Oh horror – is that the Grim Reaper on the Black River?!

24 February 2013

Last week, Reggie and I were driving over one of the bridges that cross the Black River near Pinelands, when she braked sharply.

“What on earth is that?” she exclaimed, peering through the passenger side window, as she drove slowly across the bridge. “Flat Kathy, look over there on the river, did you see that?”

“I think it’s a fisherman on a boat,” I suggested, shielding my eyes against the bright sunlight.

Two odd-looking figures are floating in a green boat on the Black River
Two odd-looking figures are floating in a green boat on the Black River

“That is rather strange,” said Reggie, driving on. “Our urban rivers have been so polluted that I can’t imagine why anyone would want to catch those fish. The only fishermen I’ve seen along the river tend to stand on the shore, not fish from a boat.”

A day or two later, we caught another glimpse of the odd figure in the boat.

“Is that the same guy?” asked Reggie, with a puzzled frown. “Surely he can’t have been fishing in the same spot for two days? Flat Kathy, I think we should investigate this.”

“Oh goody! I like a good mystery!” (I have been dipping into some Nancy Drew Mysteries, which Reggie’s friend Kimberley [the one I presented with a packet of cupcakes a while ago] gave her a month or two ago. They make for riveting reading, let me tell you!)

We've walked across to the other side of the river to look at the boat and the figures from a different angle
We’ve walked across to the other side of the river to look at the boat and the figures from a different angle

That day, luckily for us, the local neighbourhood newspaper arrived in our postbox.

“Ooh look, Flat Kathy! There’s a story about the strange fisherman!” shouted Reggie, rushing into the house and excitedly flapping the paper at me.

“What’s it say? What’s it say?” I demanded impatiently, as Reggie spread the paper out on the table and started reading.

“It’s an urban art installation,” she said. “And no one knows who made it, or where it came from, or what it’s supposed to mean. There’s a picture of it in the paper. It shows a boat, with a hooded figure sitting in it, and behind it, a tree made from driftwood with a whole lot of empty plastic bottles hanging from it. They think it might be an effigy of Charon, the ferryman from Greek mythology.”

Photo of the Grim Reaper by David Ritchie: Picture source - http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/viewer.aspx
Photo of the Grim Reaper by David Ritchie: Picture source – http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/viewer.aspx

“Oh, what is that?” I asked, mystified.

“I’ll read what it says in the article: ‘In Greek mythology, the ferryman takes the deceased from the banks of the River Styx and transports them to Hades, the other world where the dead can rest in peace. The ferryman is paid for his services with a single coin placed in the mouth of a corpse. Those unable to pay were left to wander the earthly side of the river and haunt other souls.'”

Shudder…

One hooded figure is sitting down, the other seems to be climbing up a ladder?
One hooded figure is sitting down, the other seems to be climbing up a ladder?

“Our urban rivers have been incredibly polluted, because people persist in throwing rubbish into the river, even when they live right next to it,” said Reggie crossly. “And industries have dumped effluent and toxic chemicals into the river… In some areas, the situation is starting to improve, thanks to the cooperation of residents and businesses and the dedication of some individuals and organisations that care about protecting the rivers and keeping them clean, like the Friends of the Liesbeek and the Friends of the Black and Vygekraal Rivers. But it’s an ongoing battle. So they’re speculating that perhaps the strange figure is drawing attention to the toxic state of our urban rivers.”

“Well, I think that is a very clever work of art then,” I declared.

An Egyptian geese, perched on a rubber tyre, is completely unfazed by the boat and its peculiar occupants
An Egyptian goose, perched on a rubber tyre, is completely unfazed by the boat and its peculiar occupants

Reggie continued: “They interviewed Kevin Winter, the guy who launched the Peninsula Paddle a couple of years ago – once a year, a large group of canoeists paddle all the way from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, using the rivers and canals through the city.”

“Oooh, that sounds like fun!”

“He said that there was an interesting twist to the story: ‘The Black River is showing signs of re-birth. The ancient myth tells how the ferryman returned some deceased to the shore because they had drunk a small drop of pure water from a tributary of the Styx.’ So, although the river is still polluted, he says ‘it is not a river of death. What we are seeing is the slow rebirth of a badly degraded urban river.’ He mentioned that they’ve seen lots of birds returning to the river, including flamingoes, and that the water is clear enough for them to feed there.”

Isn't this a marvelous backdrop? Tht is Devil's Peak in the distance, where we visited Rhodes Memorial on Friday
Isn’t this a marvelous backdrop? Tht is Devil’s Peak in the distance, where we visited Rhodes Memorial on Friday

“Well, that’s interesting… In December 2010, we took some photos of flamingoes in the Black River,” recalled Reggie. “I wrote a post about it on my blog. It was a wonderful sight! Perhaps you’ve seen the flocks of flamingoes in the river, when we’ve driven in on the N2, Flat Kathy? I’d thought of trying to take a closer look (and some photos of course, for your blog, Flat Kathy), but there are no safe places to stop next to the highway, and it’s not so easy to get to the side of the river.”

“Can’t we ask Richard to go with us to the river?” I suggested.

“Yes, that’s an excellent idea, Flat Kathy. We’ll do so tonight.”

On Sunday morning, an opportunity came to take some photos. Richard agreed to drive with us and to act as our protector; Reggie didn’t want to wander down to the river on her own with me, because she thought she might get mugged for her camera. There’s too many unsavoury characters living underneath the bridges and lurking about by the river, she explained. I thought that was rather sad. Crime – and fear of crime – seems to be a serious issue down here.

We parked on the opposite side of the road, and walked down to the edge of the river to take some photographs from the one side; then Reggie insisted we take some photos from the other side. We were surprised to see that the installation had changed a little: there was now a second figure in the boat, and it appeared to be trying to climb up a ladder? I wonder what that is supposed to mean? It is very strange, and quite mysterious.

Why is that second figure is trying to climb up a ladder?
I wonder why that second figure is trying to climb up a ladder?

If you have any ideas what this might mean, please let me know? It would be so nice to solve this mystery!


17 thoughts on “Oh horror – is that the Grim Reaper on the Black River?!

  1. That is spooky! I would definitely bark at the figures – I don’t like it when things just stand around being menacing. So what is the second figure doing?

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    1. If I could, I too would bark at them, Rosie Bear! You are a very observant and smart dog. As far as I could tell, the one figure was trying to climb up the ladder, while the other was just kind of sitting there… you are right, Rosie Bear, it was very spooky. I wonder what they’re doing now, and whether anything has changed… I shall ask Reggie and Richard to take me along for another look at the boat.

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  2. This is so interesting and it would be so great to solve this mystery who ever did this is a great artist I really want to know the meaning of all this

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    1. Hi Marilize – yes! I also saw it! A couple of weeks ago, it was further north along the M5, between the N2 and the N1, until it suddenly disappeared again. But two/three days ago, I saw it further south, just where Raapenberg Road runs underneath the M5 overpass. Unfortunately, there aren’t any safe places to stop there for some photos, because of all the vagrants living underneath the bridges.

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  3. Hi! Have you managed to find out anything more about this strange artwork/statement?! There has been another one this year, I saw that it was gone this morning (aaaah!) but it was there for round about the previous two or three weeks – where you get onto the N2 from the M5. A few times I didn’t have my glasses with me to get a good look, but it looked like a man standing on top of the cabin of an old boat busy sinking or it may even have been a sinking old bakkie. I couldn’t identify the material it was made of, but everything seemed to be the same colour. Sooo mysterious! I asked my dad about it and tried to google it, but to no avail (yet) – I just came upon your blog; so glad I did!

    Have a lovely, blessed day – hope I/we van find out more about this!

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    1. Hello Nicole –

      I am so pleased to hear from another inquisitive Capetonian! No, sadly I never managed to find out who or what or why these strange figures have appeared, a couple of times over the last two years…

      And yes, about 10 days ago or so, a new sculpture had appeared in exactly that spot you describe, which you could see clearly from the M5 southbound, as well as from Raapenberg Road near the bridge underneath the M5. I drove past there so many times, just itching to stop and take some photos… but it’s a dodgy spot to pull over, with all the homeless people sheltering under the bridge, and not recommended if you’re a lady on your own and packing camera gear. Now, alas, I missed my opportunity, as it has disappeared again.

      On Tuesday morning, this week, as far as I know, it was still there (it was definitely there on Monday). But when I drove past again in the early afternoon, traveling south along the M5, I saw that the water level in the river had risen dramatically, as a result of the torrential rains we had that day, and there was no sign of the figure or the strange grey boat on which it was perched. Either it was washed away, or whoever put it there, rescued it in time. It’s a mystery, Nicole! 🙂

      Do let me know if you find out anything, will you? I hope you have a lovely blessed day too – blue skies and all!

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  4. Hi
    I don’t know how long the sculpture has been there but I’ve noticed it again during the last week and I’m so intrigued. Have you managed to solve the mystery yet? #ItchingForAnswers

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    1. Hi Aniqah, there’s been a sculpture in that same spot for about a month, if not a bit longer by now. Every time I drive past, I want to go back for a photo, either early morning or late afternoon. But it’s a dodgy place to stop with all the vagrants lurking about and waiting to relieve one of one’s camera, so I haven’t. The sculpture this time looks very different, and I’d love to get a closer look at it. I also haven’t been able to find out who built it or what it’s all about, so if you manage to find out – please tell me! 🙂

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