Monday, 31 October 2011

Crocodile Stew

You never forget your first crocodile egg.  Five years old, barefoot in the bright sunshine with my older sister and brother, we were each handed a pale, heavy, leathery egg.  Crouching down, and looking us all in the eye, my uncle gave his instructions:  take the egg home, bury it somewhere sunny in six inches of soft sand, and every day put your ear close to the ground and listen.  When you hear the sound of scratching, dig it up, and there you go, your very own baby crocodile. We nodded gravely, cradling the precious eggs. We understood. ”But, the most important thing”, his voice lowering, calling us even closer, and with a conspiratorial wink…..”whatever you do, don't tell your father!”

And that was the crux of the brothers' relationship.  They were both jokers. My earliest memories are walking through a forest of legs, the men with big brown bottles of Castle beer, stories, good-natured arguments and jokes, voices raised in the South African way, then peals of uncontrollable laughter.  Larger than life, they thrived on practical jokes.  And while my father was to build himself into a property developer, my uncle lived with his huge family in a sparsely furnished rambling home, with echoing wooden floors and camp beds - ready to  take off to the bush at a moment’s notice.

My uncle Doug was a crocodile hunter. Somewhere is a faded newspaper cutting of him, khaki shorts, khaki shirt, slouch hat, rifle in hand crouching next to a huge dead Nile crocodile. A mighty beast, its stomach is slit, and piled up in in front, five or six incongruous towers of beaded native bangles. There were hundreds of them.  Also in the photo were a couple of African helpers, eyes as big as saucers. It was the fifties, and crocodiles were a serious threat to locals in Zululand, the wild northern reaches of Natal. That old croc had spent its life feasting on unsuspecting Zulus fetching water from the lake.  All that was left was a poignant mountain of bangles.

Zululand is a romantic place.  Its endless grassland is unchanged and these days is a thick patchwork of game reserves. We were drawn to the huge wetlands called Lake St Lucia. A vast marine lake, it stretches and meanders along the coast for 60 kms, and is fed by five rivers, making the sea side of the lake saline and edged with mangroves, while on the other, a freshwater lake with reedbeds.  As the rains come, so the salinity of the lake changes and alters the fragile eco-system. Home to hippos and crocodiles, it is today a World Heritage Site, its ecological diversity a true rarity. It was here we went to fish.  

Camping was a primitive affair, and the few expeditions we did with my uncle and cousins are a vivid mix of very early memories. The excitement of the early start, car loaded to the brim - off at "the crack o' dawn!" my father would cheerfully announce. I kept an eye out for the dawn that would split the black sky in two.  After the main road north, headlights blazing, the slow, dark bumpy drive through the forests that surround the lake as the dawn gently broke around us.  Camp was made with huge round canvas tents held with a single heavy wooden pole, while the cicadas screamed in the heat. It was the rainy season. The lake was full, a vast shimmering vista of water, lapping up through the short green grass and around our ankles.  Also half-submerged a peeling sign, “Beware of the crocodiles”. The men launch the boat onto the lake, a tangle of fishing rods and bait boxes, diesel making silvery rainbows in the water. And the good-natured shouting - mostly in Zulu - at the locals who were always on hand to enthusiastically push and shove.  It was here, amid much jumbled excitement that my father caught a fish as big as my brother. 

Basic it may have been, but my uncle’s home was a vibrant adventure.  My cousins, the five boys, made music in a skiffle band; a tea chest bass, washboard and various strings, while a dainty baby impala ran from room to room.  Outside, homemade steel tanks all in a row, each half-filled with dank water and a crocodile, usually asleep, their noses just out of the water.  Posspatoo (named after Jean Passepartout, the Jules Verne character) was their favourite. The biggest and oldest of their crocs, he would spend his post-lunch afternoons asleep on my cousin Bobby's camp bed.  Aunt Jo told me many years later, how a young neighbour came to visit with her four-year-old son.  He disappeared with his little tin car to play while the two women had tea. Searching for him through the house, when she finally found him she froze in horror. There the little fellow was running his toy car over mountains and valleys, up and over, from Posspatoo’s horny tail to the tip of his gnarled old nose. His only concession to the game was to blink his eyes hard when the car travelled up and down between them. She never came back, she smiled.

We buried our eggs, and listened every day in the sunshine for the sound of scratching.  We never heard it. Who knows what happened. But something happened, and it was to be 42 years before I saw my uncle Doug again. Still as jaunty, he was living with a fading Jo and various sons in Australia.  Still talking crocs.

Durban Masala
Masala is a mix of spices all the Indian’s make for curry. Slightly different from curry powder, which is fried,  you chuck it in at the end and stir it in.  In its simple form, it consists of coriander, cumin, pepper, cardomom, clove, cinnamon, which works.  I found this recipe for Durban Masala, and it has many, many more ingredients.  I think it just uses everything.  I’d use a little less cinnamon next time.

500ml coriander seeds, 200ml cumin,  200 ml fennel seeds, 30ml black peppercorns, 25ml poppy seeds, 12,5ml shah jeera (caraway), 15ml ground nutmeg, 4 bay leaves, 12,5ml cloves, 25ml star aniseed, six black cardamoms (peeled), 50ml cinnamon powder, 25ml white cardamoms, 60ml turmeric powder, 250ml roasted and ground dry chillies.

Pick over whole spices carefully and rinse. Spread spices on large trays and sun dry for a few hours. Heat oven to 120 degrees Celsius and roast spices for 15 minutes until aromatic, or use the traditional method and slow roast spices in a karahi (a traditional little cast-iron wok) . Cool then grind spices.


  1. Well, I have my own theory why the eggs never hatched. I think a certain someone sabotaged them out of fatherly fear of baby crocs proliferating in the suburbs of Durban!

  2. My oh my, Jenny, was it really 42 years? I know that water under the bridge is gone for good, but there's a little regret that we could all have had so many of those years together..Anyway, that's a fabulous story, but it was my bed, not Kens where Posspatu used to languish. Love your site, Love to all and good thoughts, Bob

  3. Thanks, Bobby! I've changed the name.... Too much time lost, I agree.

  4. It was a truly amazing time and place. You've captured a tiny snap shot of a rich life in S. Africa. I want to read more! I agree Bob: how wonderful to have had more camping,fishing and laughing.

  5. This is not an ordinary story we hear and it was very interesting!!! What an amazing experience! Your homemade masala is full of nice aromatic spices. Did you take that crocodile picture???

  6. Thank you Nami! Sadly no, few photos survive from that time - I bought it : )

  7. WOW - I got shivers reading this!! Ian Hearder sent this to me and as i got to the forth last paragraph I thought it sounds JUST like Uncle Doug! And in the NEXT paragraph it WAS Uncle Doug!!! WOW goosbumps! I remember visiting him when they were in Durban. I was very young and i still remember the HUGE skull he had on a side board or something like that! WOW I am SO glad we have memories!

    1. Hi Sean, thanks so much for the comment. He was certainly larger than life!