African wilderness camping: Not for the faint of heart

I love nature shows, and so I am a huge fan of the BBC Planet Earth series.  A second set of programs is upon us (BBC One’s Planet Earth II).  Recently I saw this four minute teaser video on YouTube of the African grasslands at night used to advertise the show. Here is the accompanying BBC description:

“Programme website: Take your chances in the savannah at night, surrounded by some of the largest and most fearsome animals in Africa. This video has 360 spatial sound, so put your headphones on, turn up the volume, and try to keep track of the creatures around you!”

Watching the short video was thrilling.  Memories burst forth in me of the sheer terror I felt every time I camped in the African wilderness of Botswana, something I used to do with regularity for about ten years, starting in 1991.  At the time I was living and working periodically in Johannesburg, South Africa, flying home occasionally where I maintained a residence in Raleigh (NC).  I spent virtually every weekend traveling around in what’s called the ”Southern Cone” of Africa (Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa).

I steered clear of Angola and Mozambique because shooting wars were still underway then in those Portuguese-speaking countries, and I never did make it to little Malawi, a bit too far north for me to reach.  But I became quite familiar with parts of “Zim” and “Zam” (Zimbabwe and Zambia, formerly Southern and Northern Rhodesia), with Namibia (where in naïve ignorance of the risks, I drove all over the country, including across the trackless Namib Desert from Windhoek, the capital, to the German coastal town of Swakopmund), with South Africa, and with my favorite country in that part of the world, Botswana.

There, in Botswana, I did a lot of wilderness camping.  About 45% of the land area of Botswana is protected, and because of that, it is one of the last remaining true and very large refuges for African wildlife.  The numbers and the diversity of its wildlife rivals that found on the plains of East Africa in Tanzania and Kenya.

Just hearing the name “Botswana” now evokes vivid images of many hundreds of elephants along the Chobe River in the north, and of vast, seemingly endless herds of Cape Buffalo in the shallow water reeds of the Okavango swamp, and of thousands of zebras migrating from the Savuti Channel to better water in the west as the dry season approached.

I saw those and many other animals in Botswana in the company of very small groups of campers (10-12).  In those places I slept every night in a modest outside-frame tent on the ground.  We helped to collect firewood and to cook our meals.  The designated “campgrounds” were merely cleared spots in the grasslands or the Kalahari with crude ablutions and no fences to shield us from the wilderness.  Often the makeshift campground toilets and showers were busted up by elephant herds looking for water.

During the day, we had to keep everything locked up and zipped up tight to avoid predation by marauding baboons, monkeys, and families of mongoose.  Mongoose love eggs, for instance; baboons and monkeys like to destroy and try to eat everything they can get their hands on.

Birds, too, would steal any morsel they could, such as Red-billed hornbills swooping down silently from watchful perches in acacia bushes to take food I was eating right out of my hand.  Goodbye, lunch! Tents had to be kept tightly zipped shut to keep out snakes like Black Mambas and crustaceans like big scorpions and spiders seeking shelter from the sun as well as food.  Elephants liked to walk through the camp as if they owned it (well, they did, actually).  We always gave them a wide berth, and the pachyderms daintily picked their way among the tents, never so much as snagging a rope.

It was a constant, if exciting, battle to live amongst the local fauna during the day.

Nighttime, however, was a different experience altogether. The BBC video made me remember the primeval fear that gripped us all at dusk.  The video was spot on; it was no exaggeration of the deep-seated dread humans feel in the African grasslands in the dark of night. Suddenly, we realize that we are just another prey animal like Wildebeest and Impala.

One never sleeps soundly when camping in the African bush, not even in the relative safety of a “luxury camping safari” surrounded by guides with rifles. I never felt entirely safe in the African wilderness. It’s totally different from camping anywhere else on earth. I’ve slept peacefully camping in the bear country of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Montana because the chances of a big animal encounter are low.

Not so in Botswana.  Every night—no exceptions—brought predators through the camp, looking for their next meal.

It’s not elephants, or even leopards, one worried about. My experience is that those two species just don’t care about people and generally ignored us at night unless provoked. In order of potential danger to humans, it’s hyenas first (highly opportunistic, unfussy eaters, incredibly strong, range widely each night in well-coordinated packs, and clever), and lions second (not usually man-eaters, but tend to kill anything that gets too close anyway–and whether or not they then consume your carcass, dead is, after all, dead, a condition to be avoided).  There are many, many hyena and lion families in the Botswana wilderness, all hungry for protein.

I am doing it one last time this coming February in Tanzania: a camping safari. I will always go back to Africa as long as my health and my money hold out, but on lodge safaris, like to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, which is surrounded by the safety of an enclosure to keep out the indiscriminate predators. After the trip in February, I doubt I’ll go on another African wilderness camping safari. Being savagely consumed while still alive, starting with one’s bloody entrails being ripped out of the abdomen, by a fellow carnivore in the dark of night isn’t a welcome image for me.

But camping on the African savanna always renewed my spirit, always gave it a unique jolt, like no other experience. Afterwards, I have never felt more alive. I highly recommend it.

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