By Helen Walne
Cape Town - We might have come on holiday by mistake. A month ago, it seemed like such a good idea: we would bring my parents and my husband’s mother to the Namaqualand to see the flowers.
It had been on their bucket lists for a long time and, having experienced it ourselves a few years ago, we were anxious to show it to them. I had visions of them wandering through fields of orange daisies, their mouths open in wonder, the sun catching their grey hair.
So far, the only flowers we have seen were clamped shut against the rain, which pummelled down so hard it was like liquid spaghetti. The only sun we’ve seen was a sliver of curdled yellow that briefly fell out of the mist as we ate toasted sandwiches on the top of Piekenierskloof Pass.
My mother’s mouth has been open a lot as she dozes in the back seat of the car. My mother-in-law’s mouth hasn’t stopped talking. All the while, my father - who needs a hip replacement - is so high on painkillers he’s probably the only one of us who thinks everything is just fine. I have to poke him occasionally to make sure he’s alive.
When we arrived at the cottage near Nieuwoudtville, a gale blew us into the lounge, rainwater flooded under the door and someone snapped at someone else. It was so cold we all went to bed at 8pm. I dreamt I was on a steam train pulling out of a station. I was weeping and clutching a hankie. Then I realised I wasn’t dreaming. The chugging sound was my husband snoring and I was weeping out of frustration, clutching a handful of his hair, hoping it hurt.
It isn’t the first time we’ve been on holiday by mistake.
As young backpackers in France, B and I studied a map for a camping spot on the coast. We pictured crystalline waters, powdery sand and cold beers at a beach bar. Because we were fabulous and young and smart and fun, we were travelling without a guide book or itinerary. “That sounds nice,” I said, pointing at a town down south.
We bought train tickets from a complicated machine and ate terrible crisps as we watched the countryside whizzing by. When we arrived in Port-la-Nouvelle, the first thing we saw was bulk fuel containers. “I’m sure it’ll get better,” I said cheerfully. It didn’t. There were more fuel containers and blocks of sad-eyed flats. “Sasolburg by the sea, B murmured as we turned back to the station and bought more tickets from a machine.
On another camping trip in Scotland, we pitched our tent in a gale, crawled inside wearing all the clothes we had and lay listening to the flysheet flapping like a trapped flamingo. After an hour of nylon ripping and guy ropes whipping, B whispered: “We’ll have to get drunk,” and we fought our way through squalls to a nearby pub where, with great determination, we drank three pints each. Then we staggered up the hill, passed out - and woke to a meadow drenched in sun and butterflies.
And that, I suppose, is the beauty of bad holidays - when they start from such a low base, they can only improve.
In France, we finally found a perfect beach and spent days lying on the sand watching naked pensioners doing handstands in the turquoise water. In Scotland, the weather cleared and we hiked up to waterfalls and I swam in a loch with seals.
This morning, cockerels are crowing and the cottage is flooded with sun. My father has teased B about his snoring, B’s mother is reading a book and my mother is studying a map of the area, looking at pictures of flowers. The Langoorleeubekkie looks like a cross between a spider and a butter pat, the Geelspinnekopblom resembles a hat an alien would wear to the races, while the Perskussing is like a prudish granadilla blossom. The photographs are exquisite, each flower strange and perfect. Today we will drive to find them. The sun will have teased open their petals, the sky will be blue and we might stop for pancakes.
And maybe I will wander off, up a path to the top of a hill, and look down to see three grey heads moving through a field of flowers, a sea of orange, red, pink and yellow rolling towards the horizon.