’ve fished far more productive waters since then, that little inlet in front of the Bontebok campsite will always hold a special place in my heart.
But most of the fishermen at Bontebok were after carp. I remember watching with fascination as they kneaded their mieliebomme and listened out for their poliesiemanne. Hours would pass when nothing happened. But if a sudden beeping signalled that a fish was on, the whole campsite would come to life. I saw some big fish landed there and I met some very patient people.
One night – on the advice of a wizened fellow camper with a puckered mouth and only three remaining teeth – my brother and I left out hand lines with size 8/0 hooks and whole bluegills for bait, and went to bed.
We barely slept that night, and as soon as we could imagine the first rays of sunlight touching the Breede River (in other words, it was still pitch black), we were up. We pulled in our lines and although mine came up bare, Phil’s was attached to a foot-long eel. It didn’t fight much (it was probably still asleep!) but once we had it on dry land it writhed around like a boomslang on heat.
I’d taken hooks out of fishs’ mouths before, but this was a different story. I tried holding it down with my foot and I tried wrapping my T-shirt around it. But nothing worked. Just as I was contemplating cutting the trace and kicking the thing back into the river, our geriatric tutor arrived on the scene.
He klapped the eel on the head with a piece of firewood, and – once it was limp – took the hook out and presented the slimy green fish to us. “Here’s your breakfast,” he said.
“I’m not sure what mom will think,” said Phil.
“Me neither.” I fidgeted with the drawstring on my shorts.
“Why don’t we give it to the man?”
I nodded and the man smiled. “It’ll go nicely with my eggs and bacon.”
“What does it taste like?”
“Beef.” The man flashed us a (virtually) toothless grin and hobbled back, eel in tow, to the tent where his wife was preparing breakfast. I’m not sure if she was happy about the last minute addition to the menu, but if she wasn’t she hid it well. Years of marriage will do that.
I first started to appreciate birds in Bontebok too. The trees in the campsite were home to curious hoopoes and woodpeckers – interesting birds that were tame enough to allow us to watch and appreciate them. And the short trails through the aloe-scattered koppies near the campsite were a great place to practise using a bird book and binoculars.
The game drives were also fun, although obviously not as high-octane as those in the Big 5 parks: we saw Denham’s bustards and korhaans; loads of stately bontebok and playful grey rhebok, and on one special occasion a pair of unfazed aardwolfs.
Every time we went to Bontebok we’d go into Swellendam and visit the Drostdy Museum. We loved the old water mill and the fact that we could actually eat bread made from its flour. We were fascinated by the work of the blacksmith and my folks loved the building itself and the furniture.
We went to Bontebok often. Usually for three or four days, but sometimes for as long as a week. Every time, on the last day of our visit we’d pack the caravan after breakfast, but then stay for a braai at lunch. Swimming, fishing, watching the tortoise…prolonging the holiday. Once you’ve settled in to the pace of Bontebok, it’s hard to leave.