The tedium of tents


The tedium of tents

Boredom was an ever-present companion during camping trips in the bushveld, writes DEBORAH STEINMAIR.


I LOOKED up the meaning of ennui:

a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.

For me, if I remember correctly, it was more of a trance-like state bordering on pleasant — boredom was my companion as a child. Little did I know there would be so little of it later in life. That the pace would accelerate so recklessly.

My childhood is a landscape of stacked boredom like endless mountain ranges. School was a dry bed of tedium. Visits to family and acquaintances never-ending. Church — dying a thousand deaths in complete silence with one voice droning like a gadfly.

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Pitching tent

Some of my friends still camp, but you will never see me in a tent again. We used to camp regularly when I was a child. I'm not talking about bustling campsites by the sea — our family of six would pitch a large old military tent in a desolate outpost without water, electricity or ablution facilities. Like under a tree in a dry riverbed on someone's farm in the bushveld beyond Alldays. There was no one in sight, just a few surprised animals.

My parents craved the isolation and silence in order to paint. Early in the morning, they would head out into the veld with an easel and a paintbox over their shoulders. Then the day would stretch out before me. My twin brothers also disappeared into the veld at the crack of dawn with slingshots and pellet guns to obliterate small creatures. I wished my little sister had a purpose too. She is four years younger than me and has also become a voracious reader, but she didn't always have the concentration to read for hours on end.

I was a child with a mission: to ration my stack of books so they wouldn't run out too quickly. All I wanted to do was read. And sometimes gaze into the shimmering distance, at mirages in scorching heat, with the soundtrack a crescendo chorus of cicadas, the cackling cries of butcher birds.


Alone under the tree, my sister and I would argue loudly because she wanted to play and I wanted to be left alone. One holiday, our family stopped by relatives on a farm en route to the bushveld. When we were supposed to leave, the bags of my sister and I were unloaded: we were to stay behind because our fighting spoiled the camping experience. Without warning, planned and arranged in advance. I wasn't dropped off at the orphanage like Herman Lategan, but I also know abandonment. That holiday, my sister and I played sweetly and meekly together on the farm. We knew we were replaceable, dispensable — everything revolved around the adults' need to create. We learned: you have to keep yourself busy.

I preferred to navigate my own boredom. I embraced it, as long as I was left alone and no response was expected from me. Perhaps I already vaguely realised the incredible luxury of a day devoid of tasks. A long day full of seconds and minutes that rolled by carelessly under a cloudless sky.

The next holiday, my sister and I, much better behaved, joined the camping expedition again.

Sometimes I would go and watch how my parents were faring. We knew not to talk to them while they painted. No questions or nagging. The only acceptable response was an approving sound or two. And silence. My dad was inspired to paint the perfect tree, complete in its simplicity. His mentor, Erich Maier, said you don't paint every branch. You abstract; it's a design. My dad could focus like few others. I don't think he would have noticed if someone struck up a conversation.


Still, he sometimes noticed us. One day, I looked over his shoulder at his unfinished painting. Then I tore off a few squares from his toilet roll and disappeared behind a shrub. When I came back, he had sketched my figure in charcoal onto his painting, in front of the bush, crouching, with an arched back — entirely recognisable. I was outraged and afraid that I would be immortalised in this unworthy way, like a constipated dog.

I remember provisions were quite meagre on these holidays. My mother believed in eating healthily. The only sweet things were a tin of homemade cookies that my brothers always polished off by day two. Maybe a few apples and oranges — “You don't eat because you're bored!" One holiday, my dad's turpentine bottle leaked in the car and all the rusks tasted of turpentine.


Back at school, other kids would talk about holiday romances, sunscreen and dances. I had little to share — just another stack of read books that I kept silent about, and many dreams and stories that I wove around the campfire, slowly. And silence settling within me, making me even stranger.

Now it's different. I can't remember the last time I was bored. Even in civil service queues, I read.

This is what I wish for now: one day under the relentless sun, standing behind my dad, who is painting with vellies and a hat, always standing. My mom sitting in a folding chair in front of her easel. Her medium was watercolour. The scent of oil paint and turpentine, my dad's clean sweat. The aura of concentration around him.

Endless hours where one spends the whole day outside, able to see the shadows grow. A stack of books and unlimited time to read. And pleasant ennui that hums like a thousand cicadas.

♦ VWB ♦

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