‘What will I do?’ That was the thought that went through his head as he stood on the beach looking out across Table Bay to Robben Island. The lead safety boat escorting the swimmers on the six-kilometre crossing of the icy waters of the bay was creeping nearer.
He lowered the binoculars and sighed a deep sigh at what he had seen. This was the worst swim that he had witnessed in Table Bay. Ever. And it was not a sight that would decorate a chocolate box cover advertising the beauty of the Cape.
He always came down to watch the swimmers, a sort of penance of recognition for those completing the challenging journey through the cold waters. Deep in his aging heart, he wished he could be out there for one more swim, just one and he would have done it ten times and most people don’t do more than one or two, although there would be some today who would be well into the double figures. They were the hardy ones for whom no cold day prevented training in these icy waters. Many revelled in the cold’s tingling of the skin.
Today, the sea was in great shape. Some waves but they were gentle rolling ones with a tailwind for the competitors to help them along. The problem though was the pollution.
The coordinators were set up next to him and in communication with the safety boats. He couldn’t believe the reports coming over their radio. A few plastic bags and discarded items were always seen by the competitors but today was very different. Two boats had driven through a swamp of rubbish to clear a path for the swimmers and reported back they saw chairs, tables, nappies, bags and even a mattress floating forlornly in the swells, drifting for a tide to wash them to the shore or out to sea.
Nobody, well nobody in their right mind would take a mattress to the beach and throw it into the sea as a means of disposal. He started to think about how it had got there. The only conclusion was that it had been washed by the torrential rains that had lashed the coast in recent weeks. The floods had swept through the shacks near the river carrying the residents’ meagre contents into the river in a swollen torrent of polluted water. Polluted water had come in a volume far greater than the seasonal average down to the ocean. The gentle on-shore breezes of the past few days must have then pushed the rubbish into the bay and the path of the competitors.
Deliberate pollution he could understand and he did believe that people, when given the right means, would, for the most part, dispose of their unwanted goods in a responsible manner. Flooding he appreciated was beyond the control of the normal person.
He put the pollution to the back of his mind and turned his thoughts to those people affected. He knew the squatter camp on the banks of the river had been there for many years. A quiet community of people trying to make the best of the shack accommodation and earn a bit of money in the area to eke out their hand-to-mouth existence.
But then came the rains and after, the floods.
In three days they had had a month’s worth of rain from the mouth of the river to a hundred kilometres inland. The banks could not retain the volume of water and flooding had been the result. Flooding that had never been seen before but would likely be encountered again.
He looked out at the approaching boat with the swimmers trailing behind. What were they thinking while finding their way through the mess? It was a tough swim without man-disposed articles in the path. He stood with his hands on his hips and a forlorn feeling in his heart. Would this swim be remembered as a better swim than the next one? Could next year be worse than this one?
Certainly, if he believed, and he was inclined to, what the environmentalists say then things will get worse before they get better. But how do you get it better? The experts say that the average temperature will exceed by one and a half degrees centigrade in the next few years. This will lead to more flooding worldwide as seen in Pakistan, Europe and South Africa. It also contributes to the higher temperatures in summer and the droughts that follow.
He looked out again at the boats coming closer to shore. Behind he could now see the swimmers with the naked eye. A wave broke closer to shore, and its flow washed over his naked feet. The water felt warmer than he remembered. He smiled pondering that that was probably him thinking that it was, rather than the reality of the temperature in the deep water. He curled his toes into the sand as the tide sucked at his feet and looked at the rubbish that had come in with the wave. A plastic bottle and a plastic bag. He bent to pick them up and put the bottle into the bag.
As a single human being, he didn’t have the capacity to stop the rise in temperature, but he could surely pick up a few items that washed ashore and ensure their disposal in the correct manner. He looked behind him and saw some more items at the high tide mark. A short walk and more rubbish was secured in his bag.
The small crowd on the beach were now cheering and applauding as their loved ones came closer to completing their swim from the island. The bag safely between his feet he joined in the applause as the first person stood and waded from the bay. A piece of plastic was stuck to the shoulder of his wet suit and he removed it and dropped it on the beach before bending over and resting his hands on his knees. His chest heaved as he recovered his breath. His family gathered around to congratulate his achievement.
Our spectator approached carrying the bag with him.
‘Good swim! Well done could I please have that piece of plastic you dropped?’
The swimmer picked it up and handed it to him.
‘Plenty more out there to keep you busy for hours.’
‘I know but this is a start and these won’t be going back into the bay.’ He waved the bag at shoulder height.
He moved back above the high tide mark and sat on the beach watching the trickle of swimmers coming ashore. If each swimmer came back with one piece of rubbish it would mean 100 fewer pieces than at the start of the swim. It’s like eating an elephant he ruminated, rubbing his heels on the sand. One bite at a time.
He stood up. His mind was decided and the words he would say were crystal clear in his head. He went back down to the water ready to challenge all those who had swum to spend ten minutes on the beach collecting rubbish to dispose of correctly.
Do you know the question? You do! What will you do?