A Miraculous Day at the Witsand Botel
A traveller's short story by Martin Hatchuel
I saw the Flying Dutchman at Kanon on the last night of our hike.
The mist had been hanging in the air all day, wintery thin, and it had deepened with the coming of the night, and after supper in our guest house - this was, after all, a luxury trail, with us walking from point to point while our luggage was delivered by road - I was sitting on the patio, listening to the waves and watching the fire, when the lights failed. I wasn’t too worried about them, though: everyone else had gone to bed and I thought I’d look for the fuse box when I was ready to go up to my room.
But I became aware that I wasn’t alone: a large, sandy-haired man had come up onto the patio, and he nodded at me.
“Evening,” he said. “I’m Bell. You must be one of the Travel Africa group.”
I nodded and gave him my name, but he seemed disinclined to shake, so I didn’t offer my hand.
“Mind if I sit?” he said. “I’m one of the guides, but I’m off duty.”
“Go ahead,” I said.
There’s only one house on the point at Kannon, so he must have walked from the village about half an hour down the beach. It’s a lonely part of the world, often windswept, rocky, with low-growing fynbos and very few trees.
We sat in the dark and the silence for some while, as you do, and I fed logs onto the flames, and we made small talk. “Where are you from? Where did you study? Oh really, did you know so-and-so?” but we soon ran out of things to say to one another, and it was during one of the long lulls in our conversation that I caught sight of a red glow out to sea. At first I thought it was a trick of my eyes, but when Bell shivered violently and drew his breath deeply, I knew he’d seen it, too.
Then our fire lost its heat and I became afraid.
“Nothing he can do to us here on shore,” said Bell.
“The Flying Dutchman,” he said. “Hendrik van der Decken.
And as I did, the vague shape of an old sailing ship appeared like smoke against the glow, and then it darkened - as if it was going to materialise - and then it disappeared, and a moment later, so did the glow.
“You’ve seen it before?” I asked.
“A few times,” said Bell. “He seems to like this spot.
“You know the story: the ship that’s cursed to try and round the Cape till Judgment Day,” he said. “And her master, van der Decken, who can never come ashore. That’s why I say we’re quite safe here.”
“I’ve heard it, of course, but I’m an atheist,” I said.
“There is no spirit world.”
“But you just saw it.”
“Ha, ha! That was just some trick of the light. Probably some kind of lightning associated with the mist. A fireball or something.”
But Bell just shook his head. “You’re wrong,” he said. “I’ve spoken to van der Decken.”
Bell was a huge man, a real guide’s guide, and I couldn’t imagine that he’d ever messed with drugs or anything, but I couldn’t help asking what he was taking, anyway.
He laughed. “Oh, it was nothing like that,” he said. “It was a genuine conversation. He wanted me to pass a message on to someone at the Witsand Botel.”
“I’ve never been to Witsand,” I said. “Didn’t know it had a Botel.”
“Oh, it does,” he said. “But I’ve never been there, either.”
“So how did you deliver the message?”
“I haven’t,” he said. “And I think that van der Decken knows that, and that’s why he shows himself on nights like tonight.”
I suggested that van der Decken must have been to Witsand if he knew about the hotel.
“I wonder if it’s the same place,” said Bell. “Old Hendrick’s been sailing this coast for more than four hundred years now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, there are many versions of the story of the Flying Dutchman. In some, van der Decken and his men are allowed off their ship once every seven years for a day or two so that they can look for wives for themselves, and if they find them, and if they’re faithful, they’ll find salvation, and then they can finally lie down and rest.
“But that’s just nonsense, because the Flying Dutchman can never come ashore.”
I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation: it wasn’t that we were talking myths and fables. It seemed like Bell was convinced that what he was saying was true and real.
Still, I decided to humour him.
“So how did you meet this van der Decken?”
“At sea, of course. I was the youngest member of the crew on a yacht on a cruise from Cape Town to Durban and I had the watch. It was the middle of the night and the sea was calm but everything was misty, much like tonight. The swell was gentle and the boat was rocking along almost on its own, so it was very difficult to stay awake.
“Just as I was about to doze off, I heard music. I jumped up and ran down the companionway and put my head inside the cabin, but the others were all asleep and there was no way that any of them was playing a trick on me.
“The music could only be coming from another vessel.
“I didn’t know what to do. I had all the running lights on, and there was really no way of making the boat any more visible than it was - I didn’t want the other vessel to run us down, you see. But the music didn’t get any closer or further away. It was as if the other boat was holding a course with ours.”
“How did it sound?” I asked.
“I couldn’t put my finger on it,” said Bell. “It certainly wasn’t modern, and it wasn’t very loud. I suppose it sounded like those old pennywhistles they used to play in the townships in the fifties. You know the ones?”
“But the music was much older than that, and it had a quick, catchy beat. I realised after a while that someone was drumming softly, too, although it could have just been the sound of a foot tapping time on a deck.
“Just like tonight, I was suddenly aware that the air had become much colder, and soon I began to think I could see a red glow over the water.
“Whatever it was, yacht or ocean liner, I was sure she was going to hit us amidships, but before I had a chance to warn the crew, the fog began to clear and I realised we were running alongside an ancient square rigger.”
At this I started to laugh. “C’mon Bell, surely you don’t expect...”
“You can believe what you like,” he said. “I know what I saw.
“It was lit up with a strange red glow, just like tonight, but it was far closer to us - no more than 30 metres to starboard - and I began to realise that it stank of old seaweed and rotten fish. But it wasn’t a pervasive smell - it was almost like it wasn’t there one moment, and then you caught a whiff of it the next.
“It was really incredibly eerie.
“Then I heard a voice call my name. It was a high pitched voice, but definitely a male voice, like one that belonged to a really old man - although it was strong and clear: ‘Good evening, Bruce.’
“’Who’s that?’ I whispered.
“Suddenly he laughed, and it was like the quivering of canvas. It filled the shrouds and came down from the masts and came up from the bilges - and I don’t mind telling you I was more scared than I’d ever been before.
“I started to get up from the wheel to go below for help, but he laughed again and said ‘Don’t wake them, Bruce, it’s you I want to talk to.’
“’What do you want?’ I asked.
“You must remember I still couldn’t see anyone - just the ship, and then only a kind of a hologram of a ship, and it didn’t seem as if anyone was on board - although the voice was definitely coming from there, and I could still hear the music.
“’I want to tell you a story,’ he said.
“’Who are you?’
“’I’m the one they call van der Decken,’ he said. ‘But you don’t need to be afraid, I’m not going to do anything to you, except maybe ask you a favour.’
“’Why don’t you show yourself?’ I asked.
“’Oh, you’ll see me in time, but not now,’ he said, laughing again.
“By now we were lying almost alongside the ship, and it was as if both vessels were becalmed, so it wasn’t necessary for van der Decken to shout. Still, I hoped that his voice would waken one of the others on our boat, because I could really have done with some serious help right then.
“Suddenly van der Decken said, ‘Do you know Maria van Blanken?’
“’No,’ I said. ‘Why would I know her?’
“’Ah,’ he said, and I thought I heard his voice catch, ‘she was the most beautiful woman alive, and I loved her like no other.’
“I waited, and after a while he said, ‘No girl could light up a room like Maria; she had the voice of an angel, and every one loved to hear her sing. And although she was nothing more than a working girl, I fell in love with her the moment I saw her, and I knew she’d be true to me.
“’And you want me to find her?’ I asked.
“’Could you do that? Would you do that for me?’
“’How? I wouldn’t know where to start looking,’ I said.
“’You’ll find her at the Witsand Botel,’ he said. ‘She cooks there.’
“’You met her ashore?’ I asked.
“’No,’ he said, with sadness and longing. ‘I met her at sea. She was sitting alone at night on the prow of a liner, singing to the waves. No sooner had I seen her than I knew I had to marry her, and I boarded her ship and introduced myself to her, and we talked. She told me she was bound for Cape Town, and thence for Witsand.
“’I followed her around that ship like a young man in love, and I watched her entertaining her fellow passengers in steerage late into the night, and I listened to her jokes and her banter, but with the coming of the day I was forced to return to my command, and I’ve never seen her since.’
“And now you want me to tell her you love her?’
“I knew there was only one way I’d could end this bizarre conversation, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll tell her; and what then?’
“’Tell her to take a long boat out and meet me off the River Mouth at dawn...’ he said, and just then the glow began to fade, and I was suddenly alone in the fog and my boat was rocking gently over the swells.”
I laughed again and said, “That’s all?”
Bell looked at me strangely.
“Have you ever heard the old cliché about ‘ice in your veins’?” he said. “That’s what I felt that night, and that’s what I felt tonight when I saw that ship.
“He’s after me, I know he is, but I can’t do a thing about it.”
“You could go to Witsand, try and find the woman.”
He shook his head. “I’ve asked. There’s no one there by that name; never has been.”
“But there is a Witsand Botel?”
“Seems so,” he said. And then he slapped the arms of his chair and stood up abruptly. “It’s getting late and you’ve got to conserve your energy for the last day of your walk, so I should be getting on and you should be getting to bed. Thanks for the chat.”
I thought I’d offended him, but I let it ride, because I really was exhausted, and we said good night and he stepped off the patio and into the night.
I sat for another ten minutes or so, thinking and occasionally chuckling over Bell’s implausible story, and when I decided it really was time to turn in I took a candle from the patio table, lit it from the fire, and went into the kitchen where I found the fuse box. I flipped the trip switch back on and the house came to light again warm and peaceful, and I hoped all the others had turned off their bedside lamps before they’d fallen asleep else they’d surely be woken. Then I went around and switched off the lights individually, and climbed the stairs to bed.
In the morning, the owner of the trail joined us for breakfast and I told him - and my fellow hikers - about the power cut.
“Something tripped the earth leakage, you should probably get it checked out,” I said.
“I certainly will,” he said. “Thank you.”
“I must say, I enjoyed meeting your guide, Bell,” I said, and told him that the man had joined me for half an hour in front of the fire.
The owner choked on his coffee. “Bell? Big bloke, very blond hair?”
“That’s him,” I said.
“You couldn’t have met him.”
“But I did, and he told me the most outrageous stories.”
“Yes, Bruce was famous for his stories,” said the owner.
“Was?” I said.
“Do you remember that yacht that went missing off this coast about two years ago? The Maybell? That was Bruce’s family’s boat and it went down with Bruce, his parents and his brother on board,” said the owner.
“That’s why you couldn’t have spoken to him last night.”
A Miraculous Day at the Witsand Botel by Martin Hatchuel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Image: Tanner Mardis