I’m probably not supposed to admit that my most treasured travel memory was on a stag do. I should spin some yarn about how I discovered the meaning of kindness while hitchhiking to Morocco, or how I gained existential clarity while watching the total eclipse in Chile. But no. The first night of Brownie’s stag is the memory I cherish the most.
The setting was France’s west coast, in between Bordeaux and Biarritz. As best man, it was my duty to organise a send off for James, and I found somewhere with bell tents, a swimming pool, a table tennis table, and a local brewery willing to ply us with as much beer as we needed. Ocean Shelter, our new home was called.
Down the road, in the village of Seignosse we had our pick from a number of bars and restaurants, and a ropy nightclub if needed (it was). The clincher, though, was the promise of the sea, just a stone’s throw away from where we were staying.
On arrival, amid explanations of wi-fi and checkout times, the man who owned the place said something about a pathway to the beach. It would take us “ten minutes” and we “couldn’t possibly go wrong”, he said, as he waved his sun-stained hand in the direction of a thickly wooded forest.
Fast-forward a few hours, a pilsner or two down and daylight long forgotten, our expedition to the beach was underway. “Just ten minutes,” I rallied to the group. “We can’t possibly go wrong,” I confirmed as we entered the forest – the shelter.
There are different types of path in this world. Paths that are definitely paths, paths that could pass as paths, and paths that are absolutely certainly not paths. Our walk through the forest went from paths A to B to C in under two minutes. The problem with being on a ‘Path C’ is that you do not have the luxury of turning back, since you are not on a path.
Crickets cackled in the deep foliage and low branches, some with teeth, clawed at our bare legs. Our flip flops, snagging on roots with each step, were long abandoned as we carved an arbitrary trail which felt broadly ‘seawards’ but, in truth, could have been any direction.
Ten minutes passed before someone said: “Shouldn’t we be there by now?” Then after 20, someone from the front pondered. “Err, left or right?” By the 30-minute mark, I silently observed we couldn’t even hear the sea yet. Forty-five minutes into our skip to the ocean and we were still in this godforsaken forest, with the few people who brought their phones lighting the way.
“This is very nearly not at all fun,” I remember thinking, as I assessed which members of the group were embracing the adventure, and the growing percentage who were surely (understandably) not. But then, I heard a word called from the front. Sam? Spam? Sand! We had struck sand.
Like turtles, instinctively making their first dash to the sea, we emerged from the forest and climbed a tufty dune. The vinegar air filled our lungs and there it was – silver, wrinkled under the night sky – the Atlantic Ocean.
A retrospective look at Google Maps confirmed what seemed to be the case: that there was not another soul for miles around. At this witching hour, finally, this beach was ours.
We stripped off. One or two of the group happily stayed back, either engulfed by philosophical stargazing musings or drained after the traipse, or a bit of both. The rest of us walked forth. I noticed something in the corner of my eye – near my feet, in the damp sand. A spark? Must have been seeing things.
The tide was out so it took some time for our toes to hit the water, this troop of human-shaped absences of light. In some ways we had been on this march for a lifetime. I have known just about all of these guys since we were 11 years old. We shared our first cigarettes together, our first kickflips, first fights. Was that another spark? Now we were men. And soon we would be old men. Our greying temples and first forehead lines show we are already on that journey.
But in this moment, we were here, late 20-somethings on Plage du Chaulet. And another first, for me at least. I wasn’t imagining those sparks. With each step towards the sea a cacophony of blue flashes appeared around our feet, before disappearing like the embers of a sparkler. I stamped my heel into the sand and saw an electric current run through invisible wires and then in the same instant, vanish. Bioluminescence.
Others had clocked, and were gleefully kicking their feet into the sand, watching the light momentarily conjoin with the granules of sand that dashed through the air. In the sea, the show continued. Whooshing our arms through the water, the livid flames – as described by Charles Darwin in his Journal – followed our fingers like magnet filings. One member of the group made the astute observation that weeing had a similar activating effect on the otherworldly plankton. I had planned this stag do to perfection, but I should have known that the collective highlight would involve something as unplannable as a natural wonder ignited by urine.
Before long, one by one we retreated to the stargazers at base camp. It was cold now, so we dressed, gathered our stuff and made our way back to Ocean Shelter. Our eyes acclimatised to the dark, nobody bothered to flick on their phone torch this time. I’m pretty sure it took just as long, but as is life – the return always feels faster than the journey there. We marched on.