How (Not) to Camp in the African Bush

Had we stayed longer in South Africa, we would have gone camping in the bush for sure.

Our friends, Mike & Jacky and Adrian & Andy (if you’ve read Kilimanjaro Diaries, those characters will all be familiar to you) had been trying to talk us into it for some time, but we initially resisted. You know, on account of lions, pythons, elephants, broken axles and such. We were smart enough to know that camping in Africa is not the same as camping in a National Park in the United States.

Although, lest you think we’re complete wussies – as Mike likes to call those with inferior outdoor survival skills – Noisette and I have done plenty of camping, back in the day. A trip to Spain in 1987 comes to mind, where we vegged out on a beach called “Caya Gogo” boasting of a sound-proof disco which no doubt would have been soundproof had not all the windows been knocked out at some point, making sleep only possible between the hours of 4 am and 7 am, at which time the baking sun sent you scrambling out of the tent gasping for air. Still much better than sometime later in Denmark where it rained for 7 days straight and we kept having to prop up the tent from inside each time to wind flattened it into a pancake.

We also lived out of a converted Ford Aerostar minivan for 8 weeks in the summer of 1993 when touring the American West. We had the best salmon ever somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula, bought at a market in Seattle and later grilled to perfection over hot coals. And we still salivate over the steaks we once had in Yosemite. They were so absolutely delicious when eaten in the dark on our picnic table that even discovering the next morning during daylight the evidence of having eaten clean through the paper plates (in the form of only paper plate rings left behind) did not change our opinion of their goodness retroactively.

what to know about camping in the African bush
Camping in the Ford Aerostar. Come to think of it, this would have worked well in Africa, except perhaps a bit crowded with 6 people on a full-size futon mattress… Pictured: yours truly. (June 1993, North Carolina)
what to know about camping in the African bush
Shocking, right? And by that I do not mean the sparse camping gear but the skinny shape of Noisette. (July 1993, American West somewhere)

Perhaps our meal standards weren’t so high back then. Having to skim a layer of ants off the top of a boiling pasta pot didn’t really bother us much either. We were poor students then, and not picky. That steak might have been the only steak that month, so it was bound to taste good regardless. During those days, we developed a knack for getting a free meal off of a single beer during Happy Hour, and for resupplying our “travel kitchen” with plasticware and crackers at fast food restaurants along the way. But I digress – those adventures, which, happened all before kids, are fodder for another blog post.

Post kids, our camping exploits took a precipitous downturn. Quite optimistically, we did set out once, when our oldest was about a year old and chose that precise night to have the worst bout of diarrhea to date. Five hours of a tide that could not be stemmed. Which considerably dampened our desire to ever go camping with a toddler again. And, for that matter, teenagers.

what to know about camping in the African bush
Diarrhea or not, camping in Myrtle Beach is not really at the furthest outpost from civilization. (July 1997, Myrtle Beach, SC).

In the end, there were only three instances of camping our family partook of while in Africa.

One, the time Noisette went father-daughter camping with Sunshine, our youngest, then perhaps nine years old. They drove the 3 minutes to school from our house, equipped with a pop-up tent, sleeping bags, and some beer, to join other fathers and their daughters on the rugby field for this bonding experience. I remember going to bed that night all comfy in my cozy blankets, glad that I was indoors and reading my book and looking forward to sleeping in the next morning. But I was rudely awoken at 6:30 AM when both husband and daughter clattered back into the house, thoroughly tired of camping and wanting to be served breakfast.

Two, the time all six of us went canoeing on the Orange River in Namibia – or, as the kids labeled that vacation, “double-buckled in the  middle of nowhere” on account of the limited space in our car’s backseat on the way there. We had borrowed a large family-size tent as welcome shelter against the wintry Southern African night, except the tent was blown off by a sudden gust when first erected and suffered a fatal injury to one of its poles, so that the four kids had to squeeze into our ancient two-man tent, which Zax had insisted we bring along so that he could sleep separate from the rest. Well, that didn’t work out so well for him, did it? The fact that the next day was his birthday, which normally he wouldn’t have chosen to start by standing around a campfire in the freezing cold looking at 3 measly presents and an entire day of paddling in front of him, didn’t much make things better. The only bright spot of the tent incident was that Noisette and I got to test the down sleeping bags I’d bought for the Kilimanjaro hike, right there under the star-studded Namibian night sky. What a spectacular sight!

what to know about camping in the African bush
Zax, on the far right, listening to us singing Happy Birthday and staring at the sparse offerings. (August 2012, Namibia)
what to know about camping in the African bush
You’re not exactly roughing it in the bush when you get this kind of almost-en suite setup! (August 2012, Namibia)

Three, the aforementioned Kilimanjaro hike by Zax and I (which, my publicist* tells me, I should slyly mention again here: Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life). 

None of the above really counts, however. Both camping trip Two and Three stood out in terms of the built-in luxury of a guide (many guides, actually, on Kili) doing all the heavy lifting for us: Packing all the food and stuff, carrying it, cooking it for us, telling us where to go, setting up the loo, and bailing us out on occasion (like when Noisette and Jabulani overturned their canoe and had to be “rescued” from a rock). In fact, one might say that these trips were chosen for the very feature of guides-slash-porters-slash-cooks being present.

what to know about camping in the African bush
It doesn’t really count either when your tent’s already waiting for you, along with a bowl of hot water. (September 2012, Kilimanjaro)

But had my family ever gone camping in the African bush, this is very close to the blog post I might have written about it afterwards:

You Win Some 
by My Thoughts From The Deep End
It’s about a trip to Kruger Park, a guided self-drive with a few other couples they met there for the first time, each in their own respective vehicle. Just to give you a glimpse, this is how she (a fellow American living in South Africa) starts out:

Mr. Deep and I created the preparedness challenge that I explained in this [previous] post feeling so confident that we would win. Who would design a competition knowing that they would lose?
We lost. We lost in spectacular fashion. To quote Bon Jovi, we went down in a blaze of glory. Only minus the glory.

And then later:

It was then I began to realize that Mr. Deep and I were like a high school basketball team. We are a good team but we have never played outside of our division. We practiced hard and prepared well but we were outclassed.

Yep, I could have said “I told you so,” had I been asked prior to the trip. You cannot outclass South Africans when it comes to bush-preparedness, and not just preparedness, but mind-boggling luxury. Like a full-service bar. Or a meat selection any Brazilian steakhouse would be jealous of. See for yourself the chart with all the other categories these campers were outclassed in – if as an expat you’ve been there, you’ll laugh, and if you haven’t gone yet, you’ll now be prepared!

Come to think of it, if we had undertaken that trip, we would have probably lost even more epically. One dead battery? I raise you three flat tires!

Read the entire blog post here.

And now think long and hard about how you’re (not) going to camp in the African bush.

* I do not, technically speaking, have a publicist. Just thought I should be completely honest.

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