If you go down to Kalk Bay today, you’re in for a big surprise…
In the age-old tradition of stories that delight children (of all ages) there is the living, real-life version of an unforgettable character – named Surprise.
Surprise is a bull seal, and he’s a massive fellow.
He’s not the prettiest chap – he has a bung eye and far too few teeth and he’s still wild: but he’s become a regular feature down at Kalk Bay Harbour, leering at the fishermen and hustling for some soft innards from their latest catch.
Sue Payne of Kalk Bay Fishmongers says that every morning at about 11am, Surprise stirs from his deep sleep in the sun, and hefts his great bulk down to the harbour, where the fishermen and women are cleaning fresh from the sea, fish for sale.
And there, with his gap-toothed grin, he does his best to convince everyone how starving he is, and how dearly he needs what they don’t want. He leers lopsidedly at them, grunting, and shuffling ever closer.
It’s a special skill, but even when he is shouted at and scolded by the men and women who are closely knit with the sea and its inhabitants, it is a telling off with a familiar fondness.
And without fail some soft pieces will fall from a bucket or two. Nobody actually feeds him, mind you, because it’s not allowed, but here and there enough pieces fly off from a fish being cleaned, or a bucket with his favourite bits is spilled, and Surprise guzzles it with the relish of a hungry dog – if a sea one, at that.
And for the times that Surprise gets a little too close or a little too in their faces, he is firmly shooed away by stern fisherwomen. Cries of “Gaan, jy!” and “Uh-uh, weg met jou!” resound, while children stare in astonishment and wary adults watch with a fair mixture of awe and trepidation, to see who will win this battle of wills.
And then there is Dawie Daniels. “Dawie is mostly deaf, he doesn’t speak much at all.
“He’s worked here a long time, and he has a developed a special affinity with Surprise,” Ms Payne says. “Watch this..”
And on cue, Dawie appears on the scene while Surprise is receiving a scolding of note for being greedy.
The scolding is not unwarranted.
He had just shaken a huge portion of fish all over the harbour in a mock kill, not to mention nosing a rather unsightly batch of treats about on the floor for a good while, trying to gain purchase on the snack with his stubby teeth.
Dawie lets out a series of barks and coughs, and Surprise swivels – surprisingly fast – on his flippers and peers at Dawie.
Dawie barks again, and Surprise engages his huge bulk and lunges forward in his best impression of a short run. Dawie beams and trots ahead of him, carrying a piece of fish which is a daily lure away from those hard at work. The gesture has no need of words.
But if there were, they may simply be: here, this is for you Surprise, now stop bothering everyone – go sleep.
Here’s the other surprise, though. Although Surprise is definitely wild, Dawie is the only person that can safely get close to the bull seal: and to a couple of gasps from the gathered crowd, Dawie gently rubs the bull seal’s back while he gobbles his last fish for the day. (Do not try this, kids.)
It seems like a fair trade for Surprise, who dips his head at the proudly grinning Dawie, before hunkering off for that suggested post-lunch snooze.
His belly full and no harm done, he knows he’ll be back tomorrow.
And Surprise drifts to sleep in the absolute confidence that when he next shows up with his lopsided, hopeful grin, a fresh bucket will invariably tip over.