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THE WAY WE LIVED.  17. Snoek Town calling.  [9min read] [Part one] 

 Round-the-Cape-Peninsula Drive [5]

When driving clockwise around the Peninsula, it’s worth looking back! That’s Lion’s Head ahead with the Twelve Apostles to the right. Before 1990, the Group Areas Act ensured that I could not live in the houses we see here.

THE WAY WE LIVED. 17. Snoek Town calling. [Part One]

Cape Town has certain features that define the Mother City. Table Mountain is obvious; its incredible mountains, beaches and three large bays are part of the stunning natural elements; it’s cosmopolitan population; the Malay Quarters; Parliament House and the Cape Castle; its Mediterranean climate, including the “sewe dae se reen” [seven days of rain] in winter; and then there is snoek, the local barracuda, which is by far the most popular fish eaten in Cape Town, if not in the country!.

Cape Town used to be called Snoek Town. It may have stemmed from a popular 1950’s-1960’s SABC radio show. I recall the programme opening with a fish horn blaring. Twet, twet, twet, twet, twetttt!! [That’s my lame interpretation of the sound made by a thirty-centimetre tin horn that the local fish merchants used to draw out the fish lovers – a bit like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. They made them from discarded paraffin tins – that’s recycling long before they invented the process!

Sadly, fish horns have joined the artefacts of yesteryear, although occasional vendors still pull out the little horns for a blow to draw in the pescatarians. Now even Google cannot get me a picture of one! As simple as it looked, I could never blow the thing. It sounded like a noisy vuvuzela of 2010 South African World Cup Soccer fame. The fish trumpets were shorter and a bless-flared, but equally loud; over a century ago, there must have been so many of these vendors around, that the City Council wanted to ban the noisy trumpets. If anyone could send me a photo of one, I would appreciate it!

Initially, the fishmongers rode around in their horse and carts. In later years they were replaced by motorised trucks which often stood at roadside spots to sell their wares off the back of their bakkies [trucks].

Thyrsites atun aka Snoek is plentiful in the Southern hemisphere. I know of no other place on earth where the humble snake mackerel or barracuda is as popular. In Cape Town, it was initially the food of the poor. Like it is elsewhere in the world, that is no longer the case with fish.

In lean years, South Africa imports snoek from New Zealand which regards it as cat food. It seems the Kiwis do not like the thin, wormy parasite that one occasionally finds in its flesh. We have no such scruples with eating it as it is. For all I know, the parasite adds to the flavour!


There are many ways of acquiring one’s snoek. Boat fishing was popular. We had no boat, but local captains ran weekend charter trips. I could not afford these in my student years, so Rob and I used to pop into Kalk Bay harbour with our snorkelling gear and clear the boat’s propellors of the fish line that had tangled around their propellers and drive props. For the improvement in boat speed and fuel efficiency, we were allowed free passage on the fishing trips.

Seasickness aside, the few trips I went on were fun. Hand lines as used by commercial fishermen was better than a rod and reel. One could measure the fathoms at which the fish were feeding, by two arm’s length at a time and one could bring them in quicker because of potential loss to seals going for the hooked fish. Fingers were protected with gloves, or the die-hards wore index finger protectors fashioned from motor car inner tube off-cuts. In local parlance, these were “vinger lappies”, little finger cloths. I had one for the index finger on both hands.

It was important that one slung the hooked snoek under one’s armpit in one swoop as it exited the water. That’s why one always wore an oilskin jacket. Besides waterproofing, the jacket offered one some protection from the dorsal spines which pointed up when the snook was out of the water.

Worse than the spines were the fierce teeth which could with ease snap in half a fish on the line, or a finger or two that got in the way. Once the snoek was under one’s arm, one slipped the right fingers under the gill cover then snapped back the head to break its neck.

The retrieved “dollie” – a large weighted hook with covering frills like a skirt to cover the hook – was then flicked back overboard. One could also use sardines – no, not canned! – or pilchards as bait.

Having those snapping jaws so close to one’s face was not a pleasant sight, and, on the first few occasions, it was a daunting experience. Popular mythology required that one treat a snoek bite by using the gelled contents of a snoek eye to control the bleeding. It’s likely that the gelatinous eye content had blood-clotting properties to support this old fisherman’s tale.

When I lived in Muscat, the barracuda there was a different species. It had small scales, and the flesh was a semi-translucent grey. It tasted equally good, and it also had fierce teeth. We often trolled for them with a stainless steel lure with two sets of three-pronged hooks. One day after work, close to sunset, we were bored off the beautiful mountainous coast outside Muscat harbour. Nothing happened for two hours when I caught a Barry. They were finally on the bite.

I did not have an oilskin and was not going to put the flapping creature under my armpit which was protected by a thin tee-shirt. Instead, I placed the snapping monster on the floor of our boat and reached down with my left hand to grab the slippery, fish just behind the head. Imagine my horror when my left index finger got hooked on one of the triple hooks on the side of the lure. So, what’s so special about that, you ask?

Well, I had the barracuda caught on the other triple hook attached to the end of the lure. Notice how close the hooks are to each other? My precious fingers were a few centimetres from some of the sharpest, snapping teeth known to Fishdom and Mankind!! Could the metre-plus long amputator of digits and limbs take my hand for an entree?

My colleague, Salim approached with the wooden pacifier club in hand. He looked like he was about to faint. I actually felt more scared of him than I did of snapping Barry whose teeth were mere millimetres away from my precious fingers. Yes, I still had five of them. I asked Salim to give me the pacifier.

Well, snapping Barry took one look at me and decided otherwise when he flicked himself free of the other hook. What a relief that was! Despite having a lure attached to my finger, I wanted to continue fishing because they were finally on the bite. We had waited a couple of hours for this moment. Why stop then? I was pretty confident that I could do it despite my hooked encumbrance embedded in the finger. Alas, I had to settle for a visit to the hospital because I feared for a very distressed-looking Salim who lay down while I brought the boat back to harbour. He was the only other person on board.

[Part two to follow in my next posting – will include the preparation and the eating!]




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