Kgalagadi campfire by Kate Collins

It brings you closer to nature. It brings you closer to family. It doesn’t cost the Earth, it’s perfect for spontaneous travellers and it’s a great way to make friends. Five writers consider the appeal of camping.

Camping for beginners

Who said it? Noel Coward? Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. As we are not English, I can only surmise we fall in the mad dog category, because out in the midday sun we certainly did go. On a spur-of-the-moment decision to go camping for a week in December. Our destination? Tsendze in the northern Kruger National Park.

We did one sensible thing and asked friends who are ace campers for advice. They set aside a whole Saturday and took us to all the camping stores. They also provided a valuable list of what is needed.

First up was a tent. Never be fooled by tent sizing! I can state from first-hand experience that a four-man tent is about the right size for one person. We kept our heads and acquired two four-man tents, one for each of us. Perfect. Then it was on to sleeping matters, as I flatly refuse to sleep uncomfortably. The answer was a lovely air mattress for me and a roll-up foam number for hubby André.

At home we carefully worked through the list of necessities, packing small items into bins, ticking off as we went along. We did another clever thing and pitched a tent in a trial run at home, so as not look total idiots when we set up camp.

The evening before the big adventure, the Landy was packed to the roof and padkos made. At four the following morning we hit the road. By five that afternoon, we had set up camp in what has to be one of the most idyllic places in Kruger, and the fire was lit.

Call it beginner’s luck, but for all the things we didn’t do correctly the outcome was one huge ‘right’! Sure, it was incredibly hot during the days, but the nights were pure magic. The night sounds and sunrise chorus made up for any discomfort.

Tsendze spoilt us for life, as the huge trees and secluded camping spots offer perfect privacy. The very best was the tiny scops owls which Rodgers Mona, the friendly and knowledgeable camp manager, found and pointed out for us daily.  Tsendze means ‘just twisting in the bush, getting lost’. We lost our hearts there in two tents and can’t wait for the next trip.

– Rita van den Heever

Camping with the family

“Go camping at Addo!” was the instantaneous answer when I asked my daughters, aged seven and nine, what they felt we should set as a family resolution for 2012. The decision was so obvious to them that we soon had our bookings in place for 10 days’ camping during the next school holidays.

When probed further why we should go camping as opposed to booking into one of the cottages, again my daughters’ responses were immediate and again given with a “come on, the answer is obvious” tone. For them, camping brought the family much closer together and the feel of the outdoors could be experienced to its full with the constant coming and goings of birds and vervet monkeys; the nightly visits by small-spotted genet and porcupine; and being able to listen to the lions, spotted hyena and black-backed jackals calling in the night.

Best of all for them were the picnic lunches and sitting around the camp fire, toasting marshmallows while drinking steaming mugs of hot chocolate. After dinner we would watch the vast night skies, try to count satellites and make wishes as shooting stars streaked across the sky.

 I left the packing list to my daughters. First were things to keep them busy in the quiet times: colouring books and crayons, together with field identification guides. Beanies, gloves and scarves were needed for early morning game drives and their two bikes for riding around the camp when their boring old parents took their afternoon snooze. Snacks, including lots of biltong, mini-chocolates and fruit, were packed into containers for game drives and while waiting patiently for the perfect photograph.

When it came to the actual camping trip, it was amazing how quickly the time flew. The eagerness of my daughters had us up before sunrise and heading out for a morning game drive that was followed by a late breakfast and shower. Addo had a great holiday programme for the kids that kept them occupied until mid-afternoon when we again headed out on the afternoon game drive. Before we knew it, the day was over and we were sitting around the fire as a family, recounting the day’s excitement.

– Peter Chadwick

An ode to a backpack

There I was, sitting on a bluegum stump outside a building in De Hoop Nature Reserve. My boss approached me. “This is for you,” he said, passing me an indiscriminate package.

It turned out to be a 70 litre backpack, to be used for carrying camping equipment on trips deep into the wild. The year was 1990. I was 22 years old, in my first year as a conservator for CapeNature. This was my first backpack. Actually, it has been my only backpack.

Skip to April 2012. I am hiking in the Grootwinterhoek mountain range with a group of students from Tsiba Education. The guy hiking behind me asks: “Mark, how old is your backpack?” I give my answer, he laughs. “Yo!” he exclaims, “that thing is older than me. Why don’t you get a new one?”

Memories, my friend, precious memories of hiking and camping in deep and wild spaces.

1991: I am solo hiking along the De Hoop coastline, what is now the Whale Trail. At rest, leaning against my backpack, I  watch a southern right whale breach.

2000: Day three of hiking the Amatola Trail with a group. The hike is led by two graduates of a programme that has trained young economically disadvantaged South Africans to use hiking as a tool to grow other young people. They are now my friends, found in our mutual love for wild places.

2004: My four-year-old daughter Emma joins me for her first wilderness trip. She is perched on my backpack, legs over my shoulders, feet ensconced in pink trainers bounce against my chest. I am in heaven.

2010: Grootwinterhoek. I am camping with James, my six-year-old son. As the sun sets he snuggles into my arms. We talk of our dream to rebuild an old Mini. I remain in heaven.

2012: My backpack jingles with the sound of two bottles of beer knocking together. All about a surprise. It is my wife’s birthday. Emma, James and I lead her to a magic and secret place in the mountains. Tomorrow morning she will watch the sunrise, greeting her into a new decade. She is in heaven.

I have an old backpack. My knees ache more now than they did 22 years ago. I have memories found through shared time in wild places with people I care for, people I love. If tomorrow we meet in the mountains, let’s drink coffee, good coffee, next to a river in the cool of the morning. There is always really good coffee tucked into an old billy can in my old backpack.

– Mark Gamble

Camping on the fly

As a way of going on holiday, camping has always been championed by school-leavers and students. They instantly recognise what so many of us come to value over time: camping offers independence, freedom and, most importantly, affordability.

So when I desperately needed a bush escape and there was too long to go till payday, I knew the time had come for a camping trip. With a borrowed tent, sleeping bags and a couple of extra blankets, my travelling partner and I set off for Karoo National Park on a chilly June morning.

When it came to campsite comforts, we were definitely travelling light. No inflatable mattresses, no camping chairs with built-in drinks holders, no fold-out table or pop-up cupboard. We were sticking to the bare essentials so we could head out at a moment’s notice. If you think bare-bones camping in winter doesn’t sound like the best idea, you’d be right. We soon learnt that a ground sheet is a necessity, not a nice-to-have. And that a two-person tent fits two people and absolutely nothing else. But we also learnt that campers rise naturally, with the birds and the sun, so for once we were ready to go on our game drive as soon as the gates opened.

When we weren’t game viewing, we were relaxing around the campsite and it wasn’t long before all sorts of visitors came calling: African red-eyed bulbul, Cape robin-chat and red-headed finch. Accustomed to people, the birds came much closer than normal. We got some of our best pictures right there, another hit for camping. What’s more, these days campsites in national parks and nature reserves are amazingly well equipped. The spotless ablution block had hot showers, while a boiler provided boiling water on demand, a blessing for anyone who can’t function before the first cup of the day.

One of the things that people love about camping is that it brings you closer to nature. Well, in the Karoo that meant freezing fingers in the morning as we unzipped a tent covered in frost. But even though my nose was red with cold, I wouldn’t have swapped our little tent for a comfy rondavel, because the night before as I lay in my sleeping bag I could hear a genet snuffling around outside.

I think my travelling partner nailed it when he said that camping is invigorating. After a night of cooking out in the open and waking at first light, you feel energised, ready for the day ahead. I now know that all I need for my next trip is a tent and a sense of adventure.

– Magriet Kruger

Rolling into camp

The ability to track down postcard-pretty landscapes and plenty of fresh air is encoded in South African genes, much like our pioneering spirit and love of camp fires. Some moments on the road are forever etched in your mind: the sight of the Augrabies Falls and the raw power of the Orange River. A sicklebush campfire somewhere in the Bushveld and the chance to grow quiet. Experiences so vivid that you become a part of the landscape. There’s no way you could head off to the closest chalet for a night in a strange bed, you simply have to pitch camp right there.

If you ever want to feel like you are in the middle of South Africa’s oxygen-supply plant, hitch your caravan and make your way to the Drakensberg to peg down your rally tent near the dramatic Amphitheatre. Mahai campsite, tucked away in Royal Natal National Park just past Bergville in KwaZulu-Natal, is the kind of place where you can get a second wind before heading back to town.

Pottering around the garden at home there’s little chance of raising your eyes to the heavens and seeing a bearded vulture. But look up at the mountains here and it’s a different story. Now you are camping in the aerial maestro’s backyard. With the first rays of the sun painting the Dragon’s jagged spine red, it feels as if the world was made yesterday. Everything around you is fresh, as if the first of its kind.

For once my watch doesn’t matter. As Mom and the kids indulge in a last dream under their snug blankets, I motivate their rising. The smell of fried onions and bacon crisping on the gas stove will sort out any sleepyhead.

In the mornings I like to sit by the caravan and watch my fellow caravanners: my own reality show. On a fold-up table a kettle is puffing clouds of steam while the coffee mugs get a spoonful of sugar each. Next door two pensioners are holding hands like two young lovebirds.

When I pull up at a new caravan site I know my neighbours and I speak the same language. It doesn’t take long for the kids to clear out and before I can even get the caravan level they’ve made friends with the neighbour’s lot. Once the children are out of my hair it’s time to set up camp, an almost magical ritual for every caravanner. Caravan level, pop-up roof out, ground sheet down, rally tent up. Before I can get the camping chairs out of the boot, my neighbour’s holding his hand out: “Pleased to meet you.”

– Leon Botha