The Guy in the Orange Togs

Celebrating the swimming hole

New Zealand might be all coast yet my childhood camping trips were rarely by the sea. Instead we went inland to immense grassy campgrounds in South and Central Canterbury. There we endured the tedium of setting up tents, bending pegs into the hard soil and discovering a mean bloom of mildew in the nylon. We labelled our sausages and milk before hiding them at the back of the communal fridge. We rushed these chores in the knowledge that there was still a body of water there for us to enjoy – a deep, lush swimming hole, shinglebanked and shaded by trees.

First plunges into the swimming hole meant overcoming our squeamishness at the soft and furry surfaces beneath our feet. Telling ourselves that long slimy thing was just a tree root, that stir of movement was just a leaf floating by. Others were long past any squeamishness. A group of boys launched themselves from a rope swing or climbed up the closest trees to cannonball in with a shout. Among them there was always one who took it much further, and in my memory this is the same guy, year after year, no matter the pool: an orange-togged yahoo who climbed higher than anyone else would dare. He shrieked with excitement as he flung himself at the water, drunk on testosterone and peer approval and oblivious to his potential for becoming a long term client of the ACC’s.

Our enjoyment of the water hole didn’t end at night. When it grew dark, we came back with hooks, sinkers, torches and bits of leftover sausage as bait. We came for eels. It was thrilling to spotlight them as they appeared from under the banks, silently writhing where our feet had been that day. And we were bloodthirsty in our eagerness to catch one, to string it up and cook it on our camp barbeque. I still like swimming in freshwater, but I don’t think I’ll ever eel again. I’ve since learned about their migration to the spawning grounds of the Pacific, and don’t know that I want to make that perilous journey even harder. Nor do I make it to camping grounds so much. The waterhole I’m most likely to enjoy is the natural kind. The spots where water pools at the corner of a backcountry river, where it swirls deep and blue cold behind greywacke boulders.

But the last word on swimming holes has to be one of warning. In 2013 came reports that 60 percent of monitored rivers were unsafe for swimming. And there is little more discouraging to having a dip than the words faecal pollution. Our rivers will need our help, they’ll need our vigilance, so future generations might don their orange togs and throw themselves into the murky but perfect water of the swimming hole.