Words by Ellen Hill Photos by David Hill
IT might be the smoky aroma of the air, the hypnotic flame, the warmth on your front and cold on your back. Or it might be that in the flame-tinged darkness, you feel safe that no one can fully see you. It might just be the bottle of red that makes you congenial, loosens the tongue and makes you believe these people look familiar. You’re probably never going to see them again anyway.
There’s something about a campfire that causes your most intimate secrets to start flowing in a trickle before coursing out into the night air for all to hear.
You see the newcomers, the ones sitting apologetically in the shadows, legs crossed, nervously nodding and smiling towards the jokes and conversation. They’re the ones who twitch with a start when a stranger asks them where they’re from, and they answer in the most basic terms _ “Germany’’ or “the UK’’.
When pressed, they might reluctantly give their city _ “Sydney’’ or “Amsterdam’’.
They can’t help themselves. They take the bait, and before they know it the newcomer is haughtily defending the intelligence of their neighbours, the righteousness of democracy, the freedoms of their country, the weather in their land. They start crowing about how their country’s contenders wiped the pool at the Euro Song Contest this year and Ugg boots are back in fashion because of their top supermodel.
The old hats have broken another one in and sit back in smug satisfaction. Relaxed chatter and banter continues.
The campfire routine can happen anywhere.
A few years back, my husband was lolling sleepily on the deck chair next me while our son played in the pool. “Is he still alive?’’ asked an unfamiliar voice.
It wasn’t long before his wife was also chipping in saucy tit-bits about their life, family and travels. I don’t think their daughter would have approved of their proud naming her as the head of a particular government agency. “Hasn’t changed, though,’’ her proud dad boasted. “She’s still the same as she was as a girl.’’
At a communal breakfast at an obscene hour one morning, two young chaps struggled to find English words to ask where the milk could be found. It then seemed rude to take our meal to the opposite end of the room, so we plonked ourselves next to them and made mental notes of the best attractions in northern Italy while they politely ignored our seven-year-old’s table manners.
We spent the first three days of our Outback holiday trying to hide the fact that our son had contracted the highly contagious although usually harmless Slap Cheek virus. The poor child’s inflamed cheeks and ears were hard to disguise, but we managed to convince a chemist to hand over some flu relief without divulging our secret until another woman spotted the condition and loudly announced by the flickering light of a campfire that her daughter had been sick with the same thing the week before.
We first met the Belgian fellow around a campfire at an Outback station where he was bravely holding his own while being interrogated about Belgian’s cosy relationship with Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe by a less educated camper.
While asking for change for the washing machine in the foyer of our next destination, we were pleasantly surprised by an excited bellow in our direction. The Belgian had inadvertently followed our tracks and turned up at the same place, son in tow.
We gleaned much interesting trivia about wild and exotic destinations on the other side of the world from this pair during fleeting sightings in the next two days.
The campfire routine can happen in the most unlikely of places and you don’t have to leave home to test it out.
Try rolling your eyes at the nearest motherly looking woman in the shopping queue when your child announces loudly they’re busting for the loo – again. She’s bound to throw a knowing nod and wry smile your way and tell you her third child also needed to pee exactly 15 minutes before the movie finished on cheap Tuesdays and the ushers used to have the door already open in preparation.
Dramatically throw up your hands and pull a face in exasperation when two elderly people with matching shopping trolleys stop suddenly in the middle of a crowded footpath and loiter for a long-winded conversation about how poor the food is at the retirement village. You’re bound to bridge a generation gap with someone wearing a mohawk, earrings all over their head and a t-shirt that reads: “Even my mother hates me’’.
And if you mutter loudly
The fruit and veg doesn’t taste like they used to'',The boss may as well just give my pay straight to the bank’ or “Oil companies are like bushrangers”, you’ll have an immediate new group of friends.
These fleeting meetings with new people have many benefits: you meet lots of interesting people and learn fascinating trivia, you realise the world isn’t such a dark place after all, and if it is at least you’re not alone.