I can’t remember who came up with the idea, but it was in the middle of one of those warm family moments when everybody is fighting over the last of the crumpets and tequila and someone shouted: “Let’s go camping!”
About 72 hours later, when the monsoon swept in and the mood was sullen and ugly, everyone except me agreed it had been my idea.
Camping as a bonding activity is heavily overrated. It almost always leads to excessive drinking, embarrassing confessions, outraged denials and, ultimately, fist fights, hair pulling and an unsportsmanlike gouging of eyes.
My parents started taking me on camping trips when I was little more than a foetus. As soon as I was old enough to get a word in, I asked them: “Why are you doing this to me?” They would look at each other and say: “Ah, cute. He’s talking.” This hardly boosted the confidence of a nine-year-old.
Oops. A snippet of a Philip Larkin poem just fell into my head.
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
and add some extra, just for you.”
Anyway. Heaven forfend that dead English poets distract me.
Leaving Durban on any kind of trip is never easy. It is impossible to get away early because the first hour after waking is spent yawning, the second hour is spent sponging sweat from your face, the third hour is spent handing bananas to monkeys dangling from the burglar bars and the fourth is spent scratching mosquito bites and crotches which aren’t necessarily always your own.
Move too quickly in Durban and you run the risk of cardiac arrest. Or worse, being mistaken for someone from Joburg.
Going camping as a kid, my parents would shout at me to hurry up because we were leaving in five minutes. I would then spend anything up to three days waiting for them in the car.
This time it was different. I lay in bed until I heard my father hooting and my mother shouting, then I gave it another two hours and got up. Brenda was already dressed and waiting. She prefers to get out of bed before I wake up. I once pointed out to her that this wasn’t doing our sex life any favours and she said: “Yes it is.”
Four hours behind schedule, my parents were anxious to get on the road. They were sitting in their enormous white trash motorhome, my father revving the engine, my mother looking for fleas on a Maltese poodle on her lap. The dog is called something like Shpleedle, but I can’t swear to it because its name is only ever spoken in an incomprehensible, high-pitched baby-talk voice.
Brenda and my irrevocably gormless offspring, Clive, were waiting in the Land Rover that my father has offered to sell to me for a suspiciously low price. I am beginning to fear this National Front thug of a car constitutes the bulk of my inheritance.
The plan, if you could even call it that, was to drift down the South Coast and meander along the Wild Coast. Brenda was far from convinced that the Transkei was the right place for meandering, but I assured her it was perfectly safe now that it was called the Eastern Cape.
“Don’t we all feel a lot more secure driving down Broadway now that it’s called Swapo Avenue?” I said, patting Brenda on the knee. “Well, this is the same thing.”
Drifting down the South Coast is one thing; contending with Margate is another altogether. This malignant tumour of a town makes holiday sound like a dirty word, and the place is best negotiated with eyes tightly shut. Don’t worry if you hit something. It can only improve the aesthetics.
Port Edward finally hove into view, dirty, dusty and full of Mexicans trying to sneak across the border.
“Those aren’t Mexicans,” said Brenda, winding up her window. “Those are Xhosas.”
Clive started sobbing in the back, begging me to turn back before we were all murdered in our beds. I took the whelp by the jugular and reminded him that we hadn’t even found a bed yet. Besides, I said, now is the time of the Zulu. The Xhosa is done.
The brat began babbling about no-one knowing who was in charge because the legislature kept batting the course of history back and forth as if it were a cheap plastic volleyball, forcing me to slap him sharply upside the head. Rum and guava juice aside, there is nothing worse than a badly mixed metaphor.
“Now is the time to deploy the warriors in a pincer movement and strike while the nomads are weak like chickens!” I shouted, swerving for a goat.
Brenda said we should rather go to the Spar and get something for the braai. Coming from a long line of European vegetable sellers, I nodded meekly and took a sharp left.
Later, we joined up with the elders at a campsite on the banks of the Umtamvuna River which, not too long ago, was under 20m of flood water. Swatting at mosquitoes the size of footballs, I told a passing kid that if he hoped to live long enough to see his 10th birthday, he would surrender the paddle of the resort’s sole canoe and say not a word about it.
I hid out in the reeds drinking beer until Brenda grew tired of waiting and put up the tent on her own.
“Nice timing,” she said as I paddled back, feigning exhaustion. “I was fishing for our supper,” I said.
“Without a rod?”
“I don’t need a rod.”
“Well then, where are the fish?”
I told her that after reaching in and grabbing a giant barbel by the throat, it overpowered me and capsized the canoe, almost drowning both of us in the ensuing struggle. Brenda, Clive, my mother and my father laughed as one, so I put on my hurt face, fetched my bottle of Jose Cuervo and stalked off.
Having punished everyone by depriving them of my company, I headed back at around 3am. It transpired that while I was gone, somebody had changed the layout of the campsite and I was forced to spend the night in a caravan that smelled as if it had been abandoned by a family from the unwashed end of Ventersdorp.
Morning broke to the sound of godless heathens racing up and down on their turbo-charged jet skis. My father suggested stringing a length of fishing line across the river, but nobody was prepared to take it across to the other side. Anyway, we wanted to swim and the severed heads would have attracted every flesh-eating parasite in the area.
More and more big-boned Anglophobic meatheads began arriving in their Toyota Hilux double-deluxe-overhead-cam twin-shaft V12s trailing purple glitter power boats, the sole surviving reminder of a once-glorious era of white domination.
Meanwhile, their big-breasted, bony-arsed wives and genetically challenged spawn scuttled about setting up cheap plastic umbrellas and ferreting in cooler boxes the size of Benoni as if nothing had changed since 1982.
It was time to water the camels and hit the road. Time to forge the great divide and gaze upon the glittering jewel in South Africa’s proud provincial crown.
Indeed. It was time for the Eastern Cape, that magnificent example of what can be accomplished when politicians put aside their petty rivalries and say with pride: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for me and I’ll see what I can do for you.”