Although we live on a busy main road, we are just 12k from the Indian Ocean, as the crow flies. Unfortunately we are not crows and so the route to Macaneta, the nearest good beach, is a little more circuitous. It used to take several hours to get there, involving a drive, a precarious “ferry” (floating platform) across the Inkomati river, and then a long stretch of off-roading.
As we now have a tiny car, we haven’t been brave enough to risk it so far. Every week I see the perfect blue of the sea as we drive to the city. I see it again from the roof-top car park of a shopping mall. It seems impossibly exotic that I should find myself living within a few miles of the Indian Ocean, but correspondingly tragic that it remains out of bounds.
Then, last week, Tracey offered a day trip, together with her two girls. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I felt just as bouncy and happy as my six-year old self felt on childhood holidays. The skies were blue, the sun was hot-but-not-too-hot. It was as good as an English summer day ever gets. Perfect!
On reaching the river, we were able to cross by a new-ish bridge instead of the floating platform/ferry-thing. Then we left the safety of tarmac and continued down a bumpy dirt track, fields of pampas grass on either side rippling in the breeze. To our left, a stream full of purple water-lilies and the occasional watchful pied kingfisher. To our right, swampy pools with white herons and cattle egrets. The landscape was so flat that there was no tantalising glimpse of sea: no discernible salt in the air or shrieking gulls. The only clue was the distant roar of the waves, just audible when we turned off the engine.
We walked (or in my case almost danced with excitement) up a sandy path, shaded and bordered by green-grey thickets. Above us, long-tailed mousebirds darted from branch to branch while below, there was the dry rattle of lizards scurrying into the undergrowth.
At the top of the dune, the ocean was suddenly right there in front of us. To the left and right, just a white sandy beach stretching to the horizon. I could not get down to the water’s edge fast enough.
The waves and tides at Macaneta are notoriously unpredictable. Once in the water, the ground falls away quickly, and getting out again can be hard. With no lifeguards or coastal rescue service, swimming felt too risky. So I had resigned myself to paddling, but this was more than good-enough. The ocean was a hundred shades of blue and stretched in front of me all the way to Madagascar. The water was thrillingly cold; the receding waves hissing and foaming around my ankles. On either side, tiny crabs popped up out of their holes and scuttled in dizzy circles, before disappearing just as fast, back into the wet sand.
While I was paddling, Sina was methodically making a kite out of scraps of junk. She loves kites, but at the children’s centre she is mercilessly teased by the boys, who see kite-making as their territory and not for girls. Undeterred, she had brought scissors, plastic bags and twine with her. She was going to make a kite whatever anyone said. So Tracey hunted for sticks at the edge of the beach, and Sina used these to make a cross-frame. She patiently bound everything together. Then it was time to put it to the test. Hearing her excited cries, I came running to help.
At first, the kite danced and swooped at head height before plummeting down. But Sina persisted, trying different angles and directions until, at last, it caught the wind. Up it went, higher and higher. Sina was bursting with pride and everyone on the beach was gazing skywards in admiration.
The kite was transformed: it no longer looked like a scrappy, home-made collection of plastic and twigs. It sparkled and danced, all silvery-blue in the sunlight. For a moment, it felt as though my soul was dancing up there too.