The smell of the wild

The rigours of camping teach us to appreciate all the more the comfort of the daily lives we leave behind.

Like so many South Africans, I actively seek uncomfortable journeys. I camp therefore I smell.

The more mundane aspects of our lives define us where the extremes provide the tests and there is no more trying challenge than the vain and hopeless pursuit of luxury whilst camping. I was a child in England when I acquired my particular predilection for discomfort and, perhaps specifically, for ablutionary complications. I have now carried it with me for almost thirty years in Africa.

The 1970s. Five of us in a Volvo. Two eager parents. Three recalcitrant children. Behind the car, a trailer-tent. Expel from your mind the modern pop-up rooftop tent. Forget, too, today’s designer 4×4 trailers, for this was no quasi-caravan. It was little more than a flimsy plywood prostrate cupboard on wheels. Each side of the lid flipped over to form a precarious bed and supported a squashed, pram-like awning on a fold-out frame that caught me at neck level every time I climbed in. And I was a small eight-year old.

We moored this ridiculous contraption, annually, in a Dorset field just outside the Purbeck village of Langton Matravers. For a week.

England was a first world country, even then, and the reason for these journeys of deprivation was a parentally-guarded mystery. On other holidays we were allowed to stay in real hotels, even as far away as exotic foreign France, so it wasn’t a budgetary consideration, and lovely Langton Matravers consisted of a series of gorgeous thatched cottages dangling brimming flower baskets from their window boxes, so it wasn’t a regional lack of cultivation. The houses had electricity and water-borne sewerage.

Not us, though. Our field was on a steep slope; we camped at a jaunty angle at the top where it was drier. Meals were cooked on a primus stove. Perched on the lumpy mattresses, we ate baked beans and fried corned beef off yellow melamine plates around a dilapidated folding table, the top convex from the damp. The canopy leaked like a doily where each dismantling had differently caught, pinched and punctured the canvas. It always rained. Endlessly.

At the bottom of the hill was a small hut and behind it was a screened-off mildewed shower. The leaking tap on the outside of the hut was our nearest water supply while inside stood a basic thunderbox, an almost onomatopoeically-named lavatory similar in its refinement to a long-drop.

The damp from the sodden grass in the field would seep into our shoes from the ceaseless journeys up and down the hill to fetch a pail of water, if not to pass one, ¬†each expedition fraught with the risk of going foot-first into what the English quaintly call a cowpat, of which there were many. Occasionally we would loose our footing in the slime, picking up speed and undesirably muddy backsides. Laundry was unthinkable and we spent days in the same damp crud-caked clothes. Fun it wasn’t, but it seems to have proved compulsive.

Nowadays, in Africa, the predisposition to seek hardship follows me still. On roadside camping expeditions in Mozambique, for example, the water supply might be a stream or, on a good day, a village standpipe; the thunderbox is a thornbush and the cowpat-risk has been superseded by the danger of landmines. It doesn’t rain as frequently but, when it does, it hurls it down with a power exceeding a hundredfold the constant drizzle of Langton Matravers. Tents don’t leak through small gashes; they wash away in flash floods.

There are no windowboxes here. No quaint country cottages. Just the raw, yet thrilling privations of Africa and the secure knowledge that somewhere, eventually, we will get to clean up with hot water and a close-couple lavatory.

The principle is the same, however, whether we be in the Isle of Purbeck or on Ilha de Mozambique. Although we travel to escape our humdrum existence, we rarely dread our ultimate return to it. We travel to be able to go home. Because home is where the bathroom is.