Some good in tent. Some not so good…

Not all campsites are equal. In fact, far from it, as Chris Harvie discovered when he toured the national parks of the Free State, Swaziland and KwaZulu-Natal

Recession-beating tactics are everything these days and what better way to out-manoeuvre the crunch than to dust down the tent, polish the skottel, launder the sleeping bags and head out into the wilds?

At first glance, there was nothing very golden about Golden Gate National Park. It was drizzling as we put up the tent and it continued to drizzle, relentlessly, punctuated only by occasional heavier downpours and thunder rolling spectacularly across the peaks.

The SANParks Glen Reenen campsite is set among shady pepper trees on the banks of a rushing stream. It was weekend and we shared the park with dozens of friendly Free-State souls in 4×4 caravans, campervans and sophisticated modular tents cobbled together to form deep tellytubby lairs housing huge tribes of children. A troop of baboons crashed through the camp from time to time, terrorising toddlers and pinching their chips.

We walked and drove in the rain, forded streams, visited the vulture- feeding project and photographed the widow-birds. No sign of an oribi although never have I seen a more relaxed or a cleaner jackal. But then everything here seems to receive a regular dousing to spruce it up, ablution blocks included frequently cleaned and in excellent repair.

The clouds parted on day two in the early evening. Yellow flowers dotted the lower slopes, the trees bathed in lime-green sunlight and a golden orange glow shimmered on the red-based sandstone cliffs ahead of us. What a fabulous place. And golden indeed.

Next stop, Royal Natal National Park. ‘Hotel Closed’ stated a sign, hand-written like a beggar’s plea, by the gate. On check-in, a map of the Koninklike Natalse Nasionale Park (with the rules explained in Afrikaans) was stapled to a Baboon Threat Notice in English and handed to us. It was just about the only semi-functional aspect of Mahai- Kamp.

The lawns were immaculate, but at a price, whining weed-eaters, day in, day out, rain or shine. And it was raining. The weather is the camper’s single greatest challenge. He or she relocates with endless optimism from the comfort of bricks and mortar into a couple of square metres of canvas-covered claustrophobia in the hope of clement weather. So, all good campsites should have an infrastructure to mitigate the inconvenience of rain.

Ablution blocks get dirty faster in the wet. Ablutions even block completely. Clothing gets damp. Roads and paths become muddy. But, curiously, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s staff become less, not more, co-operative in bad weather. They clean the showers and lavatories less frequently, they hide from the rain (except for the weed- eater-operators).

We walked in the mountains, slipping and sliding on the badly- marked and unmapped path to Thendele Camp, where paved roads and unparalleled luxury provided the antithesis to the collapsing hotel at the foot of the hill and the grubby campsite with its headless showers, seat-less loos, broken mirrors and basins. Thendele has new thatch roofs, televisions and a view of the amphitheatre to make a camper cry. But it was empty.

The Royal Natal National Park is beautiful in any weather but as part of a World Heritage Site it is going to run into difficulties if the roads and paths are not maintained, if the debris is not cleaned out of the rivers and if the lantana continues to pollute the proteas.

This and the ablution blocks are only a small part of the problem. When I got up in the night to count the newly-exposed stars, the camp’s security guards were asleep in a shed a couple of metres from the tent.

We headed for the coast and the refreshingly enthusiastic welcome of the gate operators at the entrance to the Cape Vidal section in the Marine Reserve on the shores of iSimangaliso (formerly The Greater St Lucia) Wetlands Park. The sun had come out and there was a spring in our tyres and a new alacrity to our tent-building as we found our spot under the canopy of the dune-forest.

As the day rolled on, the camp filled with returning boats and 4x4s equipped with impossibly long fishing rods and unhappy fishermen complaining about the lack of fish.

It was down to the weather apparently, but it meant nothing to me. I was just chuffed that it wasn’t raining here.

I walked on the beach and the dunes, photographing red duiker and samango monkeys and laughing like a drain at the chaos and the panic of the boat-owners as they struggled not to sink their bakkies in the sand at the launch point before boarding their craft and running the gauntlet of the reef.

Cape Vidal is far from perfect, though. The check-in was agonisingly slow. The lights, showers and loos are broken and are seldom cleaned by the numerous employees hanging around outside the blocks listening to loud radios. With 50 campsites, the camp could hold as many as 300 people per day and the facilities and staff are just not up to the task.

My guess is that there might be 20 showers and 20 lavatories and six washing-up sinks, I didn’t count and many of these are broken or unspeakably defiled. And at the times of the day when they are most in use (from 5pm to 8am) there is nobody to service them. When Cape Vidal is full, Ezemvelo must be taking more than R20000 per day from the campers. They should consider paying the staff a bit of overtime and improving the maintenance and the cleanliness just a tad, even if the discomfort is more than made up for by the unending beauty of the place, its outstanding bird-watching and its numerous rhino and huge- horned kudu.

Ithala, our last Ezemvelo park, was a great solace. We had passed through Hluhluwe-Imfolozi without stopping as there is no camping permitted, why?, and carried on to the newest and, in my view, finest of KZN’s parks. Ithala was founded in 1972 and its Ntshondwe Camp is one of the most spectacularly situated of its kind, perched on a mountain under sandstone cliffs and looking down into the deep valley of the Phongolo River.

We chose to camp at the other end of the park at Doornkraal, a clearing on the banks of the Mbizo River with absolutely no facilities except braai-grilles, dustbins, one cold shower, one washing-up sink and one flushing lavatory. And not a soul in sight. No mirrors or tiles to be broken. No lights that might not work. Perfection.

Ithala’s wildlife is as relaxed as its staff is on the ball, with unmatchable close-up sightings of zebra and other plains game and the circlings of huge raptors above the vast cliffs criss- crossed by well-maintained roads giving access to vast views across this majestic northern part of the province.

Our final stop was at Hlane Royal National Park, one of Swaziland’s immodestly-titled Big Game Parks in the great Ted Reilly tradition. In the north- east of the country, Hlane offers guided walks and game drives but also allows self-drives. More importantly, it encourages campers, providing unfussy and faultlessly shiny ablutions and hot water despite the lack of electricity. There is a gas-fired kitchen and, totally unheard- of in South Africa, free wood. What’s more, the staff are thoughtfully quiet and endlessly cheerful. The only intrusion is the snort of the impala and the roar of the lion.

The Swazis could certainly teach Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife a trick or two. As custodians of some of the most beautiful and bio- diverse outposts of our country, the latter really need to pull their bush socks up.

Campers are a large and powerful troupe and they talk to one another in a way that chalet- dwellers don’t. And they all agree that a spot of rain, even a deluge, can’t ruin a camping trip anything like as effectively as high fees for poor or dirty facilities and thoughtless staff.