Islands are beautiful places. Seemingly autonomous, they lie like jewels in our oceans, glorious in their independence and unattachment. And like magnets they have always drawn people to them.
In childhood we are tempted to explore their secrets; the possibility of hidden treasure having lain in wait for decades and maybe even centuries in the bowels of the island; or the likelihood of islands harbouring strange tribes or animals rarely seen before; a place of adventure, mysteries and otherness. Be that as it may, in the same way these magical places enabled us to every so often escape from reality, still, as adults, we book flights and set sail to these smaller islands, mainly to find rest and respite from the daily grind. We flee to them; to these places removed.
Some islands are bits of the old continents, part of the land shelf that rise above the surrounding water, like rebellious children who stubbornly broke away and strayed to find their own destiny in the vast expanse of the ocean. Others grew straight from the oceanic crust – true water children. And others, formed from once living creatures, stand proudly anchored in the underwater rainbows of coral reefs.
Having grown up not far from the coast, weekends and holidays spent at the beach are some of my happiest memories. Throughout my childhood many things became synonymous to being at the beach: fun; sun; a steady diet of barbecue and ice creams; a dip in the ocean equalling a bath (if we could at all get away with it); no demands; not many rules; running free; crazy, salt-encrusted hair that no hairbrush could untangle; not a lot of clothing. And ultimately all these conditions signified one thing: freedom.
At night time the sound of the crashing of the waves at high tide or the gentle turning over of small water tunnels lapping at the sand were my nocturnal friends. And during the day, if we weren’t covered in sand or leaping in the water, I was amongst the rocks. Sometimes catching small fish in rock pools in my net. But always searching. For mostly one rare item. Between the crevices and nooks and crannies of my kingdom of rocks they would lie in wait: pumpkin-shaped shells – the fragile skeleton of sea urchins – which we simply called little pumpkins (‘pampoentjies’). They were rare finds and I never got tired of marvelling at their perfectly-shaped, green (sometimes tinged with pink), delicate, round bodies and the symmetrical lines that stretched like beads from the small gap in the top to the bigger opening at the bottom. At the end of the holiday I would string them together from big to small and they would hang in front of windows, looking out.
As the world unfolds into every-widening chinks and alcoves as one grows older, one starts chasing other things. I continued searching. For islands. Because I guess that is what we do: we revert back to our own paradise, hoping to find, time and again, that place where we were happiest: the origin of our own personal freedom; a sanctuary where we can be ourselves in our most natural state. And what better place, I have always thought, than a relatively small piece of land 360 degrees surrounded by the sea.
Whenever I am lucky enough to find myself on an island, I am always startled by its beauty and varying degrees of isolation, by the individuality of every single one of these isles. Be it a tiny piece of remoteness in the Caribbean Sea where only iguanas are allowed to live, craning their necks for hours seemingly motionless towards the sun on rocks all day; or a place small enough to get around by golf carts; or an island in the Mediterranean Sea where, according to legend, its religious structures were thought to have been built by mythical beings. They all lie nestled within the ocean as if they’ve used the geological forces to their advantage to acquire each their own unique, remote quality.
And, as we are all caught within the spiral of time and history inevitably repeats itself, like many moons ago, we have fun all the same: we absorb the sun that scatters its rays into thousands of blindingly white stars on the surface of the ocean; I follow a steady diet of seafood and wine and ice cream; we acutely experience the pleasure of no demands and no need for layers of clothing; we run free; I still enjoy crazy, salt-encrusted hair that no hairbrush can untangle. And still all these conditions signify one thing: freedom, the chance not to be industrious but just to be.
From the sandy edges of islands even the mainland looks soft and hazy on the horizon, its sharp, strict edges softened and just far enough to be safely out of immediate reach. As, sometimes we need to be rid of externals, of looking like and acting in a certain way; from time to time all we need is to experience a different world and be aware only of one’s own breathing. To find, once again, equilibrium within the palm of the currents; our insides brought into perfect equanimity with the steady pull and fluctuation of the rhythm of the tides.
Rarely have I found a pumpkin shell on my many journeys during my adult life. I guess one needs to accept that certain things belong to a different time. They were most probably nature’s reward for my determination and devotion, my light-footed scampering from rock to rock all day long. That they did serve a purpose is undeniable though: to this day I slip every island – the recollection of each a quiet devotion – onto the string of my memory and I carry them inside myself, unspoiled, like a strand of prayer beads.
Even though the physical state of islands too, like the lifespan of us humans, are intrinsically impermanent, most of them are not quite as transient. And therefore I find comfort in the fact that after we’re gone from the earth, most of the islands will still be there: looking out.