Wriggle Room!

Blaise Hopkinson
Blaise Hopkinson

The eels of Palinggat Homestead, residence of the Stilbaai Tourism Bureau, are one of my favourite attractions. For more than 125 years these freshwater eels have been living in the spring and, for reasons known only to the Palinggat eels themselves, the mature specimens depart for the ocean off Madagascar to spawn and only a handful of the offspring return while the mothers simply vanish


Female eels lay some 10 million eggs but most of the larvae don’t survive. Those that do are washed towards the African coast by the currents and only a few hardy survivors find their way to Palinggat, bringing with them the mysteries of the deep.

Biologists don’t know why this happens, but every morning at 11 o’clock visitors are treated to a sighting of the elusive eels when they are fed chicken livers donated by the OK in Stilbaai.

In the 1970s Monty Python featured a skit about an invented rude and wildly inaccurate Hungarian/English phrase book. This included a wacky scene with John Cleese as a Hungarian, trying to buy cigarettes at a tobacconist and consulting his phrase book.

“My hovercraft is full of eels”, was one he came up with to procure matches.

This led Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages, to translate the phrase into dozens of languages, the first entry being Afrikaans: my skeertuig is vol palings.

Visiting the eels of Palinggat at feeding time is a must
Visiting the eels of Palinggat at feeding time is a must

While there are apparently no hovercraft in the vicinity, visiting the eels of Palinggat at feeding time is a must and costs just R12. At other times the eels hide in crevices under the rocks in the pond. But when the chicken liver juices escape into the water the eels appear for their special treat.

Their regular diet consists of tadpoles and crabs in the Palinggat pond. Eels source their food by their acute sense of smell and touch. At chicken liver time at Palinggat they come within touching distance of the hand that feeds.

Palinggat Homestead was first constructed in 1809 and rebuilt after a fire in 1814 by Andries J de Jager, whose initials are above the entrance. It became home to the Stilbaai Information Centre in 1992.

And, just in case you might want to impress a visitor from Kazakhstan with your linguistic abilities, the translation of my hovercraft is full of eels in Kazakh is: Menïṇ äue hegïz kemecï žylanbalyķpen toltyrylḡan (according to Omniglot!).