Shell collecting. The most innocent and becalming of pastimes. Fresh sea air. Crashing waves caressing one’s ears. Kids building sandcastles. Seagulls wheeling and whingeing. Dogs with sticks in their mouths shaking saltwater over bodies browning under sun’s grill.
Time was when Mom and Dad would take us down the South Coast for a Sunday of bodysurfing, Coke floats and burgers and Swingball on the beach. We would wade in the rockpools, wonder at crabs and gigglingly stick our stubby little fingers into ever-alert anemone. And pick up, seemingly, huge cowrie shells almost at will.
Many years later, now that I enjoy the “live-the-holiday” luxury of blogging on my Umdloti verandah instead of enduring endless newspaper strategy meetings in drab offices, I have begun to take walks on the beach – just 40 metres away from my front door.
Bliss. It is during my seaside solo sojourns that I feel the eye-crustiness of hours spent hovering over my laptop wash away, cleansed by breezes surfing off the Indian Ocean, my feet cooled by flirtatious tides, the scrunching sand exfoliating my toes.
That was until I rediscovered what I remembered to be the joys of finding the enticingly elusive cowrie shells. Those subtly coloured beetle-body shells of porcelain sheen, with the tiny teeth that once protected the gogga which lived inside. The shells that, centuries ago, were used as currency in much of the world. Eulogised in myth to boost fertility in women whose bodies are adorned with them. Oh, what elation to be had when, among myriad fragments of oystershells, mussels and limpids, I spot a cowrie furtively shooting off a watery wink at the wintery sun.
But no more. I have stumbled upon a secretive, sophisticated network of local cowrie collectors. And they’re scary. They emerge silently and menacingly at the crack of dawn from their hi-des double-storey homes lining Umdloti South Beach Road, clutching roneo’d copies of tide-tables in one hand and Friendly Store plastic bags in the other.
Wearing crazy-paved, granny-knitted and grotesque jerseys to defeat the early-morning chill, they fan out on the sands with nary a glance at sky or surf. Heads down they plod away, scouring around every granule of sand for any cowrie which may be trying to hide behind a piece of seaweed or Coke bottle-top. Raised glances are reserved for me, an Umdloti newbie, and they wordlessly say: “Hey, out-of-towner, don’t tread on our turf. You’re welcome to surf or build sandcastles but we have sole mining rights for cowries on this beach so naff off.”
I pretend to stare out to sea, waving occasionally at a bloke in a microlight or at a container ship headed for the Far East, all the while poking a toe around in the sand for a shape resembling that of a cowrie shell. It’s not nice.