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April 10, 2013 / Tina

Bush Camp

Written by Geralyn Rownan

We had disembarked from a nice big Jumbo (excellent safety record) and now were off to a Bush Camp in the Cape. A man in a uniform that wouldn’t have disgraced an admiral ushered us towards a plane the size of an oversized gnat. As someone with more phobias than a psychiatrist’s handbook, I was now faced with two big ones together; Claustrophobia and Aerophobia. The lesson I learned here is; you never get a holiday from your neuroses. They always go too.

Due to bottle bravery engendered by large amounts of alcohol, I had agreed to go on a safari with my John, and a couple we called “R & D”, “Research” was a globe trotter who had contacts everywhere. She had done the research for our trip, including booking a private plane to take us from Johannesburg to the Camp. (Apparently Herself and Himself were used to this type of thing.) We called her English partner “Development” –his passions were photography and wildlife. They were old hands at the travel game. Now it was really happening for us two novices, I was panicking.

I was rooting in my bag for Xanax when J grabbed me by the belt loops (what he had the nerve to call the hasp of my arse) and shovelled me into the Gnat. The Alice in Wonderland door closed and we went trundling down the runway. (Only ONE pilot! – what if he had a heart attack?) I pulled my new safari hat over my eyes and prayed. The hoppity-skippity plane lifted and rattled its way into the sky so slowly that I thought it would fall back down.

After a while the chatter started; “Pass my other lens darling.” “Oh look – elephants.” I lifted the brim of my hat and chanced a glance out the window. Surprisingly, the vertigo wasn’t too bad. We weren’t miles high, and the view was incredible. Plains. A bendy river. The little plane seemed quite steady. I was Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa”!

After what seemed an eternity we reached our landing zone- a grassy rectangle in the middle of nowhere. (I didn’t need to worry about the landing gear not coming down because the little wheels were fixed and never went up in the first place.) A few bumps and we were down. I offered a prayer of thanks and posed on the dinky steps while D took my photo, me channelling Meryl like you wouldn’t believe.

There was no one to meet us… Five minutes later we saw dust rising. Only this Landrover wasn’t for us. Its driver radioed our camp. Our guys were on their way, allegedly. Another small plane taxied in. The Landrover loaded up its guests and left. I now discovered an unknown advantage to being 5’4”. I could stand upright in the shade under the wings. Everyone else just had to suffer the blistering heat.

Relief! Our pilot assured us that he was not allowed to leave until we were collected by someone.

More dust rising. Yes! No. A truck rumbled past. Five minutes later hopes rose again as dust blew from the opposite direction. But it was only the truck coming back. “Just thought I should let you know, there are four lions in the road about 25 metres down”. He reversed and continued his journey. Oh my God. “No worries” said the Admiral. “If the lions come up the road we all just get back in the plane”. That’s alright then. Or maybe we pelt them with our bottles of sun lotion? Can’t they smell us? They can. But in the heat of the day they sleep. Oh that’s fine so. I stood back in under the wing, necking the bottle of Xanax.

Forty five minutes after we landed, “our” Landrover finally hove into view. The driver offered no apology for leaving us sweltering under the sun and in the company of lions. We set off on the 20 minute drive to Camp. 20. Not 45. Not impressed.

The Manager was showing us round our hut of clay and wattle made. Here was the loo- behind one side of the bedhead. The shower and washbasin were behind the other side of the bedhead, beside the backdoor. But there was no backdoor. No curtain. Nothing. Just a large hole in the wall. Authentic hut it might be, but my heart sank.

She continued; there was no electricity. Here are two windup torches. What about the hole in the wall? Snakes? “Oh snakes don’t come into camp” she said. Oh really? Is there a notice on the fence written in the 11 official languages of South Africa to the effect that snakes are not allowed?

“Snakes don’t come in” she repeated. “But if a snake should appear, just blow the whistle hanging above the bed and we’ll come with the snake stick”. Dear Heaven. There actually was a whistle hanging on the wall, half obscured by mosquito net. That’s alright then. “See you at Reception at 4.15”. And we were booked in for five days of this…

R & D emerged from their hut, as unimpressed as I was. We can’t stay here, she kept saying. But we were booked in for 5 nights. This was what we wanted, wasn’t it? An authentic experience? I was dreading it.

We went on the afternoon drive with our young Ranger and even younger Tracker. Bouncing over bush, shrub and rock for hour after hour. Finally the jeep stopped beside a tree, underneath which two lionesses lay lollapanzi. We sat and watched the girlies as they snoozed. With that, our Professional Guide broke the cardinal rule of safari;

• Never, ever, interfere with the wildlife in any way.

He stood up on the driver’s seat and shook the branches.

The great head of an adult male who had been lying invisible in the long grass, shot up. As did the lionesses. Luckily they weren’t hungry. The four of us patsies exchanged glances. But the fun was only beginning. Our tour guides decided to let sleeping lions lie and drove on. Next stop; 20 metres from the shore of a waterhole, where we spotted three hippos wallowing in the muddy water. Guide and Tracker jumped out and walked right up to the water, where they stood imitating the Eh-Eh-Eh of a hippo call. When that didn’t rouse the mammals to put on a show, they picked up fallen branches and started beating the water with them. We were in hysterics. One of the hippos opened a mouth as big as a coffin and started moving. The boyos legged it back and we reversed away. Only later did we realise that not alone were they in danger from the hippos or any passing predator, but we were too. It never occurred to us while we were crying with laughter, that lions hunt prey from the rear. They could have lifted a guest off the back of the jeep and Laurel and Hardy wouldn’t have noticed.

The drive continued, with sightings of one elephant and one tree squirrel before we stopped again. Our Tracker had spotted a particular bird with a show-stopping routine; it shot up into the sky like an arrow, and then plunged down to the ground like a stone. Yet again our deranged Ranger stood up and shook branches. The bird shot up into the sky and plummeted. Delighted with himself, our Ranger did it again. Once again the bird shot up and plunged head first to the ground. Dear God. Was there no end to their craziness?

We drove back to Camp while the sun went down like a Plummeting Bird.

Winding our torches like crazy, we picked our way to the dining area. Lovely! My first safari dinner and a bottle of white – on the savannah. Lanterns and candles were placed on tables. It was all very nice until suddenly all hell broke loose. Like a Biblical plague, a blizzard of insects engulfed us. Moths. Flies. Mosquitos. Beetles. Ants. They were doing the backstroke round my wineglass. They were surfing in my water. Perhaps because of my pale skin (Factor 50-can’t be too careful) and light-coloured hair, I attracted them in their hundreds. There was no getting away from it; we were at the Ugly Bugs Ball and I was the Belle of it. My blouse was covered in bugs; I was wearing the bloody things like brooches. A massive stick insect stuck itself to my wine bottle. John, R & D were fishing around for swimmers in their glasses of red wine when BANG! The black carapace of a cockroach hit my plate. The thing wasn’t even concussed. It righted itself, waddled through my risotto and fell off the edge of the plate to join the throngs swarming across the tablecloth. D had a preying mantis perched on top of his head. We had come to see the wild life and now we were wearing it.

Insects whirred and crashed around in the bedlam until at last woven blinds were pulled down from the thatched roof and the blizzard eased. We got fresh plates of risotto. Aided by copious amounts of drink our nerves settled and we saw the funny side.

Much later; R and I were revving our torches like mad. She was worrying like crazy about snakes. I was worrying about everything. As we said goodnight, D’s dry English wit came out of the darkness; “Hopefully, you’ll both survive the night”.

J turned down the oil lamp and we crawled into bed. Next lesson; night time is day time in Africa. Everything sleeps during the day and comes out at night looking for food and action. Grasshoppers chirping, birds shrieking, lions roaring, baboons brawling and God knows what else. The Ugly Bugs Ball had turned into Temple Bar on a Saturday Night. Eventually, exhausted by travel, insects and drink, I fell asleep. After such an intake of wine, I had no option but to crawl out again and creep round the headboard. J mooched when I clambered back under the moskie net. “Hope I didn’t disturb you” I whispered. “I could have leaned round the bloody headboard and wiped your botty” he said. I don’t care how many years you have been married. There is absolutely no call for that sort of remark at any time.

Morning came extra early. It glared in between every crack in the walls. I had a hangover. I’d had very little sleep. Still, we were alive and unharmed. We might make it through the remaining days after all. Provided a lion didn’t lift us off the jeep and the hippos stayed in the water.

Factored up, I set off for breakfast and met – a snake. I jumped with fright and fell over a rock. The green boomsling was hidden by bush again before I hit the ground. Ever wondered why people can’t get away from snakes, since we have legs and they don’t? Olympic speed. That snake was faster than Sonia O’Sullivan on a good day. It was obviously illiterate as well.

R was standing outside Reception, smoking (having given up months before) and talking on her mobile. I could only assume that she had contacts in the CIA and was using their communications satellite because there was no signal in the Camp.

“Never slept a wink. We’re out of here” she said. This is where her real genius showed itself. She had ALREADY organised a transfer to a Game Lodge – Kings Camp. Relief bubbled through me. I left her to explain our revised plans to the Manager and ran to pack.

Dragging my case to Reception I encountered two staff members. Was I imagining a distinct chill? I felt bad; there was nothing wrong with the Camp. I was the wimp who fell at the first fence, or in this case at the first snake.

Two jeep transfers and another hoppity-skippity plane later (no Xanax) and we arrived at a fabulous Lodge west of the Kruger Park. We were escorted to a gorgeous rondavel with mullioned windows, like a gingerbread house African style. All doorframes contained doors. No whistles. No snake sticks.

Later that afternoon, the four of us sat on the verandah, warding off malaria with gin. Vervet monkeys perched on the balustrade. Summer-coloured weaver birds peered out from nests hanging like brown raindrops from trees dotting the lawn in front of us. A heat haze shimmered golden in the hot, still air. At the water hole King Fisher sat on his leafy throne observing a solitary elephant throw water over his leathery elephant head. It was bliss.

“By the way, R,” I said. “What did they say when you told them we were leaving the Camp? Did you explain that you were absolutely terrified in the place?” Without missing a beat she replied; “Oh God no. I told them YOU were.”

Over the next four days I got up close and personal with the Big 5 and the Little 5 (more insects). Drank sundowners on the savannah. Grew used to making trepidatious comfort stops behind bushes. Hell, I even went on a bush walk and didn’t panic. Well not much. My inner Meryl was emerging day by day.


Sometimes under the mackerel sky of a Dublin evening I picture orange-gold sunsets. Final Lesson; they say if you visit Africa you always long to go back. It’s true. I left a part of my heart there. What I didn’t realise at the time, was that I also left my fear there.

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