Travel: Seen Rex? He's a Kiwi. He's drunk: Simon Cunliffe weaves down lager-soaked nostalgia lane at Munich's Oktoberfest, 15 years late for an appointment

Click to follow
The Independent Travel
Ten thirty on the last Saturday night of the Munich beer festival and the Hofbrauhaus was steaming and roaring, lurching and rolling, dripping with sweat and condensation. Its wooden floors were awash with mud and hop flowers and beer, its thousands of occupants afloat on alcohol and euphoria. But I, at least, still had one foot on the ground. I needed it to look for Rex.

I took another deep hit from the litre-sized maas clenched tightly in my fist. The amber bubbles and spirit of the soft, fruity Hofbrauhaus Maibock rushed up to launch a fresh assault on the few remaining unconquered brain cells. Dave from Wellington, pie-eyed and legless, fell against me like a heavyweight up after the count, his arm groping for shoulder, part in drunken camaraderie but mostly for support.

'Good on yer, mate. Good on yer. Choice piss-up, eh? Raging. Where you from?'

'Westport.' I pulled the crumpled photo out of top pocket. 'Have you seen Rex?'

'Ah, a Coaster, eh? Great place. Great pubs. Great piss-ups. Rex? Rex who?'

Then the fragile thread of conversation snapped and his eyes glazed over. 'See you back in Kiwi land,' he mumbled, took half a small step and was immediately swallowed up by the crowd.

There was nothing for it. I took another gulp from the mug and clambered aloft, pulling myself up on shoulders, swaying giddily as I made it, breathless, to the table top. I peered through the boozy mist over the seething swell and waved the crumpled photo. 'Rex]' I shouted. 'Anyone here seen Rex?'

But from beneath the brass band din and the singing, the heavy clinking and clunking of glass on glass and the cries of 'Prost] Prost]', there came no reply. So I gave it one last go. Remembering exactly how to draw out the syllables and vowels in the prescribed manner, I sang out at the top of my voice: 'Pudding, Puuuddding, Puuuudddiiing', until the lager was drained, a good portion of it down my front, and I had not an ounce of voice left in me.

I may as well have been farting into a thunderclap. Rex wasn't there. Nor were the others. And, to be honest, you couldn't really blame them. After all, I was 15 years late for the meeting.

ON THE Saturday morning flight to Munich, Lufthansa did its best with the mood music, piping out that old red-neck anthem 'I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee'. I skipped through the Munich chapter of Germany, The Rough Guide. Having recapped on the Beer Hall Putsch - the plan, brewed up by Adolf Hitler in the Burgerbraukeller, a large beer hall near the city centre, to overthrow the German government in 1923 - I moved on to the business at hand:

'Munich's Oktoberfest has it origins in the marriage between the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on 17 October 1810. A massive fair was held on the fields named after the Princess and it has been repeated annually ever since . . . Nowadays,' the guide chided, 'it's simply an orgy of beer-drinking.'

Munich lies at the foot of the Alps and through the middle of it flows the river Isar. The city spreads out from an attractive old town centre. I spent an hour or on the sights: the Burgersaalkirche, the church where the Jesuit father Rupert Mayer used to preach against Hitler and in which he is now buried; Michaelskirche, built between 1583 and 1597 and a fine example of Renaissance style; the Frauenkirche, a massive gothic cathedral topped by two turquoise-domed towers; and the Rathaus, or to be precise, the Neues (new) Rathaus . . . an ugly neo-gothic town hall dating from the turn of the century and dominating Marienplatz, the central square of the old town.

Having walked up a hunger, I strolled into the Viktualienmarkt, where there were victuals aplenty, many of them seriously alien. I had in fact stumbled across the wurst capital of the world. In the window of J Schlemmermeyer's wurst concession sat an incomparable array of impossibly-named sausages: Hessische Ahle LeBerwurst, Sauerlander Schinkerstreichwurst, Schwarztwalder schwarzwurst, Thuringer Rotwurst and Knackige Dicke and so on. The special of the day was Fleisch Salat, bits and pieces of animal flesh pressed together in aspic. Paradise for carnivores, purgatory for vegetarians. At a back window, J Schlemmermeyer was doing a roaring trade in Rostbratwurst 'Frisch vom Grill'. I joined the queue.

CURIOSITY took me to have a shifty at the Thalkirchen camp ground. For it was here, I had heard, that contingents of New Zealanders and Australians make their home during the festival. On the 10-minute walk from the U-Bahn stop along a tree-lined road, I passed three youths, fall-down drunk, staggering wildly along the footpath, and others coming in the opposite direction, cans of beer in hand, warming up for the big night's drinking ahead.

Thalkirchen was packed with camper vans, tents, buses. I stopped at the office guarding the entrance and on impulse pulled the photograph out of my back pocket. It was of course, a long-shot, a ludicrous proposition, a chance in a million. 'You haven't seen a guy called Rex have you?' I asked the blonde at reception. 'Rex who?' she drawled in a heavy Australian accent. I pointed him out in the picture. 'Kiwi?' she said. I nodded. 'Doesn't ring any bells, but try asking down by the Contiki site.'

I wandered down the rows of tents and came upon the Contiki bus from the back end. 'Holidays for 18-35's', read its logo. Opposite stood Top Deck's headquarters, patronised by UK-based Antipodeans. Small coteries of campers and tourists busied themselves with tent pegs and beer cans. There was no one in the vicinity over the age of 25. Rex, like me, must have been getting on for 40. It was hopeless, he wasn't there. The clink of bottles, the crack and hiss of pull-tabs, the outbreaks of laughter made me feel like a gatecrasher at a wedding feast; and worse, an old and sober one at that. There was nothing for it but to go and get blotto.

AT 7.0pm it was drizzling in the fair grounds of the Oktoberfest. Most of the revellers had left the side-shows and rides, the rollercoasters and ferris wheels for the cover of the beer tents. The Hofbrauhaus, steam condensing on its glass windows, had closed its doors: it was full, the security guards had decided, and newcomers were being turned away. I stared at the revelry within.

Why was I here? I wanted to sup from the trough of communal experience. The beer fest had become a part of the mythology of 'Overseas Experience', as much as working the mines in Western Australia or scoffing magic mushroom soup in Bali; as much as drinking pink gins in the old Strand Hotel in Rangoon or bartering for turquoise in Kabul; as much as bumming around the Greek islands or living on the sniff of an oily rag, four to a room in Acton; as much as making it as an artist in New York, a filmmaker in LA, a writer, a gallery owner, a chef or a builder in London . . .

Rex and me, and hundreds of others just like us on the overland trail to Europe, all chalking up our our overseas experience, the Big OE . . . crossing places off the list - been there, done that, got the T-shirt. And all promising on parting, 'See you in Munich, Oktoberfest, the Hofbrauhaus, we'll have a ball . . .'

I stood there in the sodding Munich rain and cursed. Twelve thousand miles and 15 years, and they wouldn't let me in. But I was here now, Rex or no Rex, and I was damned if I was simply going to be turned away. I followed a couple of likely looking lads, Americans, to another entrance. One, sensing my purpose, turned and grinned: 'It's easy . . . you just wait till they let someone out, then you put your shoulder down and barge your way through.'

I stayed close behind them, and as the door opened I followed in best rolling maul fashion, pushing and shoving till I was over the threshold. I stumbled on to one of the aisles that separated the row upon row of tables full of swaying, singing, delirious lager-quaffers. And into the path of a menacing-looking barmaid in black bearing down on me like a BMW with bull-bars, two fist-fulls of litre beer mugs drawn tight across her chest. I sidestepped and followed in the direction she had come, determined to make up lost ground.

THE NEXT morning a herd of elephants grazed lazily inside my head; my tongue had spent the night in the Sahara licking a saltstone. I crawled out of bed and pulled the curtains. Clear blue skies outside, overcast within. Standing under the hotel's force-10 shower at least thinned out the clouds.

I paid the bill and wandered across to the Hauptbanhof, checked in the overnight bag for the evening flight back to London, then headed back towards the festival. In the cool, clear light of day, the first thing that struck me about the fair was its vast size: four great avenues, each bordered with a spectacular array of fairground rides, souvenir stalls, food purveyors: great banks of rotary-grilled chickens; wurst again, wurst of all kinds; steckerlfische, individually staked mackerel grilling over a long bed of charcoal and of course the beer - Lowenbrau, Hofbrau, Spatenbrau, Pschorr-brau . . . . And the crowds, families having a carnival day out.

I wandered, bought chocolate and gingerbread hearts for the kids, took photographs and, hungry again, purchased a salt-flecked pretzel and half a chicken hot off the grill to eat below the Bavaria statue to the west end of the fair. The pretzel brought on a thirst. Hair of the dog time: a tall, yeasty, thirst- quenching Pschorr-brau Weissbier. Or two.

There was one ritual left to attend to. On the way out of the grounds of the fair, threading my way through the Sunday afternoon crowds, I stopped by a stall to pick up a white, short-sleeved garment. 'Oktoberfest, Munchen, 1993', it had emblazoned across the front. I handed over 15 marks.

Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. Now I could go home. To New Zealand.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments