Cool Times in the Kroojah

“Welcome to Sire-hee-nee Bashvelt Camp, Kroojah” squawked Australian Kelly from the Garmin as we entered the camp. Fed up with the German bloke aggressively instructing us to stay on the agreed route and even the seductive French tones of Stephanie having palled, we had it set the contraption to Australian English (with the screen showing Turkish). You should hear Kelly trying to say Thohoyandou.

We’d run the gauntlet of Giyani’s cops and cows, both hazards lurking in the shade of occasional thorn-bushes and randomly rushing unexpectedly into the road. We’d negotiated potholes through lovely Venda villages and successfully overtaken numerous lurching Mozambiquan bakkies headed for the border at Pafuri, laden with plastic chairs and plywood cupboards amongst their hefty bags of mieliemeal.

Venus was in charge of the Sirheni office and exhausted from having womanned the desk of this fifteen unit camp all day on her own. We asked her if she played tennis and she said “I weesh”. I think anything would have been better than the stress from running out of ice and firewood, the only two items in which she was expected to trade, and having no ranger to take a bush walk as none have been trained to the improved standard required following the recent spate of elephant tramplings. And she could not take payment as the lines were down. The goddess of love was forlorn. For Venus, it was not a good day.

Nor was it good for one of our party (a small person) who wet his bed that night. We strung the sheets in surrender along the shade trees in the morning and, sure enough, Martha came to the rescue and whisked them away. I offered to help her carry the wet mattress out into the sun but she simply turned it over and remade the bed. Problem solved.

The northern part of the Kruger (apart from the said mattress) was, in Kelly’s parlance, as dry as a dead dingo’s donger and it became increasingly hot. We had two consecutive days of 45C. Armando, a self-confessed Mozambiquan in charge of maintenance in camp, turned our fridge to maximum and washed our sun-baked cars. Still there was no ice or firewood. Venus was looking more and more frazzled and the lines remained down. We headed to Shingwedzi for the day.

The game was phenomenal. I don’t know what happened to bovine TB but the buffalo (and the lions) are thriving. And I wonder whether we shouldn’t think about culling a few elephants? A couple of hyena gawped back at us as we stopped to ogle them. A magnificent rhino ran at full tilt in a cloud of dust across the road in front of us, we hoped he wasn’t being pursued by human predators but it seemed likely, and by every waterhole, an agglomeration of creatures queued up to slake a dusty thirst.

At Shingwedzi we waited an hour for a few sandwiches, low gear being the order of the catering day in the stultifying heat, then threw ourselves in the swimming pool. Some of its existing inhabitants from the caravan park even bravely stayed in the water with us whilst we swam, regardless of the alarming fact that some members of our party were indisputably non-white. My, we have come a long way.

Back at Sirheni, we stopped to see if Venus had, by any chance, become serener but she didn’t appear to recall ever having seen us before. It was going from bad to disastrous, we explained to Norman, the camp supervisor, when he stopped by later and injudiciously asked us how we were. But if he found us a leopard, we’d forgive him anything. So he did, moments later, by the dam. Right in front of our hut.

A light wind blew across the water. The evening cooled and this lovely scene was bathed in the soft golden light that only the bush can provide. Who needs ice, firewood, trained rangers and unstained mattresses? Sirheni, itself, could not be more serene. You can’t beat the Kroojah, as Kelly would say

The smell of the wild

The rigours of camping teach us to appreciate all the more the comfort of the daily lives we leave behind.

Like so many South Africans, I actively seek uncomfortable journeys. I camp therefore I smell.

The more mundane aspects of our lives define us where the extremes provide the tests and there is no more trying challenge than the vain and hopeless pursuit of luxury whilst camping. I was a child in England when I acquired my particular predilection for discomfort and, perhaps specifically, for ablutionary complications. I have now carried it with me for almost thirty years in Africa.

The 1970s. Five of us in a Volvo. Two eager parents. Three recalcitrant children. Behind the car, a trailer-tent. Expel from your mind the modern pop-up rooftop tent. Forget, too, today’s designer 4×4 trailers, for this was no quasi-caravan. It was little more than a flimsy plywood prostrate cupboard on wheels. Each side of the lid flipped over to form a precarious bed and supported a squashed, pram-like awning on a fold-out frame that caught me at neck level every time I climbed in. And I was a small eight-year old.

We moored this ridiculous contraption, annually, in a Dorset field just outside the Purbeck village of Langton Matravers. For a week.

England was a first world country, even then, and the reason for these journeys of deprivation was a parentally-guarded mystery. On other holidays we were allowed to stay in real hotels, even as far away as exotic foreign France, so it wasn’t a budgetary consideration, and lovely Langton Matravers consisted of a series of gorgeous thatched cottages dangling brimming flower baskets from their window boxes, so it wasn’t a regional lack of cultivation. The houses had electricity and water-borne sewerage.

Not us, though. Our field was on a steep slope; we camped at a jaunty angle at the top where it was drier. Meals were cooked on a primus stove. Perched on the lumpy mattresses, we ate baked beans and fried corned beef off yellow melamine plates around a dilapidated folding table, the top convex from the damp. The canopy leaked like a doily where each dismantling had differently caught, pinched and punctured the canvas. It always rained. Endlessly.

At the bottom of the hill was a small hut and behind it was a screened-off mildewed shower. The leaking tap on the outside of the hut was our nearest water supply while inside stood a basic thunderbox, an almost onomatopoeically-named lavatory similar in its refinement to a long-drop.

The damp from the sodden grass in the field would seep into our shoes from the ceaseless journeys up and down the hill to fetch a pail of water, if not to pass one, ¬†each expedition fraught with the risk of going foot-first into what the English quaintly call a cowpat, of which there were many. Occasionally we would loose our footing in the slime, picking up speed and undesirably muddy backsides. Laundry was unthinkable and we spent days in the same damp crud-caked clothes. Fun it wasn’t, but it seems to have proved compulsive.

Nowadays, in Africa, the predisposition to seek hardship follows me still. On roadside camping expeditions in Mozambique, for example, the water supply might be a stream or, on a good day, a village standpipe; the thunderbox is a thornbush and the cowpat-risk has been superseded by the danger of landmines. It doesn’t rain as frequently but, when it does, it hurls it down with a power exceeding a hundredfold the constant drizzle of Langton Matravers. Tents don’t leak through small gashes; they wash away in flash floods.

There are no windowboxes here. No quaint country cottages. Just the raw, yet thrilling privations of Africa and the secure knowledge that somewhere, eventually, we will get to clean up with hot water and a close-couple lavatory.

The principle is the same, however, whether we be in the Isle of Purbeck or on Ilha de Mozambique. Although we travel to escape our humdrum existence, we rarely dread our ultimate return to it. We travel to be able to go home. Because home is where the bathroom is.