We are staying in a yurt. It is decorated like a Mongolian warlord’s tent with animal skins on the floor, carved wooden chests and iron candlesticks. A claw-foot bath sits outside under the stars. All the beds are draped with gauzy mosquito nets that look like a fairytale to Matilda but look ominous to me.
The kids are spinning around and Menna is jubilant. She has a thing about yurts and has been trying to engineer this for months, overcoming a wall of passive resistance from others in our party (me). Now she has been vindicated.
Our yurt sits nestled up above the tree-line overlooking a small valley. Outside we can see wigwams and cabins, gazebos, other yurts, outhouses with sawdust loos. Artful lighting illuminates key features in the dusk. Flaming torches reflect across the lake, willow trees are uplit with soft yellow spotlights, candlelight marks out the paths. There are peacocks shrieking, moving around like satin shadows in the twilight. It is a beautiful scene, though strangely devoid of people for such a grand site. It feels like a festival where they forgot to book the bands but no-one turned up anyway. Except us.
“Isn’t this wild?” I say, and no-one knows that I am secretly referring to the sort of wild that drinks from your ankles and buzzes.
And this is true. October has brought rain and insects. The kids have circular mosquito nets that provide good protection, but the one that hangs over our double bed is comprised of four overlapping veils that inevitably come open as we toss in the night, so it lets mosquitos in then traps them inside! I kill twelve on our first morning, fat and ripe with our blood. Throughout the week we hear them whine past our ears, so we slap our faces in the darkness, hoping to catch one. One morning I wake up with insect legs and blood smeared down my cheek, proving that the strategy isn’t always ineffective.
We have arrived at the campsite the day after a staff wedding, our receptionist tells us as we check in, and consequently everyone is a little discombobulated. She is an Amazonian woman, tall and strong with high cheekbones and extensive tattoos and she doesn’t look at all discombobulated. Later we find out that she was actually the bride.
Through various conversations and clues over our stay we sketch the outlines of the event: a humanistic ceremony; the camp staff released from their duties to go wild; a small but committed contingent of international guests braving quarantines to attend; crazy decorations; extravagant outfits; several days of partying. Our imaginations shade in the missing texture: shamanistic vows, peacock feathers, bonfires and bongos late into the night, nude dancers emerging from the lake, copious psychedelics, Goa trance, tears and mascara stains. We used to go to parties like that, I think wistfully.
As we walk around over the next few days we find mementos of the great wedding scattered throughout the site like the relics of a lost civilisation. A plywood archway covered in peacock feathers lies overturned in the dust; a bottle of tequila sits among the cinders in the fire pit; hundreds of footprints swirl around the amphitheatre; in a far-off outhouse in the woods I find an enigmatic lipstick heart scrawled on the mirror while strange powders are smeared around the sink. A feather boa lies coiled around a eucalyptus branch.
There are no other guests for most of the week and so we eat with the staff each night, or rather ‘volunteers’, for as well as looking after the guests, they do eco work around the site for food and board. The wedding came right at the end of a busy season and everyone is tired and emotional. It feels rather fin de siécle. There are small flare ups at the table in Italian or German. Gardeners down tools and drape themselves over the sofas to smoke spliffs and mutter to each other. A blind dog hustles for scraps under the table. We lie next to a pair of volunteers down at the lakeside beach. They are having a long and indignant conversation in German and as I doze I hear fleisch emphasised heavily, salat and veganer.
“Someone put meat in the vegan salad. Total nightmare!” I whisper to Menna knowingly. There is a mutiny on Thursday when the chef refuses to fire up the pizza oven and I think it will go to blows, but alas no. It is typical for the Nicholls to arrive just as the organ fades to silence and the drapes are thrown over the carousel I think. This year has been a bit like that.
While I am watching the staff for drama, the kids are spotting nature. The peacocks move in an intricate hierarchy on the ground. Up in the air there are buzzards and flocks of blue-winged jays, even a hoopoe looping through the trees. Menna claims to see a turtle in the lake, which I secretly doubt, but then Arthur goes and actually catches it, and brings it back triumphantly for everyone to see. We find a dead snake on a forest run. I walk headfirst one evening into a thick web and come eyeball to eyeball with the hugest spider I’ve ever seen, and I properly scream like a six year-old child. It’s wild.