For whom the bell tings

The constant clanging of ice-cream salesmen is only the beginning of beachside holiday hell

I am not a fan of the sea. It had therefore been twenty years since my last beach holiday. For the first couple of days on the sunny coast, though, I had thought I might relent slightly. Only slightly, mind you.

We were ensconced in a pristine KZN North Coast apartment which had apparently once belonged to the late Louis Luyt. The balconied beachfront flat, with a suitable grandstand view of the Indian Ocean, was well-furnished with not-too-great a preponderance of orange and red swirls. Everything worked, down to the air-conditioning and the rugby-lover’s home theatre, although we had no intention of using either. A swimming pool sparkled blue in a neatly trimmed garden. There was no smell of drains or worse. Friendly staff went beyond the call of duty.

The weather was perfect. Clear skies blazed above an infinity-bound aquamarine sea, trimmed with fizzing white froth. Gambolling children of all hues and cries scattered happily in the waves and across the beach. Dolphins frolicked in the offshore swell. The sharks were at bay, beyond their nets.

So far, not so bad.

I think it was the ceaseless ringing of the ice cream salesmen’s bells that changed everything, ultimately tipping an otherwise cheerful and newly ocean-enamoured Chris Harvie back over the edge and into a terminal never-again downward spiral.

I am sure, however fond they might be of the jingle of a bell, that any post-yuletide vacationer, even the keenest campanologist, perhaps even Quasimodo himself, would have agreed with me that it was excessive. And in a week on that beach I don’t think I was ever aware of a single ice cream being sold, despite the passing every 30 seconds of a ringing red cool box. So not only is it rampantly headache-inducing, it blatantly doesn’t work.

Surely somebody could put an end to this irritation? The crash of the waves and the sound of joyous children armed with boogie boards and bat and ball all make sense, but the constant ding-a-ling just jars.

There were other problems too which now became more obvious in the light of this artificially inflicted tinnitus. I had distant and probably equally artificial memories of lengthy empty golden sand beaches stretching uninterrupted to north and south, of bobbing gently on high surging waves, of swimming way out to sea, of lithe and lissom bronzed physiques and of fresh seafood in beachside restaurants.

The reality, I now realised, clear as a bell, in the weeks after Christmas was rather different. While the shopping centres and theme parks were perfectly clean, much of the beachfront reeked of bulbous bodies and fast-food, the evidence of the latter trodden and plastered into a hot-doggy, burger-pulp strewn with popcorn and strings of chewing gum into every pavement and piazza. Even the seafood’s not fresh any more.

And, as if the peace wasn’t already shattered enough by the interminable tinkling, some wise official had armed the bored lifeguards not only with their bizarrely-shaped flotation devices which they had used to mark out an extensive encampment on the beach, but also with shrill whistles, with which to call in errant swimmers who had strayed outside the narrow stretch of surf to which they were supposed to be confined.

As the week drew on, the permitted swimming area between the lifeguards’ flags became ever more shrunken, the undertow stronger and the bluebottles more numerous, driving the glutinous masses out of the sea to overflow instead onto an already heaving and overburdened stretch of sole-burning sand, gazebos springing up like a refugee camp in a Saharan drought.

Please, Authorities, stop the piercing trills and the constant jingling, power-spray the esplanade and maybe get the public to shed a significant percentage of its body weight or cover up, and I might be convinced to go down to the sea again, as the poet said, but not until then.

Ban the bells! Bring back the belles! Ola, Goodbye!