Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 48

28 08 2008

“I’m not scared of the dark!” (The courage of the early morning) – Uganda 

Never opt for the single supplement when camping for the first time.


I had never before slept in a tent…other than once in the back garden when I was very young and had fled my ancient musty mould-speckled heavy cotton shelter for the safety of home long before the sun even thought of touching the horizon. So what precisely compelled me to not only choose the wilds of Africa as the site of my first ever camping experience but also to pay extra for a ‘single-supplement’ for my own tent still remains a mystery to me and my therapist to this day!


My life-long desire to see Africa was so strong that I never even considered just what a camping safari entailed…until I arrived in my first campsite in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. The drive from the main gate had provided us all with our first taste of Big Game. Smiles spanned our faces, until the guide stopped the van and started unloading the tents and other camping gear seemingly in the middle of the park and not more than 30 seconds’ beyond a large lion.


Fortunately, I was not alone in my camping virginity or my very evident fear…but I most certainly was alone in my tent that night. And I’d paid for the privilege of that solitude.


As we sat around the campfire our bravado and forced laughter withered and died with the last embers as we realised it was almost time for us to leave the security of the group and retire for the night, taking our chances with the creatures eager to bite, poison, trample or dismember us. We faked confident smiles, wished each other good nights’ sleep which we knew wouldn’t come and then headed to our tents in pairs.


Except for me, venturing alone, ears standing boldly erect with vestigial prowess straining to every single sound from the encircling darkness.


Inside my tent, I lay in my sleeping bag staring at the canvas. Gradually, the sounds of my campmates and crew faded away until I felt like the last person on earth. In the distance I heard the yaps, trumpets, cackles, snorts and roars, but it was the less identifiable sounds that bothered me most.


First came the sound of something large brushing against the back of my tent that sent me spinning onto my stomach to stare into the black void behind my head. Then there was the low rumble that had me darting to my right in the certain knowledge that it was the empty-stomach of a cantankerous elephant. Next came the almost silent hiss of something blood-thirsty and nasty sighing to my left. This was promptly followed by another brush against the back flaps; a whisper that could have been the wind but was almost certainly a leopard and the sharp meow-like snarl of a clearly small but patently lethal wild cat. I breathed with my mouth open, my eyes wide like those of a mad cow, my heart pounding and my head spinning towards each sound like a scene from the Exorcist. I had no idea what time it was as I was too scared to flick on my flashlight and check my watch lest the light identify me as a midnight snack, but I knew that time was edging inexorably towards dawn and I had yet to have even so much as a sniff of sleep.


I contemplated wearing my airline eye mask, putting in earplugs and taking a sleep-inducing anti-nausea tablet to help with the process, but reasoned that that would make it easier to be eaten. I therefore stayed awake through the night listening attentively to the gusts that were unquestionably my campmates being eaten one by one, the cracks that were the arthritic knees of the demented bull elephant who was about to crush my head and the rustle of the python which was working its way into my tent to swallow me whole.


As we each emerged from our cocoons the next morning, everyone remarked how well they had slept in the fresh air and silence. I nodded enthusiastically in agreement as I cradled a cup of hot cocoa in my hands and donned sunglasses to hide my bright-red eyes and the heavy rucksacks that hung below them.


My second night was better and by the third I relished the sounds of the night as much as the sights of the day and revelled in the privacy of my own tent as much as I would have revelled in the security and somnolence of a tent-mate on the first.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan