Can you imagine rocking up to Longleat Safari Park and requesting a pitch for your tent in the lion enclosure? It may sound crazy here in the UK, but in select African national parks it is completely possible to drive your own car in, find the campsite, erect your tent, crack open a beer and sit back as the wildlife strolls on by.
I wouldn’t say this behaviour is the norm. I have stayed in two exceedingly wild parks now with completely open campsites, not an armed guard in sight, and not another happy camper interested in joining us. Maybe we are foolhardy. Maybe we just have more time to invest than most. Travelling into these parks overland is some feat in itself, the journeys are always long, hot, bumpy and incredibly arduous. Most people fly in by private jet and stay in one of the few and exclusive camps, with 5 star service, Egyptian cotton sheets and afternoon tea served on a pristine veranda.
Personally I suspect the magnetic drag to these parks for a few, is due to the demand they place upon overnight visitors to immerse ourselves into the surrounding environment so completely, that those animals who might otherwise be intent upon eating, gauging, or trampling us, instead accept us, permit us to share their home and ultimately allow us to leave unscathed.
Elephant are common across most parks and from a distance these lumbering giants are placid beasts content to chew the cud and nuzzle their offspring. The local guides call it the anxiety circle. This is the circle in which if you become too close to an animal it will become agitated and likely to attack. The problem is that elephants like humans have individual personalities. Additionally the presence of poachers, number of youngsters in their care and frankly the heat of the day all mean this circle is incredibly difficult to judge. One thing I can tell you is that even the most robust Land Cruiser doesn’t stand a chance against a bull elephant. It is when driving round the parks through dense undergrowth you stand most chance of real confrontation. If you catch an elephant by surprise it is not a time to panic. Revving your engine will only antagonise it and when you get within 10 metres or so the chance of reversing away unscathed are fairly unlikely anyway. The best guides will turn their engines off, silence their clients and remain perfectly still. I can assure you in reality this is not an exercise you may want to practice. The few times it has happened to us the resounding memory for me are the sounds of my own heart and breathing as I try to remain calm. The nervous gaze of a full grown elephant as it pulls back it ears, tucks its trunk out of harm’s way and nervously paws the ground is both humbling and inspiring.
Back in camp there are always visitors. Monkeys and baboons are common, but as long as you tidy any food away they aren’t too much of a nuisance. Gazelle, giraffe and zebra often stroll by, but at the first sniff of humans usually scatter into the bush. Hyena are inquisitive, but as long as they are alone real cowards. A stamp of the foot or a sharp clap will send them away whining. When camping on the edge of a river you should always be cautious of getting too close to the water and certainly refrain from a cooling dip. Crocodiles are rife and these killers lurk in the shallows ready to drag unwary prey to their watery demise.
Hippos are guaranteed to keep you awake. At night they haul their bodies from the water to graze noisily on the nutritious grass along the banks grumbling and groaning as they go. Through the intense dark that envelops the bush after sundown they call to one another all night with little respect for anyone else desperately trying to get some shut eye. Many attribute the most deaths caused by any African mammal to the grumpy hippo. When one rudely interrupts your sundowner by appearing unannounced all you can do is sit tight and wait for him to pass on through.
Despite the plethora of other wildlife, and despite the cliché, for me it is the king of the jungle who takes the limelight. The roar of a lion is a primeval thing that will raise the hairs on the back of even the most hardened adventurer’s neck. Their arrogance if phenomenal. We have had to drive off the track to go round a sleeping male too lazy to even raise his head and acknowledge us. They wouldn’t blink an eyelid at investigating a camp and I am always careful to keep the fire well stoked when I know lion are about. One of the most incredible hours of my life was spent barely outside a camp of ours. We sat, windows of our our car wide open, as a pride of a dozen lion crunched and gnawed upon a fresh kill, murmuring contentedly to one another despite us being parked no further than 2 metres from the closest. Moments like this put life into perspective and are what continually draw me back to Africa.
I dread the day when these true wilderness experiences are no longer accessible for the intrepid. Any hardship endured through challenging terrain, limited resources and lack of creature comforts just makes the experience all the sweeter. If it was easy, possibly everyone would do it and then maybe we wouldn’t find the solitude and sense of adventure we crave. For me Africa is the home of adventure and long may these parks be allowed to encourage wandering souls to find their own piece of nature.