Camping African Style

The weekend after New Year’s has to be the busiest time of the year for all sorts of outdoor recreational activities in South Africa –– camping in particular. This is the time when the warm weather and longer days reach their most enjoyable, and when families and office workers are stretching out the last glorious moments of their Christmas holidays. It was no small feat then that Z managed to book a place for 14 of us in a popular campground with all of the modern conveniences over that weekend.

But as the group’s official representative it also fell to Z to forward our collective complaints to the camp office. Part of this was requesting a security details to come around and quiet down all the parties going on around us all night over the weekend. Sunday morning, as she sat with tired eyes next to the came fire she gave us a particularly interesting report on her telephone negotiations with the campground administration during the night: In the wee hours of the morning, with drunken parties and ghetto blasters pounding away on all sides of us, she called and woke up the manager. In his groggy frustration over being hauled out of bed to deal with this situation he came out with a rather novel request: “Could you put that in writing for us?” As though at 2:00 in the morning the proper procedure for having peace and quiet enforced would be to find a pen and paper –– or computer and printer –– write a hundred word explanation of the situation, and then get up and deliver it to the office.

To be generous to him, it is possible that he might just have needed a complaint memo in writing after the fact to accompany his security guards’ overtime pay requisition form, but there was something comically Orwellian about the bureaucratic nature of his request. As we joked about this around the breakfast table the group suggested that Z use her credentials as an established journalist to write something with a bit of a bite to it about the experience. She had some reservations about that though, not the least of which was trying to avoid giving herself a reputation as the sort of trouble maker they would prefer not to have back as a guest in the future. So having no reputation to lose here myself, I figured that if something needed to be written about our camping experience I could do it. Not that anyone would take my writing all that seriously, but maybe that would be the point in my writing it.

The campground in question was over on the east side of False Bay, a couple hours drive from Cape Town. Once upon a time, probably during the Apartheid era, it was a very respectable place, with level grassy places for pitching tents, electric outlets at each camp site, a little camp shop, clean and efficient restrooms and showers, and direct access to both a white sandy beach on the Indian Ocean and peaceful little lagoon fed both by the high tide and fresh water from a little river flowing down from the mountains. It still had most of those charms actually; just in rather faded form. The camping sites had no grass left to speak of, and overall the facilities looked as though they had last received basic maintenance about 20 years ago. So it was rather sad to see how they had let the place go in general, as though once it ceased to be a segregated facility they had stopped caring about it.

The crowd there seemed to be predominantly younger folks, lower middle class, of mixed race. Some were there with families but most were just odd assortments of friends. Most were in tents, but a few camper trailers dotted the landscape here and there. In addition to ghetto blasters, our temporary neighbors’ basic camping equipment there included televisions with portable satellite dishes, snorkeling and rafting supplies, (including small outboard motors), gas stoves, large ice chests, acoustic guitars and homemade bongs made out of 2 liter Coke bottles.

The little group I was there with was quite interesting and diverse in itself. Of the 14 of us only 3 were under 40 years old. There was one couple who had been married for over 30 years, a mother and daughter pair, two older singles not in any sort of relationship, two older remarried couples, my girlfriend and I, and a young pair of brothers who were the grandsons of one of the remarried ladies. Most of the group then had some experience of divorce and remarriage. As the majority were practicing Muslims, we had one of the few alcohol-free camp sites in the park, but there were also Christians and agnostics in the group, with no religious tensions arising among us during the course of the weekend. Our group, however, seemed to be in the minority for the campground in terms of our middle-agedness, particular with regard to our party habits, or lack thereof.

The campground’s electric outlets at each campsite were clearly one of its main attractions. At most of the other camp sites these seemed to be used primarily for hooking up entertainment systems; at ours they were used for powering a makeshift communal kitchen, including a refrigerator and microwave oven. What our group lacked in active interest in intoxication we quite made up for in a passion for food.

As I understand it, the group I was with originally took shape as an early morning hiking and fitness club of sorts, but eventually the ritual of after-hike refreshments started to become as important as, or more important than, the hiking itself. Eventually it just evolved into a very fluid community of families and friends with a strong sense of camaraderie and a strong appreciation for food. Thus one of the key elements of this camp experience was taking turns making the communal dinner, and competing with each other both in cooking and complimenting the cooks. A few of the members in better physical shape also did some hiking along the river banks and into the mountains towering above us there to the north, but these were more peripheral concerns than the food and social banter. There was talk of many former members in the group, and the unlikely fame some of them had achieved. Members come and members go, but the likelihood of passing on this group’s traditions to the next generation seems somewhat limited. The second and third generation participants had no particular suggestions as to how to draw in other descendents of active or former members.

Someone joked that my lady friend was taking quite a risk in bringing me along on such an adventure: the group had been known to scare away romantic partners in the past. There is a certain personal intensity involved, joking with each other in ways that push the limits of social acceptability. The sort of trust that this requires does not come easy to some. In all honesty though, I found it quite refreshing.

The highlights of the trip for me were doing sand sculptures at low tide with the youngest members of the group, telling jokes around the campfire at night, and making some comical attempts at fishing along the way. I caught nothing and lost one jig, but had no regrets on that account. One of my more foolish moves was to spend hours walking back and forth through the tidal channel taking photos and letting the salt water wash away my sunscreen from the knees down. The resulting burn was rather painful at times. The group generally looked on me with pity: all of them had had their own experiences of sunburn at one time or another, but most of them were a bit darker than myself, and thus far better naturally equipped to deal with the sun’s rays than I was. The sight of my bright red calves really brought out their compassionate sides.

During this camping time I was also working on my last entry here about communal aspects of religion, and thus I thought it would be worth mentioning both as follow-up and as background for that piece. I wrote there about how I’m not considered to be “a very good Christian” because I fail to conform to the norms of particular congregations –– especially in terms of accepting their dogmas, submitting to their disciplines and practicing their rituals. This leaves me in a bit of an outsider’s position in terms of my group membership. So why not, some have suggested in reply, settle for a more casual and fluid sense of community? In fact that is exactly what I was doing while I was working on the essay in question.

My community membership here in the Cape Town area is still in its early stages, and still very dependent on the contacts I built up on-line before coming here. I’m not really an insider here yet, and it will probably take years before I’m anywhere close, but I really can’t complain about loneliness either. It’s “community lite” for me. I haven’t been figuratively speaking baptized into any group here, but nor am I shunned or placed under interdict by many at least.

The question is, will that level of community connection be enough for the rest of my life, and/or for coming generations? There’s the old proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child. These days the social definitions of both childhood and of parental roles are in a serious state of flux, and when it comes to child rearing help we’re more and more expecting our fellow villagers to mind their own business. This is how our societies give rise to individualists like me, and many of my former students. Alliances between individualists like us get to be rather unstable at times, and given the speed with which the rest of the variables in our world are changing it’s hard to say whether or not these lighter, freer connections are such a good thing. We think more freely, but we lack an automatic sense of order and unquestioning loyalty to the causes our grandparents held dear. Yet we’re still capable of making friends, albeit on a broader but shallower basis.

Is that the sort of cultural norm I want to spread in Cape Town, and/or wherever else I go? Well, not necessarily, but in some ways, yes. Breaking down tribal prejudices is more important to me than reinforcing emotional certainties. Overcoming destructive hatred is more important than maintaining absolute loyalties. I recognize that those who find it particular useful to instill such hatreds and loyalties in the younger generations as means of maintaining their own cultural norms may feel rather differently than I do about the matter. I realize that some might even find me threatening to their way of life in this regard, but I can live with their suspicions and rejection if necessary.

And this brings me to the question of who we are justified in distancing ourselves from. What reasons do we have to be afraid of particular outsiders? What is it that makes us just plain uncomfortable with particular individuals, and what should we do about it? Who overall doesn’t belong in our social groups? And if we let these outsiders in, do they automatically get a say in the democratic process of setting the rules within the group?

At the campground that weekend if the matter were put to a vote among the campers I’m sure that no curfew rule would have been enacted. We non-partiers were in the minority, but we still insisted on our rights to be allowed to have it quiet enough for children and old farts to be able to sleep. We weren’t about to let that majority set the rules we lived under! If we were aware that party animals would be allowed to set the rules there we wouldn’t have chosen to spend the weekend at that campground to begin with. They weren’t invited into the little social circle that I was being initiated into, so we had to keep them in their place somewhat.

Perhaps the nicest places for enjoying holiday time should be kept clear of “their sort” of people, so that the grass can grow back and the air quality and noise levels can be kept at levels were “decent folks” can feel at peace. Not terribly long ago there was a system in this country to keep the less desirable people in society from disturbing the “better sort,” quite efficiently I might add –– it was called Apartheid. Of course one of the major failings of that system was that it was based on a premise that breeding and skin color were reliable ways of telling the difference between the decent sort and the less respectable folk. But if we were to eliminate that particular aspect of the evaluation problem, could such a system still have a valid use? Should certain areas be set aside for the use of those with a certain amount of status who don’t care to be subjected to the majority? Would there be a particularly fair way of doing that? Could opposition to “the others” in this sort of way create a sort of deeper loyalty and solidarity among the “in crowd” in such contexts? Could this be the key to bringing back “the good old days” of a tighter sense of community? And then there is the sticky little matter making sure that these regulations serve the purpose of keeping “them” out without restricting freedoms for “us.” If such exclusionary systems are enacted, which of us could still be allowed to go all the places we want to go and do all the things we want to do?

As you have probably gathered, I don’t have a final solution to such problems. My strongest suggestions are to have a system where a certain amount of private space is allowed, where public spaces are regulated according to democratic principles as a rule of thumb, but where certain exceptional public spaces are recognized as deserving to be preserved and protected for future generations regardless of shifts in public opinion about the matter, and where above all we avoid dehumanizing those we aren’t comfortable with for whatever reason.

On a less systematic and more personal level, I want to try to look into myself and recognize what it is I’m afraid that those I’m uncomfortable with might actually take away from me, and why that is so important to me in each case. Is it just that they are damaging my health with the way they keep me awake at night? Am I afraid that they might reduce the value of some symbol of my personal success, making me look like less of a winner in life? Am I afraid that they will undo something else that I have worked very hard on? This might require a long discussion unto itself.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, one of the greatest highlights of the trip for me was doing sand sculpture with the youngest members of our group. With a bit of help from my friends at low tide I designed and built out of the moist beach sand a scale model of an F-1 race car, just large enough for an 8-year-old to sit in and pretend to drive. We all knew it wouldn’t last, and it wasn’t going to win any art awards anyway, but it was good enough to earn the young ones’ respect for my skill and to form a bond with them based on a shared sense of fun. They went to bed that night and woke up the next morning raring to go back down to the beach to continue our creative efforts together. That positive energy in turn filtered through the rest of the group and further strengthened a positive atmosphere among the older campers as well. If the rest of my life were to be defined by a series of moments like that, I wouldn’t really need any more than that to consider myself to be a happy and successful man. If my creations and communities aren’t as permanent as I would hope, I can live with that.




Filed under Empathy, Individualism, Social identity, Tolerance, Travel

2 responses to “Camping African Style

  1. zubeida jaffer

    Dear David an interesting piece. Just my brief comment – u cannot reform apartheid just as you could not reform nazism. camping sites were not better cared for under apartheid. camping sites were segregated on a racial basis.

    • Hi Zubeida,

      Thanks for your comment. I wouldn’t be interested in reforming Apartheid, of course. I was more playing with the idea of how to avoid the evils of that system in keeping those that we ourselves find less desirable “in their place”. Nor was I implying that the old system did a better job of some things; just that the particular campground didn’t look like it had undergone much basic maintenance since its all white years, which was sort of disappointing in some regards. If my speculation is off regarding the historical facts of the matter though, please correct me.

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