Whale song: An evening with The Story Club, Cape Town

whales cape

Last month, I finally got to one of the storytelling gatherings hosted by The Story Club, Cape Town, every month.

My friend Lisa Cohen, a talented storyteller with just the warmest heart, is one of the organisers. When she sent me the flyer for the February event − Whale Song, with Sue Hollingsworth, from the International School of Storytelling in the UK (currently hosting a storytelling workshop here in South Africa) – I knew I had to go.

whale flyer

Lisa is a “co-dreaming” friend, so when she asked: “Have you also been dreaming of the sea and its creatures lately?” I wasn’t surprised that the answer was YES. Like Lisa, I’ve been flooded with images of the sea during dream-time of late.

Whales and the sea call me strongly, especially since moving to the Cape. Here, I feel closer to whales than ever before. Every year, Southern Right whales migrate here to calve and nurse their young, so whale-watching is a popular tourist attraction. I’ve seen many whales here; yet each time is an awe-filled delight.

The intimate monthly Story Club events work like this: After an open-mic session, in which anyone can get up and tell a story, even in another mother tongue (with a quick synopsis in English), a guest storyteller takes to the “stage”.

The setting is usually St Mark’s Anglican Church in District Six, a church with a spine-tinglingly significant history. Read the history below, from their website:

There is a stone church on a hill in Cape Town that shines like a beacon flame in our city’s history. It was built in 1867 in District Six and has served the Anglicans of that community since then to the present day.

You may ask how that can be when, between 1969 and 1984, some 40 000 District Six residents were evicted by the Group Areas Act, and relocated in houses scattered all over the Cape Flats, their homes demolished.

Faced with the prospect of their church being de-consecrated, the St Mark’s congregation firmly rejected the Government’s offer to rebuild the church, stone for stone – an exact replica – in Athlone, and returned the two million rand compensation cheque. At the same time they decided that, regardless of distance, “they would, as far as possible, continue as before.” And so they did. Which is why, each Sunday, 30 years on, cars travel to attend the 9 0’Clock service from as far afield as Kuil’s River and Bellville, Mitchell’s Plain and Athlone, even Strandfontein – to honour their undertaking, and that of their parents.

In St Mark’s District Six the spirit of the Community lives on, and is now known throughout the world. Like the District Six Museum in Caledon Street, it will become a pilgrimage for all who truly love Cape Town.

The section they host The Story Club in is a small Heidi-like wooden enclave. It’s set up with candles, flowers and carpets, and with tea-time at interval, it’s all rather cosy.

During the open-mic session, a lively American guy named Greg, a former maths teacher now doing Sue’s “Storytelling in the community” course, told a funny old folk tale. Then a woman stood up to do an animated retelling of “Seal Skin, Soul Skin” by Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes. A young man told of a palace somewhere between Orania and Bagdad – in which we met an Afrikaans king and his right-hand man, Abdul, who had a brush with Mr Death in the market.

Next, veteran SA journalist Nancy Richards, who hosts the SAfm Literature show, stood up to tell an impromptu tale of a warm-hearted “salty sea dog” kind of man and his daughter. I’m familiar with her written and spoken voice from print and radio, but it was special to watch her tell a story in person – like sitting across a table from her, sharing yarns after a few glasses of something special. Her story ended with a great twist – the story she’d shared was actually true; about a moment she shared with her father when she was being courted by her husband.


After a fortifying cup of tea – taking in some fresh air, gazing at the green lights on the towers of the nearby mosque and the Church’s statue of Mary holding a cross while the evening clouds drifted by in that lazy, luring way that’s so hard to tear your eyes away from – Sue was up to regale us with her tales.

Sue Hollingsworth

Like most who are well travelled, Sue has many stories to tell. Hers took us across the oceans of the world – fitting for an evening devoted the sea’s largest sailors, whales.

We were taken to a Lamu café, where Sue first heard a man tell a whale story that she spent years tracking down. The creation story was the Swahili tale of Chua the whale, and how the low and high tide came to be. Clue: it was to do with the enormity of the whale’s grief.

Then, she told us of her first whale sighting, aboard a ship in the Galapagos islands.

From there we moved to NZ, to share a sighting of a whale she surreptitiously shared with a stranger.

Next, Sue brought the memories of her late husband into the rapt room. In 1976, he was part of the epic Clipper Race, aboard Great Britain II. On Christmas day, in icy Arctic waters, he saw his first whale. Reading from his diary entry, we heard how he felt forever changed by the moment he looked into the grand creature’s eye.

Sue then recited the most appropriate poem, by Mary Oliver.

by Mary Oliver

There is, all around us,
this country
of original fire.
You know what I mean.
The sky, after all, stops at nothing, so something
has to be holding
our bodies
in its rich and timeless stables or else
we would fly away.

Off Stellwagen
off the Cape,
the humpbacks rise. Carrying their tonnage
of barnacles and joy
they leap through the water, they nuzzle back under it
like children
at play.

They sing, too.
And not for any reason
you can’t imagine.

Three of them
rise to the surface near the bow of the boat,
then dive
deeply, their huge scarred flukes
tipped to the air.
We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash through the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky–
like nothing you’ve ever imagined–
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning; then

they crash back under those black silks
and we all fall back
together into that wet fire, you
know what I mean.

I know a captain who has seen them
playing with seaweed, swimming
through the green islands, tossing
the slippery branches into the air.
I know a whale that will come to the boat whenever
she can, and nudge it gently along the bow
with her long flipper.
I know several lives worth living.

Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,
its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire
where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs with song.

To end off, Sue sang a Pete Seeger song.

I left that night feeling content… comforted by human voices and expressive bodies that told tales full of images of kayaks and seers, of seal eyes and whale bellies, of dancing women and glittering stars…