Accidental Tourist

When the music takes you home

It was an unexpected delight to stumble across a group of Dutch tourists singing South African folk songs around a campfire in Portugal, writes Chris Buchanan

28 April 2019 - 00:00 By Chris Buchanan

There's a beach on Portugal's west coast that stretches for a kilometre and is home to some of the best surfing in Europe with its long, slow waves that break continuously in sets and seem to take forever to reach the shoreline. Praia Grande is the end of the line on the tourist route through the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, an hour's train ride from Lisbon.
Atop the cliffs behind the beach was a camping ground run by a mother and daughter, who always smiled and served ice-cold Super Bock beer from a rusty, top-loading fridge.
This was my last stop on a seven-month hitchhiking journey from Schleswig-Holstein on the Danish/German border to the Algarve and on to Lisbon, from where I would fly home. There were a few nights to kill before my flight, so I thought an endless beach, beer and whisky, and rowdy camping companions would do the trick.
I befriended an oafish Swede who couldn't hold his liquor and a German couple who were leftovers from the hippie era. They lived out of their Mercedes station wagon, filled with travelling memorabilia, and were unashamed in their lovemaking after the rest of us had retired to our tents and the Swede had passed out, usually with his pants down.
One morning, while the Swede and I were having a cold beer on the restaurant balcony, a wagon train of Dutch motor homes came thundering into the campsite and parked in laager formation on a piece of open ground.
They brought an energy to the place, always busy and getting on with things in contrast to the mellow, mostly hung-over young surfer/campers.
One day a robust westerly came up, whistling through the trees and stirring up the calm sea - the Atlantic Ocean is unforgiving when the westerly blows, turning a surfer's paradise into an angry frenzy.
Ambulances raced down to the beach and we got the news from our German couple that three of their countrymen had been fished from the water, having underestimated the fury of the rip tide. Nobody died but it cast a pall of quiet over the campsite that evening and I felt a longing to get home.
And then I heard the tune of Sarie Marais come drifting across the camp ground, sung in exuberant union with an accordion in accompaniment.
I walked into the Dutch laager, the campfire in the middle lighting up their cheeks, and introduced myself as South African. They welcomed me, gave me beer and told me they'd sung many SA folk songs around the fire when they were on the road.
We sang Jan Pierewiet, Suikerbossie, Shosholoza and Thula Mama together, and at the end of the evening the fella on the accordion played Bright Blue's Weeping and I bade a tearful goodnight to my new friends.
I slept a deep and contented sleep that night having had a touch of home in a faraway land, and looked forward to spending my last night in Sintra with these crazy Dutch people.
But when I awoke mid-morning and crawled from my tent, the travellers had gone. I realised there would be no Sarie Marais that night, just cannelloni out of a tin, a comatose Swede with no trousers on, and the sound of fornicating Germans.
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