by Dan Hopkins, the founder and owner of GrassTrack Safaris.
In some ways, night is my favorite time on safari. As the campsite quiets down, I lie in my tent reflecting on the day’s game sightings and listening for sounds of the African night. I can make out the glittering constellations of the southern hemisphere through the tent’s mesh window. Tired from an exciting day in the bush I fight off sleep, trying to remain alert to the calls and cries of Africa’s nocturnal creatures. Far off I hear the roar of lions preparing for the night’s hunt. Through the crisp night air, the plaintive howl of a hyena seems very close to camp. In the mopane trees surrounding our cluster of tents, an African Scops owl calls out with its repeating single note. Krruup… krruup… krrupp… krrupp…. Then a twig snaps near the tent. I immediately recall the story our guide told us after dinner and my thoughts race to identify the cause of the snapping branch. On the morning after our first night camping it was made obvious that my tent partner and I were enthusiastic snorers. So we moved our tents a short distance from the main group. Our guide recalled that on a previous trip two other clients were snoring through the night and woke up in the morning to find a ring of lion tracks around their tent. Evidently, the lions came during the night to investigate the snoring. Eventually sleep takes over and I drift off with the image of a lion sniffing around my tent while it wonders what could be making that strange sound.
This is the type of experience you can expect from a well-run camping safari. Camping in the bush provides an unparalleled experience of Africa and is one of the best undiscovered African adventures. Camping immerses you in the bush, brings you closer to the wildlife and wild places of Africa, and can be a high-value, affordable African experience.
My enthusiasm for camping in the African bush started early. I first traveled to Africa in the early 1980s with Charles Darwin’s great-grandson, Quentin Keynes. These were bare-bone expeditions done in the waning years of apartheid and before the tourism industry in southern Africa really took off. We carried no tents and so slept out in the open, often beside the road or next to the campfire while in the national parks. We were frequently plagued with breakdowns and bad roads that slowed our progress. As challenging as these trips were they created a sense of adventure and connection with Africa.
There were a number of occasions that cemented my enthusiasm for camping, but one in particular is still etched in my memory. We were heading to South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia but running late, as usual, and made camp on the side of the road near the park gate. I arranged my sleeping bag under a mopane tree and fell asleep. In the middle of the night I was startled awake by the sound of breaking branches. I looked around and not far off an elephant was feeding contentedly from a tree. The moon, nearly full, bathed the elephant in soft moonlight. For a few minutes I felt as though we were the only two beings on Earth. The seed was planted. I would return to Africa and I eventually opened a travel business selling camping safaris. I wanted to share this experience with others.
I established my company, GrassTrack Safaris, with the goal of promoting an authentic African adventure through camping safaris. I wanted other travelers to share in the unique experience of camping in the African wilderness. Botswana has a strong tradition of mobile camping safaris as well as abundant game and vast wilderness. I began to work with small, local operators I felt offered a high level of service and safety. The days of sleeping under the stars were over as camping safaris became my passion.
What is it about camping in Africa that is so appealing? Camping renews my connection with nature and with the wilderness. I frequently camp in the woods of New England and feel a similar connection with something bigger than myself. This is even more intense when in the African bush. There is a palpable thrill of excitement and danger when we step out of our comfort zone and back into our evolutionary link in the food chain.
Camping brings a kind of authenticity as well. Perhaps it’s the minimalist nature of a camping trip without the protective walls, electricity, or running water. I feel certain amenities can subtly break down the connection with nature we seek. I was in a well-appointed lodge recently and from my comfortable bed I could see the stars and silhouettes of distant mountains through the window. I felt an impulse to drag my mattress outside and instead sleep under a nearby camelthorn tree. Somehow returning to nature creates a more profound and moving experience of a place. Even though our guides and camp staff excel at providing a safe and comfortable experience, there is still a sense that you are immersed in the bush. It’s a slower pace as we drive through the game parks from campsite to campsite allowing you to absorb the ever changing landscape and witness the abundant game. As the trip progresses you become synchronized to the daily rhythms of life in the bush. You fall asleep as the bush falls asleep and wake up as the bush wakes up. Sitting around a campfire deep in the bush is a primal experience, connecting us with each other, with the world around us and with our distant ancestors as we wonder what moves in the shadows beyond the reach of the firelight.
While a camping safari can establish a connection to something deeper it also disconnects us from our everyday distractions of phones, email, and internet. The privacy and remoteness of many campsites helps reaffirm this connection. One of our campsites was located in an infrequently visited area of Chobe National Park. There were no people for miles in any direction. The camp was situated near a water hole with a resident hippo and we enjoyed private viewings of elephant and buffalo when they came to drink. Our group felt as though we had the entire continent to ourselves.
A mobile camping safari requires little infrastructure in the national parks, just a campsite and roads, so the environmental footprint is minimal. Campsites are wild, remote, private and unfenced, allowing game to wander freely through camp. It’s not unusual to have nocturnal visitors. We were awoken in the middle of the night once to the clattering of pots and pans to find a pair of honey badgers searching for leftovers. One morning we found leopard prints in camp. On another morning we enjoyed our breakfast while a herd of elephants slowly meandering along the periphery of camp.
Wildlife activity dictates the schedule of a camping safari. Our guides are enthusiastic about wildlife encounters and will frequently abandon a scheduled coffee break if there is something exciting unfolding. One of my groups spent the late afternoon following wild dogs on a hunt, and in doing so passed by a group who had stopped for sundowners instead. Another group I led spent hours sitting quietly as we watched hyenas feed on an elephant carcass. As we sat and observed the activity, the Okavango slowly turned from afternoon to dusk as the bell frogs chimed to the setting sun.
I think a camping safari appeals to a certain type of traveler, one who has a sense of adventure and wants to cultivate a deeper understanding of a destination. More travel companies are dedicated to providing these life-changing experiences for their clients. This seems to be a welcome new trend in the travel industry. Companies like Evergreen Escapes International practice sustainable travel and strive to enrich the lives of their clients as well as the people and places they visit. It gives me great satisfaction to hear stories from clients who have been transformed by a travel experience. A mobile camping safari can be a transformative experience; however this may require one to step out of their comfort zone. As Joseph Campbell wrote, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Many people assume they’ll be carrying packs, sleeping on the ground, or cooking their own food. In fact, the opposite is true. Camping safaris are very comfortable, safe, and led by professional and knowledgeable guides. I encourage potential clients to reach beyond their comfort zone and follow their curiosity to an amazing adventure and a life-changing experience. I had one client who truly wanted to join our camping safari, but was intimidated by the idea of camping, especially in Africa. This client stepped beyond her comfort zone and it changed her life. She wrote: “I know I am changed and that at least some of Africa’s ever infiltrating sand and the trip’s message about the Earth being our Ark, and our only Ark, will remain with me forever.” And isn’t this what travel is all about?