The Times (SA)

Cape Town resident Russell P Stark* has been visiting Sandy Bay for more than 35 years. In the early 1980s, as an inexperienced teenager, his primary concern while sunbathing nude was the threat of police raids, which would send him and his indecently exposed companions scuttling for shelter between the rocks. These days he worries more about gawkers, cameras and being mugged. The beach has changed. Its existence as a haven for nudists and gay folk is no longer actively repressed. Guards with binoculars still patrol the dunes, but their duty is protecting visitors from petty crime, not enforcing standards of public morality. To Stark, who has had sex with scores of men on and around the beach — including his current boyfriend, whom he met there — this represents a radical transition.

"It was always a well-planned, expensive, secretive operation," he said, drawing on a thin spliff. "We would be lying there, tanning, and suddenly swarms of police would appear. They would speed in by boat, race down the dunes on motorbikes and leap out of the bushes wearing camouflage. There was a helicopter once. Now they send Parks Board rangers to keep us safe. It's weird how it's changed."

He filled a second glass of wine. "It must be a real eye-opener for the rangers. Previously they would have rushed down to arrest people. Now they just watch. If they were more progressive they would hand out condoms, baby oil, sunscreen, especially to the tourists. I guess that's a bit much to ask."

Stark, a lean, handsome man in his 50s, considers himself a custodian of Sandy Bay's permissive subculture. "It's the only place you can walk the dogs, have a shag, see the sunset, tan, exercise and have a swim," he said. "It's a wonderful facility."

But a bid to have the area declared an official nudist spot, with accompanying lists of regulations, might cramp some of the liberties Stark and his contemporaries enjoy most. A petition calling for Sandy Bay to be formally recognised as a nudist beach has been signed by more than 740 people since December last year. Its authors, the Western Cape Naturist Association, a nudist group, believe this will make the beach safer and more attractive to tourists and families.

"Certain people are abusing the liberal lifestyle at Sandy Bay," said association spokesman Serge Pavlovic. "Unacceptable behaviour has become a problem. Real naturists are being driven away."

Naturism, a movement that advocates social nudity and living in harmony with nature, typically has little to do with promiscuity. "Just because we socialise in the nude does not mean we have sex in public," Pavlovic said. "It's harmful to our image that these activities are taking place at Sandy Bay."

South Africa's first official nudist beach opened at Mpenjati, in southern KwaZulu-Natal, earlier this year. Behaviour there is governed by a 24-point code of conduct that forbids such vulgarities as swearing, racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, littering, taking photographs of other people without permission and "sexual content of any kind".

The rules also encourage men to "cover up any unpredictable erections".

Pavlovic said the same rules would apply to Sandy Bay if his group's petition succeeded.

"We regard Sandy Bay as the cradle of naturism in South Africa. After decades of naturists using the beach illegally we are ready to officially welcome naturists to this jewel of our coast."

Outside of the ideological dispute between different factions of Sandy Bay's nudist community, a third, clothed group of beach users plan to continue using the area for their needs.

"Hangberg fishers have been poaching there forever," said Horatio August*, a resident of Hout Bay's traditional fishing community. "It's part of our roots. It's still a hotspot. You get lekker crayfish there. Perlemoen, too. As kids, 30 years ago, we used to hike there to collect sour figs. The nudists left us alone. It's still like that. They know what we do, we know what they do, and we keep it that way."

Stark, who had not heard of the petition until being interviewed for this article, seemed unconcerned about the possibility of his favourite beach getting new rules.

"It's a schlep taking children there. It's a long walk. And there are lots of rocks for us to hide between. People who come to stare and take photographs have become a problem, and youngsters who play on their phones instead of interacting. I don't think this petition will ruin Sandy Bay."

* Not their real names