To get to Kiewiet’s place, if you don’t have a 4x4, you have to park on a sandy road deep in the bush and walk for about 2 km. If you’ve got an appointment to meet him early in the morning, around the time he puts his harder net out, and it’s winter, then you’ll walk by the light of the stars and perhaps a sickle moon. You’ll know you’re close when you can hear the ocean, when you can smell it,and when you top a rise and see the cluster of Kiewiet’s milkwoods against the white curve of the night-time beach. Kiewiet himself is an extension of the place. A short, strong man dressed in board shorts and an old army coat against the morning cold, barefoot with a tan that’s six layers deep. A gentle, open face. He’s strong and fit from the fresh seafood he eats and the bread, onions and potatoes he trades with campers passing through.
“I was a successful businessman, but I decided to chuck it,” he says, lighting a fire for coffee as we wait for the sunrise. “I had a big marine business in Paarden Island. One day I opened the double doors and said that anyone could take whatever they wanted. And they did. Even the fax paper.”
There are no facilities at his beach camp and I ask him where he gets water.
“Some guys I know in the police bring it,” he replies. “Or sometimes the farmer close by here.”
He’s got seven 20-litre plastic drums that get filled up and dropped off, but his Samaritans haven’t come for a while and he’s down to half a drum. He shows me his dishwashing rig, a drum up a tree with a rubber pipe snaking down, using gravity to fill his makeshift sink. The day before he’d left the sink to fill and when he looked again the pipe had shifted and his water was pooling on the sand.
“Ag, what can you do?” he says.
I ask him what it’s like to live out here. What does he think about while time passes?
“I dive,” he says. “I clean the camp. I go for long walks, just walking and thinking, turning things over in my mind. And I read a lot.”
He shows me his library – a bunch of maize sacks filled with books, some of them from his school days. He doesn’t know why he’s kept them, he just has. I ask him what he’s reading now.
“King Lear,” he replies.
Kiewiet tells me when he first arrived he had a tent, some clothes and his books. That was it. Now there’s an awning erected over his tent, a lounge area with chairs and a table, braai grids, a wetsuit full of holes and a portable shower bag. “I pick stuff up or people drop it off when they come past,” he says. Sometimes he’ll have a stream of visitors, other times he won’t see another soul for three weeks or a month. But when he does meet someone it’s almost always someone new. He says there’s nothing to it, living this way – all you need to do is make the journey, stay over and spend a little time. It must be more than three days, though. It’s only after three days that your mind starts to quieten down and you can relax.
He shows me his vegetable patch, a tiny quadrant of watered sand with five tomato plants and a succulent growing within its borders. The succulent was a gift from a monthly visitor from Durbanville, a quadriplegic man who enjoys Kiewiet’s company because he treats him like he’s just another man.
“He wants to be buried here, looking at the sea,” Kiewiet says.
But the plant has been damaged and I ask Kiewiet what happened.
“Hooligans,” he says, “they drove over it. Young guys on the booze who came to visit one night, yelling and telling me to come with them to town. It happens often. People want to take me away; they think I need something. They want to give me something.” He shakes his head. “I’m perfectly fine here. I don’t need charity.”
Around these parts, Kiewiet is known for his skills as a skin diver; he’s the go-to man for anything related to the sea. Raised by a career army man, he and his father would spend weeks out here, camping and living off the ocean. He first came to live here seven years ago, after a bitter divorce. He stayed a year and ventured back to the world with new ideas. And now he’s back.
“This is a healing place,” he says. “I suppose I’ll move on at some point but for now I’m here.”
I leave Kiewiet after a few hours, promising to come back later with water, secretly thinking I’ll bring him some smokes, too. When I return I’m a little put out. He has other visitors, Henko and Stefan, two guys who haven’t lived on the West Coast for long. They moved here recently from Pretoria, leaving unfinished stories behind. The three have just returned from a crayfish dive – Kiewiet doesn’t pay much mind to the season – and their catch is flapping on his netted floor. They invite me for breakfast and the beautiful, open beach stifles any argument.
We collect some black mussels, Kiewiet quiet now as the rest of us chat, and later we’re seated around his fire. He’s made us all another cup of his special brew – part Ricoffy, part hot chocolate, part wood smoke – and we talk as the seafood simmers.
What does it mean to live out here like Kiewiet does?
Henko says Kiewiet has evolved; he’s outgrown the need for material things and constant company. I’m interested in the idea that he’s in the midst of a faith experiment – a test to see if one is looked after in this life, if there really is nothing to fear and if success is just another illusion.
We ask Kiewiet what he thinks, but he’s not much of a talker and I have to press him for an answer. Finally he comes out with it: “You can
lose your grounding in normal life,” he says. “It’s good to be away from daily commitments. You can see things more clearly.”
Soon our meal is ready. Four crayfish that an hour before were crawling along the ocean floor, and mussels that were clinging to cold, surf-washed rocks. Kiewiet opens a bottle of Thousand Island dressing that he’s been hoarding and digs out a grinder filled with black pepper.
We go quiet. Eating. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is warm and getting warmer. A slight breeze. Dappled shade in his milkwood forest. In the distance, the ocean and the beach, stretching out, curving round the bay. There is indeed sense of peace here, an expanse of clarity.
When it’s time to go, Kiewiet tells me I must come back any time I like. If he’s not in camp he won’t be more than an hour away.
“Just look on the beach,” he says. “I draw an arrow in the direction that I walk.”