The people who shaped Eden

2008-09-04 00:00

Clive Dennison has had a love affair with his “Garden of Eden” — or the Wild Coast — for as long as he can remember. It was where he decided biochemistry was his passion in life; where he was able to bond with his father through fishing; where he could be naughty and climb up a forbidden lighthouse; and where he spent time with the people he loved the most. The Wild Coast was for Dennison, like for many South Africans living in the fast lane, an escape; a place to feel free and adventurous.

Dennison has captured the “brief” history of this tumultuous area in his book, A Brief History of the Wild Coast, which gives a better understanding of who has occupied the shores of the Wild Coast and what impact this has had on the area as a whole. The book is easy to read and has a fresh style about it. It is as if Dennison is sitting next to you on a Wild Coast beach, embarking upon another tale about Captain Turner, or Dr Drewe or perhaps even his favourite character, millionaire medicine man Khotso Sethuntsa.

Dennison first went to The Haven on the Wild Coast when he was 12 years old on a fishing trip with his family. It was to be the first of many trips for Dennison. But it was only after he retired as professor and head of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, at the end of 2005, that he felt he had the extra time needed to pursue the book.

Although Dennison is an accomplished academic, he confesses he did not have much confidence in his ability to write for a popular audience. “The Witness played a big role because although I was curious about the Wild Coast’s history, I had no confidence in my ability to write popular literature,” he tells me at his Ashburton home. “Scientific writing, which is where my expertise lies, has to be succinct, unambiguous and dispassionate, which are characteristics that are not ideal for creative writing. There was this symbiosis between The Witness and me where each time the newspaper accepted an article I had written, it would boost my confidence and I would write another. So without it, I probably would not have written this book.”

The Witness readers also played a large role because at times his facts were not entirely accurate and at other times readers were able to feed him information and contact details of people who might know more about the Wild Coast’s history. The weekend before this interview, Dennison held a party for many of these people. “I got to know most of them through corresponding through The Witness,” he says. “Many had grown up on the Wild Coast, but had never met each other before. It was a great social event for all of us.”

As an academic, Dennison said the first thing he did when researching the history was to see what else had been written on the topic. “Christison Rare Books was of great help in sourcing old books on the Wild Coast,” he says. “I gradually built up a collection of these books which were very helpful.”

The result is a well-balanced historical account of the area, with photographs and original documents within the book giving more details. Dennison begins with the claim that all humans are descendants of the Khoisan, who once lived on the Wild Coast and were “cast out”, a little like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He then trails the political economy of the area and the relationship between the local tribes and Europeans. It is, however, the accounts of individuals that are most interesting: people who helped change the landscape and who brought a little fun to the Wild Coast story.

• To get a copy of A Brief History of the Wild Coast, which is published by Brevitas, e-mail Clive Dennison at dennison2@telkomsa.net

• To see Dennison’s photos and to hear a segment of his interview with The Witness go to www.witness.co.za

Having read Clive Dennison’s book, A Brief History of the Wild Coast, I was surprised to find it was only a chapter of a larger book he had compiled, but which is not published. “The first draft had all the history of the Wild Coast but looked at the geology and the plants and animals, and the sea, of course, and I included a scenic tour, with many photos by my wife, Rod Hastier and me,” he says, “but nobody wanted to publish this.

“So, I took the chapter on human history and turned it into a book,” says Dennison, who rebuilds Land Rovers and makes boats as other sidelines. “Nobody seemed to want the science bits: I think it might be because the portals to publishing are controlled by arts graduates, or perhaps the public are not into science.”

Dennison is still searching for a publisher for his book of photographs. The planned book will have minimal text and maximum photography with Dennison’s wife’s land shots, Hastier’s photos shot from his ski boat and Dennison’s photos shot from his microlight.

Dennison, who was one of the first people to fly a hang-glider in KwaZulu-Natal, in 1973, says the “magnificent thing about flying over the Wild Coast is that you can photograph everything that you can’t get on land”.

“There are some lagoons, such as the Bashee River near The Haven, that just look like Midmar when you take photos of them from ground level,” he says. “However, when you get up to 500 feet and a little over the sea, then you can take much better photos.”

Dennison’s photos are like a guide for Wild Coast tourists. You can see every single hotspot from the air, which gives you a much better grasp of where to go. I have already started my list.

— Matthew le Cordeur.

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