Saturday, May 23, 2009

It's a Jungle Out There

“Don’t worry about the noise the birds are making in that tree. They’re just sounding the alarm because a snake is after them.”

The Camel Man Game Ranger throws this comment over his shoulder as he lugs my city bag across the rough veld towards the tiny upside down umbrella that is my new home for the next few nights. He unzips the tent and shows me in. It is definitely not five star.

“You’ll be perfectly safe in here,” he says, showing me hard wooden beds and space between them large enough to almost stand up straight. “Just keep the screens zipped up and the mosquitoes shouldn’t be able to get in.

I force a smile, as if I’ve been camping all my life. Of course I’ll be fine, I answer. What with the snakes in the tree above my tent and the malaria-carrying mosquitoes and the two strands of electric fence keeping me from predators in the veld, I’m just peachy!

I’m in a section of the Kruger Park devoted to training. Field guide courses are run throughout the year and eager Europeans flock here in their droves to live on oats porridge and stew to learn more about the bush. Living in a tent in the middle of thorn trees and wild animals is exciting for them.

I’ve come up for three days to teach first time filmmaking students about writing scripts about wildlife. If only I hadn’t worn heels.

That night, I leave the community tented area to go back to my tent. I use my torch to light the way. Oh, did I forget to mention there’s no electricity in the camp? I sit in the dark – or crouch rather – on my bed, wondering how to spend the next twelve hours until my lectures begin. I decide I have no choice but to sleep. Ah, sleep, that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care, as dear Will Shakespeare said. He didn’t mention that sleep might be interrupted by the whooping of hyenas nearby or the definite growl of a lion. I think of the two frail strands of electric fencing. I am sure they wouldn’t stand a chance against a hungry hyena. And what’s that scratching along the side of the tent, right next to my face? It sounds like the claws of a large lizard type creature. How big do rock monitors get exactly?

Sleep does not arrive easily, especially with the rough snores of the man in the tent next to me. He’s sleeping like a baby. A very loud baby, I think jealously.

I have lots of time to think. Especially about the fact that my family did not do much camping when I was small. We were too busy having family crises to have family holidays. And we lived in the Free State for goodness sake. Acacia thorn trees and wide open stretches of veld were part of our back garden. We spent every moment trying to get away from the veld.

After the second night I vow that I will never go camping again. Especially as I’m not too keen to follow the example one of my students, a Dutch girl, who squats outside her tent at night in what she calls her “en suite”. The ablution block is miles of scary dark veld away and I am not happy.

On my last night in the camp, the students decide to throw me an impromptu farewell party. Two of the men produce guitars. The game ranger drags a skin drum out of a corner and the rest of the students grab various items to form a percussion group. The game ranger plies me with large glasses of whiskey. It would be churlish to refuse. Soon we are all singing Seventies songs, Beatles hits and eventually Johnny Clegg numbers. While we are all searching for the spirit of the great heart under an African sky, with the stars beaming down on us in milky way-ed splendour, I finally get what this camping business is all about. I can’t wait to come back.

And it really wasn’t just the whiskey talking.

First Published in The Witness 18 May 2009