The saga of Obie and the black bird


The saga of Obie and the black bird

Photographer OBIE OBERHOLZER's narrative is a tall tale full of heroic deeds performed by fearless people. And all this to make an old friend's dream about a small black bird come true.


I WALK crookedly like a crab down Nature's Valley's long beach. It's from that day long ago when I broke my back in a motorcycle accident. My doctor says I walk like a question mark. But I don't mind, because it's beautiful here with the rocking of the waves and plough snails' marks on the sand.


At the end of the beach are a bunch of black rocks that we locals call Blue Rocks. One morning I saw a group of people standing there in a circle. With bowed heads, they looked at a bird that had reached its end by getting its legs entangled in fishing line.

One of the bent heads belongs to an ornithologist, and he said it was a Haematopus moquini, a black oystercatcher or a black tobie. He raised his head and added that when Napoleon Bonaparte first saw the black bird in 1856, he named it after Christian Horace Benedict Alfred Moquin-Tandon.

I get very pissed off by ornithologists with big camouflaged telephoto lenses. Just as I was thinking this, our town history freak added that Moquin-Tandon was a professor of zoology and botany who in 1833 became the director of the botanical gardens in Toulouse. (I get even more pissed off when people randomly come up with facts like these.)


And the poor black bird was still lying dead and wet on the sand between the black rocks.


The beginning of the story

Now I have to turn this saga back, rewind and start over. My wife, Lynn, and I have known Linda and Dan Badenhorst for too long, more than 50 years. Linda is a wonderful, beautiful, passionate, upbeat person. Apart from the oyster catcher, she is the main actress in this drama.

Her husband is a retired lawyer, factotum of the Still Bay book festival and known to Vrye Weekblad readers because his wisdom knows no bounds. If he writes something for Vrye Weekblad, I have to Google Translate it to English to half understand it. When he has finished talking, the cleverness still flows from his mouth. After that he has already forgotten what he said and continues with “in any event". It's really annoying. His role in the saga is very small, somewhat like an extra stuntman in a bad movie.

In any event, Linda has a strong passion for these birds. She has been asking us strandlopers for years to keep a dead oystercatcher for her if we ever find one. In all the decades they have had a house in Still Bay, they have seen very few tobies, only pansy shells and green sea urchins.


In any event, the early morning walkers who also play a major role in the saga are Helen and Ed. Ed still has long hair and looks like he was at Woodstock in the summer of 1969. He's the guy who found the dead bird on the rocks and took the first picture of it. Dead bird was then hurried two blocks to our house. I had to work quickly to take an arty still-life photo of the twisted yellow fishing line knotted around his paws.

“Hurry up, you can't stuff a rotten bird," Lynn shouted a few times. (I only listen to her when she screams a few times.) Then the bird was wrapped in soft Christmas paper, then in newspaper, then in a bright cyan plastic bag. And with that Black Bird was stored in the freezer, fishing line, grains of sand, the whole bloody lot.

Dan and Linda were then called at their beach house in Still Bay. Linda's delighted cheers and screams came loudly through the phone. Far behind came Dan's voice, stuttering: “But, but, it's only a black bird?"

An affidavit

In every saga there is a time of quiet swaying and turning, and that was while our dear black bird lay frozen solid in our freezer.

Contact was made with Philipp Schultz, a taxidermist from in Woodstock. He immediately asked where and how the bird died, and insisted on a full affidavit from the park board. 

While we waited for a lift to Cape Town, the stories buzzed among the 100 permanent residents, all of whom, except for a few, are very old. I wrote on our Nature's Valley WhatsApp group that I'd suddenly had a visit from an old friend from Germany. A fire was lit, beers were opened and it was a “prost" here and a “prost" there all over the place. I wrote that after a time of gemütlichkeit we searched in vain for the chicken and then I simply put the black bird on the fire. When it was burnt even blacker, we went to have fried chicken at the Nature's Valley Inn while the bird cremated on the coals. 

The next morning I called the lead actress with the news that we had braaied the bird. I can still hear her screams down the line, and when she came up for breath, Dan's voice interjected: “Shut up, it's just a black bird." 

In any event, Ed and Helen then decided to take the tobie to the Cape themselves. The next morning a crowd gathered to say goodbye. Ed put on his father's old Stirling Moss cap so he could drive faster and Helen was dressed in her grandmother's sedate black frock. Tobie was rushed from our freezer to an ice-packed cooler in the car. And so, with Ed revving his engine, the shedding of a tear or two and a wave of canes, the bird's journey to resurrection began.

“Thank the dear Lord," said the tannie who runs the prayer circle. I rolled my eyes and lifted them up to the Tsitsikamma Mountains.

When the determined Ed and Helen reached their home in Muizenberg, it transpired that their freezer had packed up due to persistent load-shedding. What a nightmare for the two of them to run through the streets looking for a freezer. But a friend came to their aid and our bird was safely freezing again.

After a few days' rest, he was joyfully taken to the taxidermist.

“Come and get him in a week," Philipp shouted nonchalantly over his shoulder, disappearing into his office with the frozen black bird.

Linda sat quietly staring at the ocean that week. A week later they could fetch their bird and take it to its final resting place in Still Bay. 

Linda sat in the back of the car with her tobie finally on her lap.  She would not sit in front because in the event of an accident she did not want her bird to be crushed by exploding airbags.  The chances of a crash with smartass-Dan as driver are real. So she sat in the back seat, talking sweetly to her precious bird while caressing his  shiny feathers. In front, our thinker frowned all the way, his knuckles white and tense on the steering wheel thinking about the shit state of the country.

But eventually the bird arrived home. 


Linda's dreams have been fulfilled. And the oystercatcher, placed in front of a mirror surrounded by Dan's wooden oystercatchers and scores of pansy shells and green sea urchins, sees his own beauty again. 


And may they all live happily ever after.


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