When are you rich?

didn’t know what woke me, but suddenly I was wide awake. My eyes tried to pierce the intense dankness around me, but it was like a solid wall. A t that moment I had no idea where I was.

Issue date: 01 February 2008

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When are you rich?

I didn’t know what woke me, but suddenly I was wide awake. My eyes tried to pierce the intense dankness around me, but it was like a solid wall. A t that moment I had no idea where I was. Then I heard the wind and the breaking waves and it all came back to me – my family and I were bedded down in a flimsy grass hut on the shores of Lake Sibaya in KwaZulu-Natal. Hours earlier, when we arrived at the deserted lake-side ranger’s camp in the middle of the night, it was moonless and the headlights of our International 4×4 truck had disturbed a pod of hippos grazing among the huts. Being bone tired we didn’t unpack, but settled into one of the huts. There were only three beds so my youngest son slept on the floor. The hut had no door, only a thin reed mat hanging over the entrance. I slept right next to it. While I wondered what woke me, I heard it again – a shuffling noise outside and then a splatter, like an animal urinating right outside the entrance of the hut. It was so close I heard its breath, while I held mine. I thought about Rolf, sleeping on the floor, not 2m from the doorway. I had to protect him – a few years before I was almost killed by a hippo. All I had was a torch, but in the darkness I didn’t know where it was. Not twitching a muscle I  hoped that it would go away. Then to my horror I heard it push the reed mat aside. Gathering all the air I could get into my lungs I let fly into the darkness: “Whaa!! Shoo! Whaa! Shoo! Whaa! Shoo!…”

The surprise

The other two beds squeaked in protest as my wife and other son jumped up yelling. They were scared out of their wits by the sudden commotion. Then a plaintive and frightened little voice came from outside “Pappa… dis ek. Ek het net kom piepie”. (“Daddy it’s me. I just came to wee.”) For a few seconds there was complete silence in the hut. Then my wife burst into unstoppable laughter… till she cried. Preparing coffee an hour later in the dim light of dawn, she was still laughing. To some people it may not seem much, but even today when I tell the story she still laughs uncontrollably.

It was the first of many nights we spent at Lake Sibaya and the first of many memories. For a number of years we spent about a month there in blissful solitude in December. Apart from the local mokoros we never saw another boat on the lake, which we had all to ourselves as it was long before a fancy lodge was built. Our accommodation consisted of a large, shady thatched afdak and a number of grass and reed huts under huge waterberry trees. The lake Long ago Lake Sibaya was a huge estuary, but the mouth closed up and it became South Africa’s largest freshwater lake, 70km2 in area. It’s still inhabited by a number of marine species some of which have vanished from the sea. Like a huge dam wall an enormously high dune covered in thick coastal forest, separates it from the pounding surf of the Indian Ocean about 20m below the level of the lake.

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The fresh water of the lake that seeps continuously through the dune has for thousands of years served as a marker for gravid female sea turtles, returning from their travels through the oceans of the world, to find the exact beach where they were born to lay their eggs. There is a track over the dune and when we felt like it, the boys and I would ride thick-wheeled bikes (in those days we had 3-wheelers) over to the other side to skin-dive at Mabibi. Often at nightfall we just slept on the beach. If we felt like it we took my ski-boat and went deep-sea fishing at Sodwana Bay, 25km away. Those were wonderful, happy days and the memories make me a memory-millionaire.

Counting wealth

Too many people wealth means having lots of money, fancy cars, luxurious houses or other things that only big bank balances can buy. Their whole life revolves around making money and investing it again to make more money, while they forget to live and never develop the skills to enjoy and derive happiness from the simple things. Money doesn’t always bring happiness. One of the world’s richest people once said, “Only people without money think that money can make you happy”. Sure, money and possessions can contribute to your happiness, but only if they’re used to experience the things in life that create happy memories that can be relived one day when your strength is gone and your hair is grey.

Wealth can’t slow the relentless march of time and if we don’t die young, we’ll eventually grow old. Our children will continue with their own lives, maybe even far across the sea and we’ll be left with not much else but our own thoughts. When we sit one day in an old-age home who will be considered rich? Will it be the old gentleman with the spotless grey suit and gold embroidered walking stick, who can’t wait for the morning paper anxious to check for movements on the stock market that could affect his considerable estate, which everyone is just waiting to inherit? Or is it perhaps the old man in the worn-out wheelchair, sitting for hours with a smile on his sun-wrinkled face while he sorts through his box of old photographs?

You can lose your money. Possessions can be stolen, but memories belong to you alone. Amnesia and death alone can rob you of them. And you can share them with others and the more you do that, the crisper they become. In a heartbeat they can wisp you far away. If I have to live again, I won’t hesitate for a moment to trade my money again for memories. Only next time around I’ll keep a diary and take many more photographs to keep them alive.

To me it doesn’t matter that I live in a humble house or that my furniture is old and its lustre gone. My Land Cruiser squeaks and the paint-work is scarred and scratched by years of travelling through the bush. It doesn’t matter that my old fishing and hunting hat is so tattered and worn that it has to be handled with care, lest it fall apart. As long as I had it on my head memories were made, which one day when I look back will make it possible to bridge the bottomless canyon of time and fly away to where we could laugh the whole night long in a simple little grass hut. I will lay down my head and go to my grave a filthy rich man with a very small estate.

Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822, or e-mail [email protected]. Skype name: abrejsteyn.