Nobody nose the trouble I’ve seen

Karoo camping’s a treat – if you can ignore the things blowin’ in the wind.

We are camped outside the hospital in Carnarvon. We are not unwell and this is not the Welsh Caernarvon. Carnarvon is in the middle of the Karoo.

It’s an appealing place. Broad, double-laned streets are centred with lines of palms, cut like giant pineapples and perched in dusty, brick-lined beds, with street lights sprouting sporadically among them.

The town, once a Rhenish mission, was settled in 1850 with 110 African refugees from “tribal disturbances”. Far more than 110 smiling faces now fill the streets, casting curious looks after the car as it passes through, laden with camping kit.

I suppose it must be a Voortrekker legacy that almost every old South African town has a municipal campsite. Carnarvon is no exception.

The route zig-zags through streets named, like the town itself, after long-dead colonial administrators, past flaking Victorian homes interspersed with the odd art-deco shop and 1970s concrete monstrosities.

To the hospital. Just past it, in fact. A metal gate lies open. Next to this stands a small house. Pasop vir die hond. Beware of the dog. Below the sign, a floppy puppy jumps up and down delightedly.

Paid to an amiable relic of the old administration, a paltry R20 gives access to a huge expanse of leaf-strewn sand, shaded by tall, peeling bluegums, which almost screen off the darkened windows of the hospital and, across the way in the near distance, what would undoubtedly be known locally as die lokasie – the “location”, where a bright pink school provides a rewarding dash of colour among hundreds of homogeneous houses.

We ask if we can drink the tap water.

“We won a prize for our water,” grins the relic. And they’d win a prize for their ablution block too, were there a competition. Freshly painted. Spotless. Washbasin with un-cracked mirror. Showers. Even a bath. When did you last go to a campsite that offered a bath? And, outside, three swings and a slide. Gawd bless the Voortrekkers.

The sun sets, purple and gold, over the location, the sky threaded with long, pink shreds of cotton-wool cloud. The temperature drops suddenly. Donkeys bray. Exhaust-pipeless cars scream and throb along the road. Someone blows a vuvuzela. A cockerel crows.

The cockerel is the camper’s most feared creature, for its inability to tell the time – for not, indeed, knowing dawn from dusk – although the Carnarvon cockerel’s crowing is less of a threat to sleep than the cars, the barking of canines, the crying of children and the cackling and cajoling of wives on the other side of the expanse.

Sitting round a fire with a potjie on the go is not peaceful but it is relaxing. A full moon rises. Leaves rustle in a breeze that picks up, bringing with it, from the direction of the hospital, a strong whiff of sewage while from the township wafts the unmistakable sound of Bob Dylan singing “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”

Surely, that smell is not the answer? We wolf down the potjie, douse the fire and retreat into the tent to enjoy the night sounds of Carnarvon while avoiding its night smells.

In the morning, mercifully, the wind has dropped and there is nothing blowing in it. Thankful for fitful sleep and the lack of overnight ambulance sirens at the ghostly hospital, we wake, instead, to the buzzing of bees in the bluegums above.

The water in the showers is piping hot. It is no wonder they win prizes for it. But they might want to work on Carnarvon’s sewage treatment, or the whole town will be camped outside the hospital – in a queue for a stomach remedy.

Probably quite a noisy queue, would be my guess.