'The Vlei' was in fact a good few acres of wild waterside property - a long debris-strewn beach, various shady camping spots up under the invasive Port Jackson trees, a clay quarry, and a sandy track up on the hill linking them all and bordering shabby fields filled with shabby sheep.
The vlei itself was a tidal lagoon miles from the ocean - brack, murky, full of weed and half submerged trees waiting to ambush watercraft and unsuspecting shins.
All sounds a bit rough doesn't it? It was. And it was heaven.
Every summer, straight after Christmas, we'd pack up and head down there for 2 or 3 weeks - until school started again really. Only 15 minute drive from our house (yup, best holiday destination ever), my Dad would pop back into town almost daily for the newspaper, fresh milk and to pick up 'a couple more things' from home.
The rest of us wouldn't leave once, getting dirtier and wilder and more feral by the day, as the amount of 'gear' we had down there accumulated and the desire to ever leave dwindled at an equal rate.
Over the years we put in more infrastructure. My Dad built open wooden platforms for kitchen areas, with rough worktops and sheet roofs, wooden benches for around the fire, a few windbreaks in strategic places. A water tank to collect rain - we had to schlep all our fresh water down there in barrels - boardwalks down to the water and every year, a fresh new long-drop loo!
Family friends were camped a little way down the beach from us, my younger brother and I had been playing in the clay quarry with their kids until after sundown, when their Mum came to find us all and pack us off to our respective home fires.
Our camp was along the beach, but to walk there down the road would be quicker. And, it turns out, darker.
I was a terrible scaredy-cat as a child but, as I've now discovered as a parent too, there's nothing more emboldening than being with someone more scared than you. My brother was scared.
We marched along, fast, keeping our eyes glued to the white sandy tracks leading us homeward, trying not to look at, or think about, the high dark bush on either side.
But it was around a corner when out of that bush, a caracal stepped.
|Not my pic. Obvs.|
My memory tells me we reached for each other, my brother and I. But it would right, nurtured as it has been by fairy stories of babes in the woods and lost siblings. But more visceral than that is a recollection of his hand - cold, grimy, sweaty - in mine, our fingers so tightly entwined they could have fused.
The cat slipped silently into the bush on the other side of the road, and in one fluid movement, we ran.
I think we were yelling for my parents as we came to the camp, because I remember them meeting us on the road. Maybe, concerned that we were out so late they'd come walking along to find us, but I recall falling into their arms, finally releasing my little brother's hand.
And I'll remember always the first thing my Mum said to us as we garbled out the story, she said: 'Oh you lucky, lucky children, hardly anyone gets to see a caracal in the wild like that.'
Just like that she changed our terror to pride - we felt not threatened and afraid, but special and favoured - and in the same instant taught us fundamental life lessons to carry along always: seek the positive, be empowered by your experiences, relish every single contact you are granted with the natural world and turn every incident into a hell of a good story.
We were lucky, lucky children.