It’s bulls vs bull sharks: South Africa’s Nguni cattle have been hanging out on the world’s most dangerous beach for more than 500 years – and Melbourne-based photographer Chris Rimmer has created 20 striking portraits of the phenomenon.
‘Amapondo’, a series of 20 surreal cattle portraits by acclaimed Melbourne-based, South African-bred photographer Christopher Rimmer, consists of 20 large-scale photographs of indigenous Nguni cattle, wandering along the shore or standing, Zen-like, in the sun at beautiful but bull-shark-infested Port St Johns Beach on South Africa’s Transkei coast.
Rimmer was inspired to photograph the Nguni beach-going cows after he saw a story in the paper about a fatal shark attack at Port St. Johns, named ‘the most hazardous beach on Earth’ thanks to the frequency of fatal shark attacks in recent years.
In a photo alongside the story he noticed “a large bull, seemingly oblivious to all the drama going on around him … It was unexpected, absurd even, but I also found the scene strangely moving.”
Inspired, Rimmer travelled to Port St Johns at the Umzimvubu River mouth, tribal homelands of eastern South Africa’s Xhosa people, to photograph the incongruous spectacle.
Why do they do it?
There is anecdotal evidence from shipwrecked sailors that cows have frequented the beaches in this area from as early as the 16th century.
These days, they’re kept in pens overnight, but the free-ranging Amapondo (Nguni) cattle often wander down to the beach of a morning, returning to their owners around noon for milking and typically heading back to the beach in the afternoon.
There are several theories as to why, Rimmer says: some think it’s a way for cattle to rid themselves of ticks; others conjecture that they drink the salt water as an aid to digestion. He believes there’s a simpler explanation: cows go to the beach “because they enjoy it” – to “cool themselves in the afternoon sea breezes” in summer and warm themselves on the sand in winter.
The sandy shore of one of the world’s most shark-infested beaches seems a far cry from cows’ natural habitat but the Nguni cattle seem blissfully unfazed by the presence of bull sharks in the shallows around the river mouth at Port St Johns and at Second Beach, nearby.
Cows often lead their calves to the edge of the waves and Rimmer says that on hot days, he’s seen Nguni cattle walk right into the sharky surf zone.
Sunsets and sacred cows
There’s something surreal about seeing cows at the seaside, rather than in paddocks where they ‘belong’. There’s a reason for that: it’s very unusual in nature. Indeed, there are only a few known locations on Earth where cows routinely go to the beach.
Apart from Port St Johns, there’s Goa, on India’s west coast, where ‘sacred’ cows often stroll down to the shore to catch a few rays, cool off – and watch the sun set.
According to travel site Afar, sunset gatherings on the shore are a daily ritual for the local bovine herd at Goa’s Agonda Beach.
“Each day around four o’clock a group of cows makes its way to the beach,” the site says. “As the sun drops toward the horizon the cows settle into a nice spot on the beach, chew their cud, and watch the sun set. Twenty minutes after the sun has set, as the tourists are leaving the beach, the cows make their way back to wherever they came from in single file.”
Bovines belly-deep on Busselton beach
Maybe, if we let them, cows would mosey off to the beach whenever they got the chance. Dardanup dairy farmer Tim Harris wouldn’t have thought his cows would be into beaches till he volunteered five of them for an art project back in 2011.
Harris’s Friesian Holsteins joined a small herd, all from Western Australian dairy farms, that was taken on an excursion to Busselton’s Abbey Beach to form part of a “surreal bovine installation” evoking ‘escape’, in which black-and-white cows were juxtaposed with be-suited corporate types.
“I'm getting the cows out of their paddocks and letting them enjoy nature for a while,” the artist, Andrew Baines, explained to ABC Rural at the time. Baines staged the installation to coincide with the launch of the national Dairy Innovator’s Forum.
Though the Holstein-Friesians didn’t visit the beach voluntarily, they appeared to enjoy it when they got there, Harris told ABC after the fact.
“They just wandered down, straight into the water, stood right up to their bellies in the water and just looked out at the ocean, and quite frankly, why wouldn't you? What a perfect day!” Harris said. “The only thing I'm concerned about is, though, tomorrow morning those cows might be at the gate with their bathers and their towels around their necks ready to go!”
Perhaps the bovine beach holiday isn’t that far-fetched an idea.
In the meantime, you might want to inspire your own livestock (or surprise your favourite cattle producer at Christmas) with one of Rimmer’s striking large-format portraits (from A$600).
Signed, limited-edition, high-quality prints of all 20 photographs from Chris Rimmer’s ‘Amapondo’ series are available from Melbourne-based Angela Tandori Fine Art; you can view (and buy) them online from anywhere in the world.