Cape Town - On Saturday, my yoga teacher took me to the Strandfontein sewerage works.
I was initially a little scared. The last time I visited one of these places, the man doing the guided tour made us drink water from the final treatment pond. “See?” he said. “Pure and delicious.”
Also, I wasn't quite sure what we do for three hours. Kneel next to the canals, trying to identify the lesser-spotted waste of Kim from Camps Bay? Have a picnic on the banks of Effluent Eddy? Poke things with sticks? Have scatological boat races?
I've lived in Cape Town for 10 years and have adapted to the city's quirks: curries that are actually stews, trains that are mobile shacks, sea temperatures that freeze the heart.
I've spent time in Khayelitsha and Kommetjie. I've tried out vegan shoes. I've watched naked men straddling Sandy Bay rocks and ragged men sleeping outside the Ferrari shop.
I once ate a fish that cost R200. I thought I had seen it all.
The reserve light on my car's petrol gauge flashed as we drove through the entry boom. “We've got 50 kays,” I said to my yoga teacher. “We'll be okay.” She snorted the snort of someone who knows what to do with their breath.
“Do you know how many pans there are?”
I was about to make a joke about bed pans but the words got stuck, because there in front of us was a scene Alfred Hitchcock would have died for: dozens of flamingos mingling with scores of seagulls squawking at crowds of coots gawking at gaggles of geese. “That's a whack of birds,” I said. “Just you wait,” said my yoga teacher.
We drove and stopped, drove and stopped, taking photographs of feathers and flight. One pan was so full of flamingos it resembled candy floss. Further down, giant pelicans drifted like houseboats on the water.
There were fynbos and reeds, hyacinth and weeds. We saw two mongooses scuttling across the dirt road and watched a pair of dragonflies stuck together. During one stop, we discovered a mass of tiny tomatoes growing on a sprawling vine.
We ate them, gazed at the distant concrete buildings and worried about their origins. And then picked them anyway, greedy for the wild. My yoga teacher found a pelican feather. I found a pelican feather. They are so big Shakespeare could have written a thousand plays with their quills.
It is strange and lovely to be standing on the edge of a sewage pond watching birds seek traction on the surface as they take flight. The water makes a staccato sound as they rise and their legs dangle like cutlery.
And it is even stranger to glance sideways and see bulldozers crawling over the nearby landfill, their yellow claws catching the light.
It is also a pleasant surprise to be pleasantly surprised. In a stitched-up world of binaries - love and hate; rural and urban; aggression and peace - it's comforting to discover a place in between, where human waste is a busy intersection of squawking and flapping and paddling and wading.
Flamingos stick their bottoms in the air and pedal with their feet as they feed. Pelicans toss large fish in the air to be slid headfirst into their gullet. That is what I learnt.
Just outside the gates to the sewerage farm is a traffic circle. Someone has stuck handwritten cardboard posters on the bollards lining the road. “Smile” reads the first one, followed by “Hope” and “Dream”.
My yoga teacher made me drive around and around so she could photograph them. She is gently demanding that way. Each poster is annotated with a roughly sketched pelican, its bill like a comfortable hammock. I wondered who had made them. I pictured a teenage girl. I imagined a small boy.
Then I imagined an elderly man with khaki socks, a woman walking her sausage dogs, a young man with a stroller and an elderly woman with wind in her hair. Hopes and dreams are everywhere, and pelicans really do have hammock bills.
It's free to get into the sewerage farm. On the right day, the light is liquid. At the far pans, sand dunes reverberate with the sound of the ocean and the bulldozers make sense of our rubbish. If you haven't visited this otherworldly place, you should.
I found a porcupine quill in the grass. It was the length of a ruler. We didn't spot one Camps Bay specimen and the air was only faintly flatulent. And no one made me taste the water - although if they had, I think it would have been just fine.
* Helen Walne is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Cape Town.