SA nudist bares all to address the stigma around naturism
Once torn between traditions and longing, Vogani Nkuna overcame his guilt and found freedom, peace and happiness in naturism
My wife and I had recently returned home from a Sunday afternoon at Bird of Paradise, a serene nudist resort in Vanderbijlpark, when the topic for a personal essay hit me like a thunderbolt.
We were used to being able to visit the parks and the pools and hated being locked up in concrete cages. So, when level 1 of the lockdown was enforced, I knew exactly what had to be done. We waved good riddance to winter and packed our towels in the car. Bird of Paradise is closer to Johannesburg than SunEden, another nudist resort about 100km from Johannesburg, and we'd never been there before. The destination was an easy pick.
After taking a left off the provincial road, we found the entrance to the secluded smallholding. Its driveway could belong to a rustic wedding venue and the leafy parking, adjacent to it, could accommodate the entourage of an intimate ceremony. We disrobed in the parking lot where the host welcomed us before leading the way under the green canopy of a narrow path that widens onto a luxuriant garden.
We greeted the other naked guests and made ourselves at home on the loungers. The sparkling pool reflected the bright sky above and next to the pool was a fish pond with a floating carpet of lily pads. But the front garden, with its "wedding gazebo" and communal braai, was only the appetiser. The back yard has the rooms, caravan park, campsite and Jacuzzi that serve the full course.
Bird of Paradise brought back an idea I'd had but had chucked, scared of society's tongue-lashing. I'd had a dream about opening a nudist hangout somewhere in the suburbs. But before its conception and as a result of my naturism, I was hounded doggedly by guilt.
I'm a nudist, a naturist, and a Christian. I'm a black African, Tsonga to be exact, and I have a story you might like. It's about forgiving yourself in order to be free. It's about finding peace and happiness in a place you'd least expect. It's about naturism and me. On the one hand, it's written for those torn between traditions and longing. On the other, it's for those who, in the privacy of their homes, saunter bare, or close to it, but don't know the term for what they're doing. To the curious and the self-conscious, I'm coming out of the closet, opening up about a lifestyle I've kept secret until now.
Due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter, I write with my wife's consent. She's guilty by association, but this story is not about her. I mention no names, other than mine and those of places. And, without getting into semantics, I use "nudist" and "naturist" interchangeably. I'm aware that my story may shock you, especially if you're close to us. You may find it an unpleasant surprise, and I apologise in advance. If you feel overwhelmed, just remember, 100 years from now none of what we feel today will matter to the universe.
What I say is what I mean, nothing more, nothing less. I might not be the greatest wordsmith, but should you seek clarity, feel free to ask. From this point onwards you may feel awkward around us, but just bear in mind that you didn't feel awkward before we let you in. On the flipside, you may find that you expected a story like this from me. All in all, we're still the same couple you know, only happier.
"Maybe it's God telling us we shouldn't be here," I agonised. It was our first time as social nudists and I was worried we'd leave with our tails between our legs. I'd locked the car keys inside our Datsun. In a few months the car would be a year old. Earlier that year, it had been a workhorse assigned to our wedding preparations and had racked up interprovincial mileage traversing the tedious gravel of rural Limpopo. But we'd never locked the keys inside the car.
The mistake occurred on our first naturist trip and that made the situation uneasy. Naturism, I find, is terribly misunderstood. It's taboo to those who've never tried it and abhorrent to those who'll never try it. I'm a product of my conservative upbringing, so I saw the incident as divine retribution. What else could it be, when something so unusual occurs when you're dressed in only your deodorant?
"Perhaps God is punishing us for having come here," I obsessed. The only solutions available were embarrassing and involved directing outsiders to the resort. One, we call a locksmith, which would cost a small fortune. It would be a weekend call-out and we were over half an hour northeast of Pretoria. Two, call a taxi — more expensive than the locksmith since the spare keys were in Johannesburg. Three, call a friend or relative.
The cheapest option was out of the question. We weren't ready to come out of the closet, at least not through the comedy of the keys. Fortunately, we'd booked to stay the night and agreed to find a solution in the morning.
To add insult to injury, we were the only black couple that weekend. There we were, unknown, and bringing issues that raised suspicions. Even I would've been suspicious. One couldn't ignore the glaring stereotypes being played out by the situation.
Surprisingly, none of the naturists showed any attitude or irritability. Save for one lady, who, scurrying in the gentle morning light, joked, "Is this man not a criminal?" as we brainstormed a way into the car. We chuckled, and I watched her hurry on, but not like she was afraid I'd make off with their wedding rings.
We settled on breaking in — the most reasonable and least shameful solution. It was a job of strength and precision. The car sustained a bit of scarring, which we didn't dare ask insurance to mend — the price you pay for cheating shame. Besides, our insurance was covered by a family member who'd enquire for background. This 2015 incident was the first of our car problems at SunEden. But it wasn't the last time nudists would be amicable in the face of our adversity, and it wasn't the last time I'd interpret an incident as a sign
of divine retribution.
On returning to Joburg, we sat down for some reflection. We questioned whether naturism was a lifestyle we'd like to adopt. My wife nodded "yes." And even with guilt inscribing remorse on my heart, I nodded. What the story of the keys doesn't convey is how the rest of the weekend was as quieting as the sunset from a hilltop; as therapeutic as warm ocean surf between the toes and as uplifting as songs around a campfire. We'd taken up something liberating and uniquely bonding, but not without being conflicted at first.
Religion rendered our naturism problematic and I couldn't shrug it off. You can't just shrug off formative years, growing up in some form of piety. I grew up in the Zionist Christian Church. As a youngster, I remember climbing into the back of our pickup headed for our open-air church with its rudimentary structure of floor and parapets. I didn't feel proud of it, especially when I compared it to the roofed churches my peers attended. The service wasn't a highlight. I found most of the songs sleep inducing — lullabies in hymns' clothing. The teachings were drawn-out and I couldn't understand why church had to take up most of the afternoon. Some of the males sat on boulders and concrete benches by a rocky slope. It was only a matter of time before the bum hurt, plus it was difficult to focus with some men snoring nearby.
The ZCC is, for me, an acquired taste. I find the church overly stringent and prescriptive. As I grew older, I went to church less and less often but the conditioning had crystallised. I was a Christian and still am. I had enough inculcated reverence for my interest in naturism to stir internal conflict. After nodding for nudism, I bothered the internet for vindication as my guilt burned the midnight oil. Naturism felt good, but was it good to practise? I found a website or two about Christian naturists and a plethora of sites about how Christians can't be nudists, at least not socially.
"What a damper!" my heart squealed.
Christian or not, we're trained to be "decent" from a young age and, given humankind's loonies, you can't fault anyone for that. After infancy, nudity is often shamed and sexualised.
I reached out to my wife, explaining how it might be better to practise privately, at home, instead of socially, in community. One ludicrous thought was to visit resorts on quiet weekends, when there wasn't a jamboree on the calendar. That way, others wouldn't see us. My wife laughed at the folly of the limitations I was putting on us.
We're nestled in the city, in a two-bedroom apartment. The practicality of a meaningful naturist life is hindered by the densely inhabited concrete surrounding us. But the city and its clutter aside, our newfound freedom was being threatened by the turmoil in my head.
THE OPEN MIND
I can't recall my parents being members of the same church. The ZCC is my paternal church. I lived off two diets of parallel Christian practises in the same home. The result was a jab of tolerance and a dose of open-mindedness. This coexistence didn't reinforce one path over the other. Instead, it taught me that humans have an inventive ability to interpret the same thing differently. I witnessed how we can all thrive on different paths, and I have no bone to pick with any religion. But open-mindedness stops where the body starts to cringe and recoil. My open-mindedness transcends religion but it's not impervious to guilt.
I can't pinpoint the moment of my discovery, but I guess it was on the internet, browsing about swinging and polyamorous lifestyles. Back then I was confusing naturism for swinging — both are alternative lifestyles where things lead to nudity, and nudity is synonymous with sex, right? My wife and I aren't swingers but I wanted to know more.
I accept the concerns around public indecency, but naturism is practised alone or with like-minded individuals in a secluded, nonsexual environment, usually on private property
As I learnt more about naturism, it started feeling like something I wanted to do, especially when I began to perceive it as something healing and revitalising. My body didn't cringe and recoil at the thought and, interestingly, I'd been unwittingly practising it. Back from work, I'd often strip down.
What I'd worn in the morning would feel heavy and grimy, so — unclothed and comfortable — I'd be reluctant to pile up the laundry with a fresh set of clothes so late in the day. Sometimes I'd go bare, other times I'd sport the bare minimum.
We didn't have offspring then, so it was easy. I'd seen toddlers gleefully nude, why not adults?
I accept the concerns around public indecency, but naturism is practised alone or with like-minded individuals in a secluded, nonsexual environment, usually on private property.
I brought the idea to my wife. Without branding me a weirdo by a facial expression, she listened intently. My job was unfulfilling, I said. I'd never liked how jobs snatch your time in exchange for something as recyclable as money. Anyway, two of the three major stress inducers were my manager — a narcissist — and my fear of being average. I was afraid of being just another rusty cog in the mill. I felt average and dreary, no history book would mention anything about me. I'd disappear in a puff of dust.
My 20s were fading with a whimper. I felt I hadn't done anything daring. They were a series of miscalculated mistakes made while ignoring myself to satisfy traditions. Society always comes with expectations. I blame myself for acceding.
I was raised in the Tsonga-speaking, northeast corner of Limpopo in the rural township of Malamulele. Throughout my childhood, tradition was staunchly upheld as a code of conduct. We were taught how to respect and serve. Submission to the hierarchy was an integral part of patriarchy, everyone was expected to know their place. As we grew older, several rites of passage would be observed, like marriage, lobola and weddings.
Don't get me wrong, I love my wife and I'm in love with her too. Marrying her was
one of the smartest decisions I've made, but that doesn't exonerate lobola and weddings from being a splitting headache. For starters it involves tossing and turning about money you don't have. Secondly, it involves losing yourself to appease everyone else, an exercise that, in me, induced a lowered self-esteem. I wanted to cleanse myself of the anxiety of adulting immersed in tradition and to revert to the pre-17 free spirit I once was, that charming guy who didn't take himself or life too seriously.
A QUICK STORY OF REGRET
My wife is a Latin and ballroom dancer who'd danced for years before I came bumbling along. The sensual rumba is her cup of tea. Sometimes it's performed in skimpy outfits and with expressive sophistication. Having grossly misinterpreted what it meant for us should she partner with another man, I coerced her into giving up dancing.
It was cruel of me to ask her to quit and it revealed the little boy I was. I'd sexualised Latin dancing and treated it as not worthy of respect even though my wife said that sex is the last thing on her mind when she dances.
After putting my foot down, the dial on my happiness spectrum dipped. I felt needy with a battered self-esteem and my anxiety made me pedantic. It's partly why the novelty of naturism made so much sense.
THE FREE THINKER
I was with my family when a new naturist beach made headlines. A site on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal had been made official as SA's first legal nudist beach. I sat there, silent and stiff-necked with a poker face, pretending to be disinterested. On the inside I was beaming from ear to ear. A relative deemed the whole affair vulgar and obscene. The gender mix there made it worse. In each other's presence, men and women gallivanted between sand and sea on Mpenjati Beach. The low blow was a remark about how it was only a matter of time before someone got killed there — that would bring an end to the nonsense! I remember wondering, "Gosh, is it so bad that someone must die?" The status of the beach has since been revoked and, no doubt, some people are glad that SA now has no legal nudist beaches.
I internalised my relative's comment. When I worried that the incident with the keys might be a warning of something worse to come, I was thinking of my relative's death-at-a-nudist-resort prediction. The feeling recurred with the second of our SunEden car problems — a flat tyre. This time we were day visitors but it all ended well with the help of the other naturists.
In between the two vexatious SunEden trips were two peaceful ones — another to SunEden and the other, as day visitors to Vyedam in Hekpoort. There was a record to break on the day of our Vyedam visit: the largest number of nude people doing this or that. When the group photo, to evidence the numbers, was shot, I turned around so the camera captured the back of my head and none of my anterior. But nothing would convince my wife to join in. Ladies' hair is easier to identify than men's and we were still in the closet.
I like social nudity because it makes me feel warm, uplifted, and light within nature. My mind quietens, the load melts off my shoulders as my skin enjoys the sun. The air soothes my body and soon enough I forget trivial things. The conversations bring smiles and merriment and I feel energised.
As we delight we harm no one, contravene no laws and do not sexualise anybody, not even each other. Sadly, Vyedam is no more.
BALLOONS AND BODIES
I remember the balloons as if it were yesterday. We had to make them pop between our bodies. It was an exhilarating game played between two competing couples at a time, during a busy weekend at SunEden. We had to sprint from the starting line towards a mark a few metres away, make a U-turn and dash back to our partners, who'd be holding a balloon at the starting point.
On meeting, we had to pop the balloon by compressing it against each other's bodies. After the pop, the runners switched. On one run the balloon was pressed between our bellies. On another, it was compressed between the lap of the person sitting on a chair and the other person sitting on their lap. We had four balloons to pop as we raced on the lush green grass alongside the pool as spectators cheered.
SunEden is an eco-lodge on hectares of bushveld where antelope roam free and small mammals scutter out of your path. During the day, the pool, across a quaint bridge from the restaurant, is the heart of the estate.
After several couples had given the balloon race a shot, the fastest poppers were announced. We were in the top three. We laughed all the way home with a carton of assorted biscuits and branded caps from the Gauteng Naturist Association.
It had been a while since I'd played a game like the balloon dash. As you grow older you throw your inner child out with the bath water. It took a naturist resort to bring it back.
My wife and I both turned 30 in the year of the balloon dash. Then, our respective skins were cling-wrapped around us. Things were firm and sturdy. We played the dash with a vigour that matched our youthfulness. But young as we were, there were tell-tale signs that our 20s were behind us. You see it in a blemish here, a skin tag there, dimples here and streaks there. But to my astonishment we carried our bodies with pride. We hadn't discussed body issues, but when the time came acceptance prevailed.
Our bodies tell a story and naturists are brave enough to let their bodies tell theirs. What impressed me was how those with older bodies carried them with pride, joy and grace. It's rare to see a naturist with slumped shoulders. In the balloon dash we glimpsed wrinkles, sunken sections, flabby this and droopy that.
But I saw a magnificence in their ageing. The body was not as alluring as the person within it. Something anticlimactic happens when you're nude socially. Since nothing is left to the imagination, the body loses its power of seduction and the novelty of seeing nudity fizzles out quickly. Knowing that anything else would be rude, you find it easy to make eye contact in conversations.
The first couple of times, as a minority, we had the sense that everyone had their eyes on us. We're like rare, exotic parrots that are easy to spot
Except for the day of the dash and the day at Vyedam, where we met a black couple and a black gentleman, respectively, we've been quite unique ourselves. We're accustomed to the possibility of being the only black couple at a resort. To some extent it's because we haven't pitched up at many jamborees. But on our last Bird of Paradise visit we were pleasantly welcomed in the company of another black couple. There were some black people at our last SunEden visit too.
The first couple of times, as a minority, we had the sense that everyone had their eyes on us. We're like rare, exotic parrots that are easy to spot. But the absence of black people wasn't enough to deter us socialising with anyone. This was strengthened by the lax regard for skin colour at the resorts.
From what I've seen, naturists don't really care. But I'd be naive if I painted a picture of perfection. Even with the beneficial qualities of self-respect and respect for others, which naturism is about, there may be a few who don't like our presence. It doesn't matter — I've yet to see blatant meanness and, based on reactions, I get the impression people would love to see some racial balance.
It's safe to say black naturists are few and far between. Bumping into each other is a novelty in itself. A modern-day excuse is "I swilo swa valungu" (It's white people's things). And by racialising the nonracial, you miss the train. Letting go of conservative beliefs for an unconventional path — which may or may not prove a better way of life — is daunting.
During our sabbaticals, I longed for a hangout closer to the city. It didn't have to match the amenities of premium resorts, it just had to be appealing to the seasoned, welcoming to the novices and inviting to the curious. In any case, it would be a hangout, not a resort. There'd be performances on weeknights and screenings, recitals, talks, launches, meet-and-greets and other activities from the suggestion box. Weekends would accommodate those who weren't travelling out. Weekdays aren't particularly nudist friendly and I figured this would fill a gap.
Self-consciousness tore the idea apart. How would I pull it off without admitting to being a naturist? That was my biggest worry, but it was frivolous — all worry is. You know those people who say they wouldn't change a thing if they could do it all again? I'm not one of them. I used to drag a sack of regrets along the ground but I've had to empty it out so it doesn't hold me back. Knowing what I know now, there's plenty I'd do differently. In a nutshell, I'd listen to my heart. It's a built-in compass that leads you home.
The hangout sounds like a leisure project but my heart, in so far as naturism is concerned, is in global travel. To tell stories of outings nearby and abroad and to touch on the weird and wacky. To open a door for your escape. Who knows, you might just feel inspired and we might just find ourselves a holiday home at a resort somewhere.
Enough unliving, there's a lot to talk and laugh about, and writing about naturism is for me a quirky little niche. Unchained in my heart and mind, I can't help but want to step out as I am. You may think there aren't many of us out there, but you'd be surprised at what a quick internet search can reveal.
WHAT YOU NEED AT NATURIST RESORTS
We bought towels with a zippered pocket in the corner. A pocket is hard to come by for a nudist, and a towel is a must-have — it's the only thing between you and the seat you may take.
Oh, and don't forget sunscreen (especially for the parts where the sun don't shine) and hats.
The credo of the international naturist federation is: "Naturism is a way of life in harmony with nature, characterised by the practice of communal nudity, with the intention of encouraging self-respect, respect for others and for the environment."
FIVE NUDIST RESORTS IN SA
SunEden Naturist Resort
Located in the bushveld between Johannesburg and Pretoria. It was founded by dedicated naturists in 1995 and offers naturists a scenic retreat that's registered with the Gauteng Naturist Association. See suneden.com for rates and rules.
Bird of Paradise
A private naturist club in the Vaal Triangle that holds regular events. Facilities include a swimming pool and Jacuzzi, braai area, games and snack bar, camping and river barge cruises on the Vaal. See birdofparadise.co.za for info.
Kiepersolkloof Private Nature Reserve
SA's oldest private naturist facility, situated in North West. It has caravan and camping sites and self-catering cottages. It centres on two dramatic gorges, dense with wild olives, thorn trees and the majestic kiepersol. See kiepersolkloof.co.za for rates and rules.
Bare Necessities Backpackers
Located on a dairy farm near the village of Suurbraak in Western Cape. There are rooms and a small campsite. See tripadvisor.com for reviews and to book.
Umhlanga Lagoon Beach
As at Sandy Bay in Cape Town, nudism at Umhlanga is accepted among naturists and they are unlikely to be prosecuted.
• At most of these resorts, singles are only allowed if they are members of a recognised naturist association.
• The author of this article Vongani Nkuna, otherwise known as Vonks, is a writer and a member of the Gauteng Naturist Association.