When a cold wind started to blow down the river in the direction of the sea, my whole body started to shiver violently. I was soaking wet and frozen to the bone. had been sitting up to my shirt pockets in the river’s cold, dark water for at least five hours. Midnight was hardly more than an hour away. Like startled fireflies the few distant lights could see started to go out one by one. The town beyond the lush riverine forest on the opposite bank grew quiet and the cars crossing the bridge a 100m downstream became few and far between. Fog started to swirl around me and the few lights became hazy blobs in the darkness. With vastly reduced blood circulation in both legs, knew was starting to suffer from hypothermia and doubted would make it through the night
Falling for ants
It had all started earlier that afternoon. was living only a few minutes from several good fishing spots in the pleasant seaside town of Uvongo, and went fishing almost every day. On days when the fishing was good went home on my quadbike only for lunch and now and then for a fresh cup of coffee. O n that winter’s day in 2001 the sea was very rough after a strong south-westerly and in the morning nobody had caught a thing. So, decided to take my flyrod and try for some Natal yellowfish, or “scalies” as they’re known, in the deep hippo pool above the road bridge and waterfall in the Uvongo River. had previously caught quite a few of these hard-fighting speedsters there.
Arriving at about 4pm that afternoon, just below the tennis courts on the southern side of the river, had got off the bike and sat down under a huge tree on the sheer edge of the grassy bank that dropped straight down to the water over 2m below. While preparing my tackle noticed a horde of red driver ants or rooimiere swarming over my boots and socks, and felt them crawling up my leg. suddenly felt a sharp, burning pain on my inner thigh. When rubbed the area, was bitten in several other delicate places simultaneously.
They’re not called balbyters for nothing. had grabbed my crutches and tried to get to my feet. In my haste, got up too fast and lost my balance. As if in slow motion felt myself falling over backwards, over the bank and plunged head first into the deep, dark water far below.
Although the cold water was a shock to my whole system, was surprised didn’t touch the bottom. found out later that it was well over 10m deep. When surfaced, instinctively returned to the spot where had fallen in and found a strong tree root protruding from the bank, about 30cm under the surface, on which could sit. dug out my cell phone, but because it was filled with water it went into instant cardiac arrest the moment switched it on.
With the power of adrenalin surging through me, managed eventually to stand on the submerged root, but when tried to claw my way up onto the bank, an avalanche of sand broke lose and crashed down onto me together with part of the driver ant nest that contained hundreds of the enraged insects. D riven mad by their stinging bites, swam fully clothed upstream, but found no place where had any hope of getting out. dared not go downstream for fear of being washed over the waterfall, which cascaded 23m down a staircase of jagged rocks into the deepest estuary along our entire coastline.
All could do was return to my underwater root-perch and call for help. could still hear people at the tennis court less than 50m from where was. had my dog whistle on a cord around my neck. blew as hard as could and called, “Can anybody hear me, please help me!” But there was no response. thick vegetation and the booming surf at the river mouth must have smothered my voice. kept calling until heard them starting their cars and driving off. Then it was silent and was alone. had been in similar situations previously and so decided to use my trump card that had got me out of those predicaments.
My 9mm Luger pistol was still safely in its holster on my belt. It had been a serious attention-getter in the past. drew it and fired a shot into the sandbank on the other side of the river, followed by the whistle and a call. expected half the townsfolk to come rushing down to the river to see what was amiss. fired another shot and called and then fired another and listened. But nothing happened. emptied the magazine and inserted the spare, while calling all the time, but all that came was the darkness, the fog and then the cold.
Symptomatic of the time
It dawned on me that in a crime-riddled society, where people cared little about others, nobody paid any attention to repeated shots being fired in their vicinity, as long as they weren’t hit. was unsure whether there were crocodiles in the river and refrained from using all my ammunition.
Then something swam towards me on the surface, but it was only a snake of which had no fear. With my torch still in my fishing bag up on the bank, it was impossible to identify it, but the size and shape suggested a large cobra. It slid onto my shoulder and tried to scale the bank, but when I moved it took fright and swam away. By that time my wife must have been very worried. When I had left I had told her I’d be fishing at the river, but she didn’t know exactly where.
So, at about 9pm, she started to drive around, looking for me. Whenever someone crossed the bridge I would call out, but the only one who ever answered was a guy who mocked me, by mimicking my call. She arrived on foot at the entrance to the bridge as that guy was walking towards her, still mocking me. She thought my distant voice was merely his echo. Fortuitous association At that time I had befriended a young policeman attached to the dog-squad, who often went fishing with me. Because there had been a spate of burglaries and robberies in the area, he left his number with us, in case we had trouble. When my wife arrived home and found I hadn’t yet returned, she had no choice but to phone him.
He knew my fishing spot and considered it a dangerous place to be at night. He summoned a colleague and while I was still bracing myself for the worst night of my life and figuring out ways to stay awake, suddenly two cars turned into the carpark of the tennis court and bathed the whole fogged up area in blinding light. I knew it was my last chance and with numbed fingers I groped around underwater for my pistol and my whistle, while my hoarse throat uttered feeble calls for help. In a desperate attempt to attract their attention, I fired one of my last rounds and then all hell broke lose. People shouted, dogs barked and car doors slammed. Apparently the policemen, who thought they were under fire, jumped from their vehicles, dropped to the ground and with guns ready, prepared to repel any ambush.
I blew my whistle and called again. After I assured them I had fired the shot they rushed to my aid. Upon reaching me one guy attempted to climb down the bank, lost his footing and amid a new shower of sand and infuriated ants, landed on top of me. My root-perch broke and as I was too cold to swim anymore, he had to keep me afloat. Warming up More help was needed, so my friend called by radio for the fire department’s search and rescue vehicle. When they arrived one guy was let down on a rope but the other was unable to pull us up, so they lowered a harness and had to winch me up. They wanted to take me straight to hospital, but I refused.
Arriving home after midnight, I was found to be too filthy to enter the house and first had to be hosed down with more cold water. I almost fainted. Later, lying in a glorious hot bath with a mug of coffee on my chest and an array of delicacies around me, I started to reflect on the remarkable power of ant-solidarity and the unconcernedness of people. Those tiny insects, which I can crush between my fingertips, fought together to overpower a giant like me when their common interests were at stake. I was lucky not to lose my life in the battle.
What I did lose was my right to ever fish the surf again when a beach ban came into effect a few days later. One of us and the ants This incident happened almost 10 years ago and little did I know how worthless our constitution would become. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “…to ensure that the people are the equal of their government, whenever that government forgets it is servant and not master of the governed”. How much have we all lost since then? We are inundated with corrupt officials and wagonloads of oppressive new laws that infringe upon our personal freedom and rights, our livelihoods, property, prosperity and security, while we lose our family farms and our police force that was committed to serve, protect and uphold the law.
Unable to move on a beach without my quadbike, I can never fish the surf again. With the new Expropriation Act looming, who knows where it will end? As individuals we are as vulnerable as single ants, but just imagine what unstoppable force we could exert if we were concerned about each others’ rights – even if some of us are foreigners – and fought together like balbyters instead of against one another. – Abré J Steyn Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected]. Skype Name: abrejsteyn. |fw