Once, as a student, I went on holiday with a group of friends to the Transkei, a wild and wonderful part of the South African coastline. As a child I’d had a couple of Transkei holidays, so I knew what to expect: cloudless blue skies, flat white beaches, friendly warm seas, a daily supply of fresh fish and peace on earth. As a student I was expecting all that, plus alcohol. What we got was rain.
The Hluleka Nature Reserve, just south of Port St Johns on what is also called the Wild Coast, is a small camp of wooden cabins on stilts. It is beloved by nature enthusiasts, anglers, bird-watchers and hikers. Being very hard to get to on hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads, you need a four-wheel drive, and since students don’t usually own four-wheel drives or have parents insane enough to lend them their own, we may have been the first students to holiday at the Hluleka Nature Reserve. And if we weren’t the first, then we were possibly the last.
Perhaps we had a day or two of heaven on earth, I can’t remember now, but very soon the rain came and all our dreams of lying in the sun, swimming, braaing, sitting out under the stars philosophising came to nothing. However, being resilient and crafty students, we knew how to make our own fun. At first we had a few wet walks, but soon we realised that the only way to cope with the ongoing African rain was to drink. Shortly after breakfast, two people would be dispatched to take the landrover across the river to the only shop in a twenty kilometre radius, which conveniently happened to have a bottlestore attached, to buy our beer supply for the day. As there were nine of us, this meant a substantial number of crates. On their return they would be greeted warmly by six bored housemates anxious to alleviate holiday ennui by cracking open their first drink of the day. One of our party, a fastidious and rather churchy Afrikaans girl (let’s call her Hannah) was a nondrinker so she stuck to soft drinks.
And so the daily drinking would begin. I also remember a large amount of sleeping – we were students after all, much reading, hearty eating, the smell of damp jersey, marathon card games, and since there were nine of us crammed into a small wooden cabin with doors that barely closed and very little privacy, extremely public bowel movements. Since some of our party had not yet shaken off their schoolboy obsession with poo, one bright spark who was rather proud of his metabolism challenged the group to who could produce the most bowel movements over the course of the holiday. To a man, we charged our Red Labels (beer not whiskey), and accepted his challenge.
Hannah was horribly thrown by the discussion of poo and spent a not-surprising amount of time in her room. However, whenever she emerged from the bathroom, she would be subjected to interrogation until she admitted to what she had produced. As I recall, her output was not great. I suspect the horror of that holiday may have caused her to suffer from lifelong constipation*.
After a morning’s drinking and poo tallies, it would be time for The Swim. Remember, it was still raining. We’d make our way wobbling down the path to the beach, soaked to the swimming costume, plunge into the sea, and then shiver back up the hill to dry off with our damp towels and put on our damp clothes. One day, someone thought it would be a fabulous idea to skinny-dip, so on the beach all of us – except for Hannah – whipped off our wet costumes and plunged roaring into the sea. It was the best swim of my life, naked in the Wild Coast surf. We girls roared out again, giggling hysterically (noting along the way that Hannah’s also rather conservative and now naked boyfriend was spectacularly well-endowed), only to see wading towards us, fully bathing costumed, and wearing an unreadable expression on her face, the head of our alma mater’s Old Girls’ Guild. It was rather like one our mothers appearing. Us naked, she costumed. Us drunk, she very clearly sober. Daylight. On a beach. In the Transkei. We chorused, “Hello Mrs Copperplate” and ran snorting explosively up the beach, just like the bunch of schoolgirls we had only recently stopped being.
As the time to leave drew nearer, we assiduously worked on finishing up our supplies. The rain grew heavier. The night before we were due to leave, one of the group went to the camp’s offices to pay. He came back, sober-faced. “We can’t leave,” he told us. “The river’s flooded its banks and we can’t get across.”
We were stuck, with dwindling food supplies, no access to alcohol, in an extremely remote part of South Africa. We sobered up fast and start conjuring clever meals out of tuna. Then there was a knock at the door. It was Mrs Copperplate. She said, “We couldn’t help noticing you have cigarettes. Could we exchange a couple of bottles of red wine for some cigarettes?”
Could we ever! And thus began the bartering that got us through the next few days. Someone gave us eggs, we gave them tuna, someone took cigarettes off us and gave us potatoes. There was a lovely spirit of we’re-all-in-this-together floating round the wet camp. One morning, we woke up and the rain had stopped. The sun had come out and the river had subsided sufficiently for us to ford the river. We hurriedly packed up our bags, stomachs grumbling at the thought of toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches at the first petrol station en-route home.
A sharp-eyed member of the party wandered into Hannah’s room just as she and her boyfriend were zipping up their bags. She noticed an ill-concealed and full box of cereal that he hastily tried to hide under a couple of dirty T-shirts. The well-endowed one had been hiding supplies! After we’d all had old apples, or somesuch disappointing breakfast. He was henceforth known as Biggus Dickus.
* Hannah, if I ever meet you again, I will apologise to your sweet person for the tortures we may have visited on you that holiday