A solo female traveler’s hitchhiking trip across Southern Africa takes an intriguing turn when she is invited to hunt a local delicacy. This story was chosen as a runner-up for our “Unexpected Adventures” travel writing competition.
The five-thousand kilometers of hitch-hiking across Southern Africa I had done had landed me at a ramshackle highway gas station along the coast of the Western Cape. Transport trucks blasted past, their windy trails hot like a hair dryer, as I walked to the adjacent convenience store. I had three days to get back to Cape Town before my next river trip began.
I rested my back against a hot concrete wall, eating a mango with my diving knife. White clouds danced along the bright blue sky. My deep tan almost clashed with my yellow skirt, fashioned out of an old tablecloth stained with tomato sauce that wouldn’t come out. My sun-bleached hair verged on dreadlocks. I was barefoot.
A woman, as round as she was tall, eyed me as she ambled from the gas pumps to the convenience store. She fanned herself with the latest issue of Huis Genoot, that magazine loved by so many Afrikaans women. Her hair, blonde like mine, stuck to her neck in sweaty curls. I said good morning as she passed. She looked at my hair, at my feet, at my knife-impaled mango.
“What is you doing? And where are your shoes?”
“I’m hitching back to Cape Town.”
“Is you by yourself?”
“Yep, just me.”
“Why you tourists is so foolish to travel alone in this such dangerous country?” She lifted her hands to the heavens.
“I don’t think it’s that dangerous. Besides, I’m not really a tourist. I’m a river guide.”
Here eyes narrowed, suspicious at the confidence in my voice.
“But you isn’t South African?”
She muttered in Afrikaans, then in English: “You need a man to protect you.”
This angered me. Why did so many South Africans think a woman was incapable of traveling – of doing so many things – without a man?
“You come with me.” She slapped her hands together. “You stay at my house. In the moore my nephew Danie takes you to Cape Town all the way.”
“I’m ok,” I protested, but she cut me off with a wave of her hand.
“Come, we go.” She was insistent now. “My family is fishermans. We have fish for supper tonight. You like?”
I did like. I liked it a lot.
I followed her to the bakkie at the gas pumps. She lifted herself into the passenger seat, speaking to the driver. He looked at me, chuckled, and shook his head.
“The drive are about one hour. You go in back because we is full here.” The man gestured to the flatbed, where two German Shepherds panted and wagged their tales.
“No problem,” I said.
I climbed over the tailgate and laid my pack down where the flatbed met the cab.
The woman looked back, smiled, gave me a questioning thumbs-up.
“I’m good,” I called out, then slapped the roof of the cab twice – the universal sign for “I’m ready” in South-African-hitchhiker-speak. We pulled out of the gas station. I settled in the back, dogs on either side of me, each eagerly accepting my ear scratches and chin rubs.
Back at their house, a modern, three-story brick home nestled on the sea’s edge, eleven of us sat around their braai. We shared stories while the sun settled into the horizon until Thuys – the driver of the bakkie – announced it was time to catch dinner. He asked me if I would like to join.
“Sure, why not. I’d love to go,” I said. I was getting hungry, too.
“This are man’s job,” Marina, the woman who I first met at the gas station, said.
I felt that familiar bud of anger flower inside me. My stubbornness – which I get from my mother, but she calls it “determination” – wouldn’t accept the fact that I was a woman deter me from helping catch fish for dinner.
“I’d like to go,” I said. “I want new experiences.”
“Ons vang seekat,” Thuys said to the men.
“Seekat?” I asked. “Are we catching octopus? I love octopus – I ate a lot of it when I was living in Japan. I’d love to see how you catch it.”
“The moon is full, so make good seekat fishing,” Thuys said.
“That sounds exciting!” I clapped my hands together.
“If she want to go, she go!” Marina sighed, then laughed.
I smiled in triumph.
Off we went – Thuys, Thuys’ friend, two teenaged boys, and me – to the fishing shed. Thuys extracted long wooden poles with metal hooks on the end. He handed each of us one and said kom ons gaan – let’s go!
And go we did.
The last bit of sunset gave way to a black night and a fast-rising full moon. We walked single-file over grassy dunes. The smell of brine hit my nostrils as we reached the sea. I saw glowing waves crest and break, white foam dancing in the moonlight – that rare scientific phenomenon called “the oxidation of luciferins in plankton.” Mesmerized, I stumbled over my own feet. The gentle, rhythmic lap of waves against sand played in my ears and wet me to my calves.
We came to a series of natural rock pools. The light of the full moon, along with the oxidized luciferins, made the water glow a cool blue in each pool. I could see the life teeming below the surface and, surprisingly, many octopuses, each of their eight arms stretched along the undersides of the rocks, sleeping peacefully.
“This how we do,” one of the teenagers said to me in stilted English, his voice breaking between youth and adulthood.
He pierced the hooked end of his pole through the surface of the water and stabbed it through the head of a sleeping octopus. He pulled the head out of the water. Staggering, he lifted his pole above his head, stretching the octopus to an uncomfortable length.
I could hear the suckers on each of the octopus’s arms pop away from their resting spot. Then, its arms flailed through the air. The teenager scrambled to grab them, gripping them one by one. The octopus fought back. Ink shot out of its siphons, blackening both of us. I could taste the sea, the blackness, on my lips.
Now holding eight arms firmly in his grip, the son hooked the fingers of his other hand under its beak and pulled the flesh of its head inside out, exposing its brain. He then lifted his other arm, the one holding the eight legs, and started beating the brain of the octopus – Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! – against the rocks where it had been sleeping moments before.
“This best way, it die right on first hit,” he said, flinging the lifeless octopus behind him. “Now you go.”
I forced my frozen body to move. I chose to join this fishing expedition, and I had to see it through. I raised my spear.
I found an octopus. Impaled it. Pulled it from the water. I was thankful it inked me; the jets of black fluid mixed into the tears streaming down my face. I grabbed its eight fighting arms. I turned its head inside out. I thwacked it once, hard, and then again for good measure.
The teenager was impressed both by my efficiency and my precision. I thanked him. But I was more thankful that I could do the supposed least amount of harm to the octopus I was about to eat.
Once we had enough for the braai, we made our way back to the house. The men were in good spirits, pleased by their bounty. I tried to laugh along with them from my spot at the back of the line, but inside I felt numb, shocked, and nauseous.
When it was time to eat, I took slow mouthfuls of salad. My hosts looked from me to the octopus on my plate. I couldn’t avoid it any longer. I pierced a slab of octopus with my fork. I raised the forked slab to my mouth. I held it there for a moment, still feeling the sting on my arms and neck where suckers had desperately gripped me. Blocking out the thwacks that echoed in my head, my teeth broke through the octopus between my lips.
Chewing slowly, the flesh – succulent, tender, sweet – melted in my mouth. I could taste the tang of the sea against the char of the hardwood coals on which it had been cooked. It was hands down one of the most delicious things I have ever had both the pleasure and the privilege of eating.
I told this to my hosts.
Their eyes sparkled, pleased with my reaction and proud of themselves.
We ate, we shared stories, and, most of all, we laughed. I slept well that night and bade them a farewell in the morning. I was thankful for another instance of being welcomed into someone’s home and, more importantly, being welcomed into their lives.
And I have not eaten octopus since.