The story of an unnamed man who jumped out of a tree to save my life

There is nothing more boring, pointless or vexing to a child than long car drives to nowhere. Unfortunately, this activity is something my dad particularly loved, especially when we would vacation to The Wild Coast over December holidays as a family.

It was the day after Christmas in 2004, and finer beach weather could not have been asked for in the Eastern Cape coastal town of Morgan Bay. My grandparents decided to stay in the holiday house for the day, still recovering from the previous day’s lunchtime engorgement. While 10-year-old me was in my baggy swimming trunks as soon as I arose, with a boogie-board in hand and swirling thoughts in mind.

My parents, however, had planned to drive over the ferry across the Kei River and into the Transkei for the day, to take in the majesty of some of the most untouched and idyllic beaches in the world. At that age, I was not old enough in my parents’ eyes to go to the beach by myself, nor was I old enough to appreciate the aforementioned majesty of the Eastern Cape. But I chose the drive rather than the holiday house because the prospect of a swim seemed more probable.

The sun blazed more fiercely as the day progressed, hitting the bakkie like a mallot striking a gong. The backseat of a Toyota Hilux bouncing along the unkempt gravel roads of the Transkei became less and less of a good place to be. By 3 o’clock in the afternoon the batteries of my Nintendo Game Boy Colour were dead, reading had started to make me feel nauseous, and I had eaten all the padkos we had packed. But we had finally reached the location my dad had been searching for all day: Hole-in-the-Wall.

If you have never been there before, you really should. It is the sight of a beautiful estuary leading out to an ocean as blue as the surrounding foliage is green – intensely so. Towering over it all, just a couple stone-throws into the ocean, an enormous rock juts out from the water, many stories high and as wide as a football field, parallel to the beach. It looks like a European country mansion crafted by Mother Nature herself, with weather-hardened stone walls as old as time, and a lop-sided green roof. Most remarkable of all is a perfect tunnel leading through the middle of this rock and out into the endlessness of the ocean, formed by the millions of years of tidal flow in and out of the estuary. How Table Mountain has become one of the wonders of the natural world but this has not, I will never fully understand.

My father was expectedly excited by this overwhelming work of natural beauty, and rushed back to the car to fetch his brand new digital camera. My mom was equally in awe, standing on the beach with her hands by her side, admiring its grandeur. I was stifled with heat and boredom, and the prospect of finally having what I felt to be a much deserved swim was thrilling my childish fancy.

“You mustn’t go past the shallows,” warned my mother, after scanning the safety of the situation in a way only a parent could. This was not a swimming beach. The few other people there were all on dry land, there were no lifeguards in sight, and the massive outcrop had a looming, dangerous feel about it.

I was overjoyed. I rushed into the ocean without second thought.

The ocean bed was covered small, smooth pebbles, which ran high up the beach as though the tide was pushed out considerably farther than usual. There were hardly any waves, only small swells that the sunlight danced off playfully. More than anything, the water was refreshing and some, the coolness like a life-giving touch after the sweltering sauna of the bakkie’s backseat.

“That’s enough!” called my mother after I had gone out a dozen metres.

“But it’s not even up to past my costume…”

“It’s enough!”

I sighed, not entirely unhappy, and immersed myself in the water, coming up only once I had no more air in my lungs. Then I floated on my back on the calm, cool swells, overcome with freedom, serenity, and youthful bliss.

*****

“Jordan!”

I looked back towards my mom. I was confused. I had only closed my eyes for a few seconds while on my back to keep the bright sun out of them, but somehow I was now far further from the shore than I had been when I last looked. Or rather, the shore had moved away from me, the water having risen far past the line of pebbles and into the bush and trees bordering the beach. Two young women that had been tanning on a stretch of sand were now hastily grabbing up their towels from the water that had rolled over them. More than twenty meters of beach had become ocean in a matter of seconds.

I rolled over to stand so that I could walk back into the shore, but my feet couldn’t find the ground.

Panic struck.

“Mom!” I called out, my limbs flailing under the water to find something solid to grip onto. “Mom!”

A strong current came from nowhere, pulling me violently along the beach away from my mother. She started jogging along the beach to catch up with me, but the pebbles proved difficult to run on, especially when hidden by the now foaming water. She wouldn’t catch up.

And that was when the current started pulling me back towards the sea, towards the hole in the wall that now looked like the enormous mouth of something from a childhood nightmare, ready to swallow anything that came near it.

At 10 years old, I had finally become aware of the horror of mortality.

He had jumped out of a tree, my mother told me later, although at the time I hadn’t noticed in my panic. Neither did I notice his tall, slender build, his close-cropped hair, his rich, dark skin or the swimming costume he wore with the word “lifeguard” printed in bold yellow letters. All I noticed was a hand reached out to me, like an angelic gift, and I grasped it with all my might.

It took the lifeguard two pulls to get me the few metres towards the shore I needed for my small frame to be able to stand again. I wiped the water from my eyes just in time to collect a prodigious hug from my mother, her clothes soaked from splashing up water in her attempts at sprinting along the beach to me. “Thank you,” I heard her breathe out in sheer relief to the lifeguard. I turned out of her frame to thank him too, but he had already left, as quickly as he had come, back to his tree-top lookout, without even waiting for his deserved gratitude.

*****

The next day my grandmother read in the newspaper about something called a tsunami, a massive wave that had killed thousands of people in South-East Asia the day before. A few days after that, my mom heard that a pregnant friend and her husband, who were on Phi Phi island, had barely escaped with their lives, with only two costume bottoms and dozens of broken bones between them. We later learned that more than 20 people drowned when the tsunami, significantly lessened in the 8000km journey, struck the South African coastline sometime after 3pm on the day after Christmas.

Your world changes once you nearly become a statistic.

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