Friday, August 30, 2013

Camping in Kruger: lots of lovely lessons

Berg en Dal camping site in Kruger National Park.
Camping is not something you simply go and do; you need to know what you’re doing. And comfort lovers like me usually don’t because they have never considered pursuing the knowledge gained through selecting camping equipment, trying it out on site and then adding to it or changing it, according to the more refined needs out there under the stars.
   Why I mention this is because Estelle and I recently received an invitation on an all-expenses-paid trip from my generous brother Philip and his wife Cathy, to spend time with them in Johannesburg and three days camping in the Kruger National Park. We accepted with great excitement, if a little concern about the actual camping part.
Our tent and living area.
But not to worry, Phil and Cath had the Land Rover, the portable fridge, the trailer, the tent, the chairs, the table, the stretchers and a large basket full of goodies, including Lindt chocolates and Johnny Walker Scotch. All we had to do was help put up the fairly large, but lightweight tent. This simply required a nominal amount of connecting, lifting, pulling and sliding, tying and hammering – nothing for four fit young semi-retirees. But I think I must have had doubts about getting the thing to stand, and took my concerns out on the tent pegs. The sandy ground was quite hard and some heavy hammering with the mallet by yours trulyrendered at least two of the pegs stukkend.
In a short time, however, she was up, offering accommodation for the two women at the back, on the other side of a zip-up partition (a bit like business class – you envied the privilege of those on that side of the curtain). Phil and I took the front portion, which was really the stoep, and allowed a fair amount of fresh air through the gauze, which was nice for getting the full atmosphere and hearing more clearly the lions and other creatures in the night.
But the big challenge, we discovered, when camping in a place like Kruger, is getting used to the fact that there are a lot of people around you doing the same thing, and they come in a variety of camping outfits, from pup tents and blow-up mattresses to luxury self-propelled camping vehicles. Other accommodation includes normal caravans, from small to very large, and the all-in-one camping trailers, which I fancied most. With them, it’s just a matter of slit-slot and you’ve got a fold-down instant kitchen with its own lighting, or slot-slat and you have a comfortable double bed. Most outfits have some sort of awning and some campers are masters at finding real a strategic spot near an isolated power connection post around which they manoeuver their caravan, with awning, plus vehicle of course, and then hang towels on washing lines in between for complete privacy. I even stopped and congratulated one chap whose setup near the ablution block was a masterpiece.
The trouble is, there are only a limited number of trees in the camp and everyone tries to take full advantage of what’s available. And this is where brother Phil, with his strong sense of order and decency, started drawing lines in the sand. He had hoped for undisturbed tranquillity and a decent level of privacy at his campsite, but now you have Piet Poephol from Potgietersrus (and other names, allocated largely according to registration plates) reversing his Gypsy into our space, eventually placing it with a clear view of our entire campsite from his caravan’s veranda with its neat fucking table and chairs. We all agreed about feelings of exposure, but we and my brother particularly, eventually had to accept the situation in the face of overwhelming odds. All he could do was sit quietly in his folding chair with his Heineken, glowering at Piet reading his Rapport on his veranda.
There was more to learn. Making the evening braai, and for that matter any activity after dark, beyond sitting down in your folding chair with your Heineken, is not easy without adequate lighting. What we didn’t have – and I have since discovered that most veterans would never do without – were those lights you wear suspended on a band around your head which let you see everything in front of you by simply facing it. We had flashlights – powerful ones, granted – but overlooked the fact that in the dark you can’t easily carry a big flashlight, and your beer, and open the provisions basket and search for an item, all at once…

Night-time in Kruger Park can bring all sorts of surprises...
That night it was lovely to hear the nocturnal animals calling from the bush, but what we hadn’t counted on were the sounds coming from inside the tent. In spite of the lumps at the bottom of my borrowed sleeping bag, and my rug slipping off the sleeping bag, I fell fast asleep on a belly full of braai and booze. I was only made aware of the drama that unfolded around me in the tent in the middle of the night, the next morning by a sleep-deprived and grumpy brother Phil. I had not been the only one snoring, but mine had apparently started soothingly gently but then built up to a crescendo, which, along with the less noisy back-up of the ladies at the back, became unbearable for poor Phil, lying patiently trying to get to sleep. Fortunately for me, his tight-fitting sleeping bag had acted like a straitjacket, and when he failed to stop me with more than one quiet plea, he eventually resorted to crude curses in Afrikaans and tried throwing things at me - to no avail. Well, when I saw the bags under his eyes the next morning I felt really deep remorse.
   The next thing to learn was how to handle the ablution block, especially at rush-hour, which I tried to avoid by doing my main ablutions in the late afternoon. But if you do that you miss out on the early morning camaraderie. Like the gentleman standing next to me at the shaving mirror who engaged me good-naturedly.
   “Did you hear the lions last night?” he asked excitedly in an Afrikaans accent. “Beautiful, hey?”
   I shook my head sideways in agreement: “Lovely, man, lovely.”
   On another occasion I managed to get a shower cubicle as soon as I arrived. But as I got in it dawned on me that I had left my soap at the campsite. I dashed naked to the hand-soap dispenser over at the basins and tried to stuff the slippery stuff into the shower cubicle’s soap holder, but the soap holder had a drainage hole at the bottom and the soap quickly disappeared onto the floor and down the drain. Never mind, the nice hot water would do the trick, I decided. When I emerged from the shower I could tell from his accent that the next guy in line was foreign. And he was determined not to lose the cubicle to some shower-predator - like a lion with a kill looking out for hyenas. Mostly he just stared at me as I dried myself.

This is what its all about..
But after all, what we had come to see, the wildlife, was certainly there during our game drives. Over two days driving out of Berg en Dal we made contact with plenty of animals, though no cats, among them 28 different sightings of rhino. We came across two who were lying on the ground, apparently napping. They staggered to their feet and made their way past the front of the vehicle, sniffing the grille disconsolately. They looked stoned and we wondered what they had been grazing. Only later were we made to understand that we had disturbed them at the sleepiest time of their day!
   On the way back to Johannesburg we decided to spend the night somewhere comfortable. Cathy did the accommodation research on her cell phone while I drove, Estelle back-seat drove (tapping on my shoulder meant I was out of control of this large vehicle and trailer) and Phil supervised. Cathy came up with a place called Misty Mountain between Sabie and Lydenburg on the Long Tom Pass. Phil took over the phone to negotiate, charming the bookings lady into the lowest possible rate for the night. But there remained the question of breakfast. “OK,” he says to the bookings lady, “that’s a good deal … but … my wife, she also wants breakfast…
   As it happened, Misty Mountain turned out to be a good choice. The accommodation is so spacious and comfortable, it has spectacular views over the valley below, trout fishing, walks, and the breakfast was great; mine a smoked trout omelette.
Misty Mountain is a good place to stop over on the way back to Johannesburg.

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