Sleeping under canvas in the African bush makes for a better night’s sleep for some than others…
It was our first night camping in the African bush in Chobe National Park, Botswana, and everyone was tired from the day’s journey. The darkness fell soon after 18.30 after a beautiful sunset, and the camp was draped in shadows that danced with the fire.
All around us the sounds of the forest going to sleep (or indeed waking up) could be heard. A large owl flew through camp and settled in a tree to hoot. The red billed horn bills that enjoyed this territory by day let out an alarm call, setting off the collared doves. A sound like gun shot was heard as a tree fell somewhere close by.
After a wonderful meal by the fire, people started drifting off to bed in the small green tents we shared. Somewhere in the distance a group of hyenas cackled and yowled; little did we know that later they would visit camp to rummage through the rubbish bag.
The only light came from the fire. “What happens if we need to go to the toilet in the night?” asked one member of the group. Our guide, Solly explained that it was fine to visit the long drop by night, but certain precautions must be taken as leopard, hyenas, hippo, lions and elephants may be close by.
First you must listen (from inside the tent) to see if anything is moving outside. Before you leave the tent you should shine a torch around the camp-site; this lets others know you are up as well as giving you a chance to check for visitors.
Once outside, look and listen again, before walking to the long drop with a torch. If you meet any wildlife on the way you should not run, turn your back or make it feel cornered. Most animals are less likely to attack if you are looking at them. This is particularly the case with hyena.
You could see some members of the group making a mental note not to use the facilities after dark. For me, this was all part of the adventure and I imagined myself walking backwards as I returned to my tent, not wanting to turn my back on the forest.
Within an hour of getting into my sleeping bag I heard the first lion roar; a deep thunderous sound that vibrates through you as if the ground itself is shaking. Africa’s top predator, the lion king, stating its claim over the territory you find yourself sleeping in. A wonderful and majestic sound which makes you feel at once lucky and fearful.
We had last seen the lions resting after a feed less than a kilometre away and they could be heard close to our camp all night. At breakfast we watched a group of impala graze nearby. Another day some elephants strolled silently past.
To camp in Chobe National Park you must have a permit and stay in one of a small number of permitted sites. When you arrive at the site there are no facilities. Tents must be put up, a long drop must be dug and an area screened off for showering. Water is collected in a drum and warmed on the fire. An 18:30 curfew must be observed.
When you leave the site it must be left as if you had not been there, removing all equipment and litter and burying the fire and long drop.
This is a chance to really immerse yourself in the African bush. No other accommodation puts you closer to the wildlife, makes you experience the discomfort of the heat in the afternoon sun, or the sting of the dust that blows through camp on the wind. You can look at the stars all night through the mesh in the top of your tent and listen to the sounds of the mammals, birds and insects that own this remarkable place.
You get up at dawn for a game drive and go to bed soon after dark, feeling your circadian rhythm resetting as the day’s pass. At night you experience the drop in temperature and feel the change in wind direction. You value simple things like warm water and light. One night we were treated to an electrical storm that circled for hours but never came to rain.
In the afternoon, between game drives, we amused ourselves by making up games, like the catchy named Sausage Seed Stick Square.
But camping in the bush may not be for the feint-hearted. There is no power or running water. There is no formal security, no guns or electric fence. As one woman in the group discovered, there is nowhere to plug in a hair dryer; and the sounds that go bump in the night are large and potentially hungry predators.
At least two members of the group grew increasingly tired; unable to sleep through the night chorus and too scared to visit the long drop, they spent many nights awake and uncomfortable.
It is perhaps lucky that we didn’t sit next to a particular South African woman on the plane out to Botswana, rather than on the way home. Her tales of young children being pulled from tents by hyena and of snake bites and poison spiders may have chipped away at my nerve.
But for me every sound in the night left us peeping excitedly from the tent hoping to get a glimpse of a honey badger raiding the cool box, or an elephant grazing a nearby acacia.