It was early evening and I was walking back from the boatyard showers with my canvas shopping bag bulging with wash bag, soap and a damp towel as I dodged the potholes and puddles littering the path between the boats propped up on stilts all around me. When I drew level with a gap in the row of garages that line the fence between the road and the open bush behind the boatyard I was exhausted but refreshed and relaxed and looking forward to an early supper and an early night. That is when I heard it for the first time.
Living in Zululand where one is always so close to nature one has to be ready for the unexpected and sometimes the even the bizarre. This sound was unsettling, making the hair stand up on my neck, like the bloodcurdling cry of the nagapies (Literally little night Ape) or Bushbaby that has a cry resembling a baby crying. These tiny fluffy brown creatures, primates with huge eyes, round face and huge ears resembling a Koala Bear or Yoda in the movie Star Wars. Yet somehow, cute as they are, their plaintive and eerie cry plucks at a primordial instinct buried deep inside every one of us and sends a chill up ones spine when their call is heard. Although the woods adjacent the boatyard are home to them, meercats and leguaans I knew that although both have been known to hiss neither of them had made the sound that had distracted me.
Pssst! It came again. Longer, louder and more insistent this time. I stopped and strained my ears attempting to work out where the sound was coming from. By now I was opposite the gigantic wire mesh gates that opened onto the road, huge gates that opened to allow low bed trucks to bring yachts into the boat yard. I remembered how we had dragged the neglected hulls of our own boat, Sea Shoes, over the potholed road thorough the bush and into the sanctuary of the boatyard a few months earlier. It was twilight and I was not wearing my glasses. So my ears pricked up hoping to locate the sound and identify the source.
Could it be the soft brown fruit bats, which slept by day huddled together in family groups under the branches of the whispering Casuarina trees that lined the road behind the garages? I wondered. I had spent some time studying and photographing them hanging upside down and watching me whilst they also warily kept a sleepy eye open for the marauding Hornbills that took any opportunity to vary their diet of fruit by raiding the nests of the masked weavers or swooping upon the resting bats and fledglings. More than once I had witnessed these cruel birds tearing a shrieking fledgling apart with their wicked beaks and sharp claws or seen them ripping a squeaking bat apart and drowning out their pitiful screams of distress with their raucous laughter and cackling with delight as the heartless ghouls squabbled over the bloody body parts. But no, it was not the bats nor was it the malevolent Hornbills. Could it be a Mamba, the malevolent green or black mamba, the Zululand snake that was feared by all? It was known to hunt relentlessly for primates and mammals in the trees and bush and would even take birds and rodents. Fearless and arrogant it showed little respect for man and many unfortunates that had encountered the fearsome reptiles knew that they were implacable. They were reputed to be able to outrun a man and would mesmerize their helpless prey by transfixing them with their huge eyes and hissing to distract them before they struck. A bite from one of them meant an agonising death or at very least crippling disfigurement -if one survived. I knew that if it was this dreadful snake it was far too stealthy and too well camouflaged for me to see it in the gloom. A chorus of tree frogs started up, their liquid bubbling chirps and pops reminding me that it was mating season and that the males were using their voices to attract females so that they could mate, lay eggs and take advantage of the pools of water teeming with insect life that abounded after the summer rains to nurture their offspring. As if on cue, the deeper throated toads gave voice, adding their baritone tones and calls to the tinkling frog chorus. Then, as if some conductor was leading natures orchestra they all fell silent at the same instant. And for a moment I could hear the crickets in the grass chirping and creaking before they too fell silent, all at once, – as if on cue. The sound came again.
Psssst. Pssst! The hair stood up on my neck again. But this time I was able to turn towards the source of the sound straining my ears for the faintest clue. A rustling noise helped me to home in. As my eyes focused and grew accustomed to the gloom I saw two pairs of eyes gleaming with reflected starlight .
Psst! Psst! Two denizens of the night hissed their calls in unison this time and seeing that they had my attention they stepped out of the shadows and into the half-light. Now I understood why I had not seen them earlier. Their skins were the same colour as the darkness that concealed them and they each wore only the barest scrap of clothing to provide a semblance of modesty. Another flash of white appeared out of the darkness as they flashed their teeth, smiling an anticipatory greeting realising that their prey was within their grasp and that they needed to mesmerise and then strike quickly. Without warning they spoke in unison.
“Blow job fifty!” They chorused, pursing their lips and bobbing their heads to demonstrate their technique no doubt. I shivered with shock and revulsion, pretended I had not heard them and scurried back to my boat.By the time I got back to our Casuarina tree and climbed up the ladder to the stern deck to where the rest of the family had assembled, I was chuckling with mirth and wondering how I was going to explain my encounter with these creatures of the night to my wife and daughters.
Before first light the next morning as Dianne and I made our way beneath the still-sleeping crews of boats as we made our way to the ablution block, we walked past the bottoms of the ladders leading up to each vessels sleeping quarters whilst they stood awkwardly propped up in this alien and hostile terrestrial environment. We had learned by then to give a wide berth to some of the boats that did not bother to place a hose and a bucket or receptacle between their waste outlets and the earth below often resulting in a foetid splash that announced the voiding of filthy dishwater or worse onto an unsuspecting pedestrian passing. As we passed by the ladder of each of the boats, we could tell by the shoes clustered at the bottom of the ladders who was still asleep upstairs or who by the absence of their shoes, had preceded us to the communal washrooms and toilets. As we passed by Nanook, the boat sailed by Dick, a single-hander from Alaska we noticed that in addition to his battered yellow plastic Crocs a pair of distinctly feminine sandals waited below his ladder. Dianne glanced at me, with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes as she turned to me and chuckled as she said
Psst! Psst!. And made a face like a goldfish mouthing soundlessly.
We both broke into a run as laughter threatened to overtake us and so alert Dick and his nocturnal companion. By the time we returned from the ablutions and the sun had begun to rise heralding another hot and bright Zululand day. The second pair of shoes were gone. Dianne glanced knowingly at me and we thought no more about it until we passed below his boat later that morning and overheard him clambering about on his deck above us.
“ Morning you two,” he said dazedly holding his head and hiding his eyes behind sunglasses making it plain that he was, once again, paying the price for another night of heavy drinking.
“Morning Dick” we answered cheerily trying our best not to give any clue that we knew about his assignation but being unable to resist giving each other a furtive nudge to communicate our little secret. He appeared not to notice as he continued;
“What is the procedure in your country for reporting your wallet and credit cards lost or stolen?” Dianne and I looked at each other, aware of what must have happened and then gave Dick the number for the Bank’s call centre.
“Dick if you have been robbed’” I resisted the temptation to say rolled “You should report it to the police.”
“No no. That won’t be necessary.” I dared not meet his gaze as I felt certain he would know by looking at my eyes that I knew what had happened. Nevertheless I blushed. I made sure we could not be overheard before I sat down with Dianne on the deck of our own vessel and discussed my concerns.
“I don’t think it is our business if international single hander sailors seek whatever comfort they can find, hire one of the ladies of the night. What I am not comfortable with is the robbery and the fact that this could act as a magnet for more of these nocturnal predators right here in our back yard so to speak.”
“I agree” said Dianne, besides there are families living here and I don’t think it would be good for the image of the yacht club or its members if this happens again.
“Question is what do we do?
“Leave it to me I think I have a solution.” Dianne said mysteriously. Later that afternoon I saw her speaking with Elizabeth, our clubs self-appointed puritan and busybody. I could not resist eavesdropping.
“Beth, have you noticed the number of street walkers that are frequenting the lane leading to the yacht club. They are becoming more and more brazen.” Dianne remarked casually.
“Och aye. That is terrible;” Beth fussed, her thick Scottish accent becoming even more intelligible as she became increasingly irate. “I shall be speaking to the station Commander at the police station to put a stop to it immediately” she said prissily and as she drove off indignantly in a cloud of dust.
“Watch this space” Dianne said with a self-satisfied smile.
I thought no more about it until later that evening when Elizabeth stormed over to us, obviously perturbed. I feigned ignorance whist she let off steam.
“I went to see the station commander about the streetwalkers” she said shaking her head exasperated. “He said he knows all about the ladies in the street but that he cannot do anything about it.”
“Why not?” asked Dianne puzzled.
“Because they have obviously found a source of customers at the yacht club.” Beth hissed narrowing her eyes and looking suspiciously at all the men in view.
“Oh and he gave me something for me to give your friend Dick” she said looking at me as if I was guilty as charged. “It seems that they recovered his wallet- no money of course but his credit cards are intact she said handing it to me holding it between the tips of her thumb and forefinger as if it was diseased.
Dianne and I dared not exchange glances in case we burst out laughing and gavfe the game away.