Where The Wild Things Are...Just Outside Your Tent
Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
165Trip End Ongoing
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The bus ride trundled up the Okavango panhandle and through some of the hottest, driest landscape I had yet seen in Africa. Grey dust sat in the air and on the ground. Late in the afternoon, I arrived at the last town in Botswana, the border about 10 more kilometres down the road. I squeezed into a shared taxi and headed for Namibia.
When I arrived at the border, I was the only person left in the taxi. In fact, it seemed I was the only person in this part of the country. It was obviously not a busy crossing. As I approached the office, I noticed one vehicle parked in the lot. When I got inside, I heard English being spoken, and two people at the customs desk. It was obvious I wasn't going anywhere if I couldn't get a ride - this was remote country and theirs was the only car. After they finished talking to the customs agent, I asked if they might be able to give me a ride to the turn off for my destination - Negepi Camp. I turned on my biggest smile, my most "Aw shucks" manner, and hoped for the best. The wife of the Dutch couple obviously did not like the idea, but after a huddled discussion, the husband said they would drive me to the camp, as they were also heading there.
As we got in the car on the Botswana side, and prepared to head to the Namibian customs, he said "We normally would never pick people up at a border. You do not have any illegal things do you? Ivory or anything?"
I was tempted to joke, "No, no ivory, but would you like this nice elephant's foot trash bin and some heroin?" Fortunately, I managed to keep my mouth shut and assure them I was an honest, oh so wholesome Canadian history teacher. They bought it.
Once through the customs, it quickly became apparent how lucky I was. You literally drive out of customs directly into a national park filled with wildlife. It would have been impossible to walk, and there were no other vehicles. When I found out the young couple were also on their honeymoon, I was doubly grateful for the ride.
Ngepi Camp lies along the Kavango River. This is the river that flows down from Angola, through Namibia, and into Botswana where it gradually spreads out into the Okavango Delta until finally being swallowed up the sands of the Kalahari Desert.
I arrived at the camp site and walked down to the deck that stretched over the river. Along the shore of the river on the other side walked a family of elephants coming down for a sunset drink. Hippos were very common along this stretch of the river, as well as alligators and buffalo. We were directly across from Mahango Park.
No private camp sites were available, but the owners told me I could pitch my tent along he river down by the overland truck campsite. There was a truck already there, and for privacy's sake I decided to put my tent up next to the river, right next to the bushes and brush that grew in the 10-12 metre gap between tent and river. Besides, I figured I would be able to hear and see the wildlife better this close to the river. And that was why I was here, right? To see wildlife. I was an old African hand now. I had slept in the Serengeti in a tent with lions and hyenas skulking around in the night. I had walked within metres of a bull elephant in Ngorogoro Crater (an incredibly stupid thing to do actually). I was in Africa. Bring it on.
That night it did.
I had spent the evening making small talk a group of German travellers I had met. By the time I said good night and started the walk back to my tent, it was about 10:30 pm. This is the thing; those other times I had camped in the wild, I realize now that I was always part of a group. Even when sleeping by myself, I knew there were lots of others around me, and I never had a second thought.
My tent was really close to the bushes and the river. I had pitched it with the door facing the river, all the better to roll over in the morning and take in my wild kingdom. As I began to walk up to it, suddenly something moved in the bushes next to my tent.
Something that sounded big.
I turned my headlight towards the sound, and deep in the bushes a pair of eyes shone back at me.
Suddenly an elephant trumpetted from across the river. Down in the water I could hear the throaty grunts of hippos. All kinds of African trivia came floating back to me. Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal, for example. I remembered a line from Lonely Planet Southern Africa. "The hippo is extremely dangerous on land and kills many people each year, usually when someone inadvertently blocks the animal's retreat to the water."
Thinking it would give me the best view, I had pitched my tent in front of the only real clear spot leading down to the river on this stretch of river bed. This meant that it was in the perfect place to "inadvertently block an animal's retreat to the water."
I kept making little approaches to my tent, but would immediately back pedal as soon as I heard crashing around in the bushes or caught another pair of eyes shining back at me. This strange little dance continued for about 15 minutes until I seriously began to contemplate sleeping in the open air restaurant tucked in behind the camp's bar. I could feel the fear like brackish water sitting in the back of throat and it angered me, but did nothing to alleviate it. Suddenly I heard two night watchmen coming through further inside of the campsite. My mind spun as I thought of ways I could present my dilemma without coming off like a pathetic child of a man, scared of bumps in the night. I could think of none.
Swallowing my pride, I went up to the security guards, two teenagers from a local village.
"Excuse me, but I am having a problem. My tent is very close to the river, and I heard something in the bushes, and I saw some eyes, and I think it's very big, and I'm a bit nervous to go in it." Take that preconceptions of manliness!
The two guards assured me that there was no problem. They walked me out to my tent. All eyes were gone now. Nothing moved. The night was silent. Of course. Dammit.
"Hehe, um, I'm sorry. But there was something there, I could see the eyes."
"It's ok. No problem. Maybe it was a cat. Sometimes there are cats that catch food and eat it by the river."
A cat, not a lion, but a little cat. Maybe. At least they didn't laugh at me and call me a little girl.
I climbed into my tent and zippered it closed. The guard's lights and talk faded back into the night. Almost as if on cue, nature went wild. I could hear grunting and coughing of hippos coming from the river, sounding as if it were feet from my door. Things crashed in the bushes around me. Elephants shrieked and, I swear at least once, I heard a lion roar in the darkness. I sat in my tent, terrified. I knew this was completely unreasonable. That I would be fine, but some primeval racial memory floated up from a time when humans were a hell of a lot lower on the food chain, and when animals made noises like this, you didn't stick around hoping for a nature documentary; you ran.
Not knowing what else to do, I reached for my little digital camera and started making movies. The sad, embarrassing evidence is painfully presented here for you for your viewing and sympathetic wincing pleasure. Just go to the gallery. In my defence... Actually there is no defence, mock away.
Finally as the night stretched along, my weariness beat out my fear (it's tiring being a coward) and I fell asleep. I awoke untrampled, uneaten, and filled with regret as I knew I would soon post these movies as proof of my idiocy.
The owners of Ngepi Camp have a sense of humour. Little signs are scattered all around the campsite that constantly make jokes. Much of it is bumper sticker humour, but one thing that is unlike anyplace I have come across in 10 years of travel are their bathrooms, or abulations as they call them in this part of the world (Or Thunderboxes in this camp). Many of their toilets and showers are unique and have their own names and titles. One example of this is the Throne Room. You pass through the bamboo entry, hang a little chain to indicate occupied, and then get back to nature on, you guessed, an actual wooden throne with a toilet built into it. It stands on a little platform overlooking the river where the elephants, and any passing boat, can see you.
Another interesting one is the 'Today' and 'Tomorrow (If you let it!)' showers. The 'Today' shower is idyllic, a wooden platform where the shower head comes out through the tree the platform rests on. It is green, peaceful, and lovely. When you walk into the 'Tomorrow (If you let it!)' shower, the first thing that greets you is a large bucket with the words 'Toxic Waste' written on the side. A hose snakes out from the bucket to a nozzle, while at your feet twisted buildings, and a sick looking Statue of Liberty dots the floor. The ground is dried up sand, and animals skulls rest against the bamboo wall of the shower. Subtle it is not. Almost every shower and toilet is open to the sky and the nature of the campsite. One site, the 'Loo With the View' was a simple toilet that looked directly onto the road that people and cars drove along when walking to the far end of the camp. Having a bowel movement was never this much fun.
After two nights in Ngepi, I met a young Dutch couple (my second) who offered to drive me to Grootfontein, about 450 kilometres away. We stayed the night at Roy's Camp (a great little place about 50 kilometres outside of Grootfontein with one of the best meals I've had in Africa). A quick ride into Grootfontein, a haggling session for a shared taxi, and I was here in my temporary home in Tsumeb. The names in this country are killing me.
(As a sidenote - at the internet café today I realized that I think I left one of my memory cards in the back of my Dutch friend's truck. It was my big card, 2 gigs, and I'm gutted. Replacing the card will be bad enough, they are expensive here, but much worse are the unbacked up photos I lost. Some of the best shots of the toilets will have to be in your imagination as they were on it. Bart, if you are reading this, I would be thrilled if you found the card, and can give you an address to send it to in South Africa if possible.)