Saturday, November 7, 2009

Camp Terror

After Christmas just outside Montreal with Vince's family (at last!), we will head south of the equator once again, to the southern tip of Africa.

Thing is, we haven't a trip planned. Aside from enjoying the parental home, many hikes in the mountains, and hopefully some horse riding, there is no Trip. Last year I had been angling for the Kruger Park, but Vince had his heart set on the dunes - a childhood dream - and now the memories of the Namib and Kgalagadi are very, very dear. We wouldn't mind going back.

With the popular Kruger, I am worried about traffic jams. That's when ten or more cars swoop onto a siting of something Interesting, like lions, or leopard, and just park their fat rear ends haphazardly in the middle of the road with telephotos pointing up each others' bottoms. It's horrible. In the middle of beauty you get...road hogs.

It only happened once in the Kgalgadi because we were there in the hot season, so there were not many people about. But how about Kruger in late January or early February?

The parts I liked, loved, about camping were the beauty, the fire, the cooking, the utter self- sufficiency, the feeling of being iconic within an icon. Hard to describe. I am camping. Look at me camping. My espresso pot, my braai, my glass of red wine, my man, the camel thorn trees.

This gave me great pleasure.

But what I discovered was that my night terrors have stayed the same since the age of 7, when I tried to camp on the lawn in my parents' garden: what's that?? and that? footsteps! creeping nearer! man with an axe! hyenas!! a mad, frothing dog!!!!!!

Unless I feel quite safe - and we did in deserted Namibia, especially at Sesriem and Klein Aus, where only tourists and park workers were nearby, I am a nervous camper. I spurned the cliff-ringed, huge-treed site at Koedoesrus, because it was totally deserted. Not another tent in site. Only one road in. It was the set of a horror movie. Beautiful, remote, inaccessible. House nearby for the ranger lady and man. Murder in the making. Silent leopard sneaking to the zipper of the tent at night. Pouncing on human going to pee in the, er, wee hours. It happens!


And at Paternoster, a few hours from Cape Town, where my night terrors caused Vince to take up all night watch outside the tent. I couldn't reconcile it: not a mile away, in the seaside village, people were sleeping in their tidy, picturesque, whitewashed houses with triple locks, artful burglar bars and alarms, and here we were sleeping inside a nylon tent. Huh? Not 150 miles away my brother and wife had robbers sneaking up their stairs in the middle of the night.

An engine idling on the road above us for about ten minutes froze my blood. It was past midnight. Why would they do that? I remembered the lone bakkie with the lone man patrolling the road in the late afternoon, what did they want? Was the 4 x 4 a hot hijack item? We had chosen a spectacular camp site, away from all the others. Hidden by granite boulders. Great. Hidden. Out of site. We're making it easy for the pouncers.

Can anyone answer these questions? A seasoned South African camper? Do campers get pounced on? Is it all in my fevered imagination?

I wish I weren't like this. But in this context I am a wuss. I will step, and have stepped, into the middle of a brawl, if I see a way to stop it, or go on the offensive if I see someone being hurt; the call to action in these cases is automatic. But it's the fear of being snuck up on unawares that does me in.

To clarify. I think I would feel the same camping anywhere. It's in my head. It's the movie myth. The camp fire spook story. The couple in Bainskloof hacked by the escaped convict. The innocents by the roadside. The brother who taught me about werewolves under the bed and sharks in the swimming pool.

In the South African context, though, there is that larger mental mantle of violent crime so feared and so ingrained.

I would like to take the equivalent of a barium meal and highlight all those amygdalic fear pockets and have them removed, so I that may sleep in peace, and allow my husband to sleep in peace, under the stars.

So: Kgalagadi again? We never went as far as the Botswanan side last time. Karoo National Park? Kruger? Wild Coast (I can see I would have camping issues there...)?

And for a cursory look at crime in SA, click here.


  1. I'm 100% with you on this one, the difference being that if I felt as scared as you, I wouldn't go camping AT ALL, nohow, nowhere, never....

  2. I'd be scared too. Isn't that the place were people go missing? I guess people go missing all over now that I think about it. Sure is pretty though. Love the hurricane lamps..and I gotta love the red wine...

    More later,

  3. My dear Mama has the same camping night terrors. We'd finally planned a single night away, just she and me... in a very civilized small Ontario government-run campground. The plan was to do some serious star gazing. Then, one Saturday night, late, she called me at home. She whispered down the phone in her charming Italian accent: "I'm sorry, I just saw Deliverance. I can't go camping with you."

  4. it's not only in Africa I'm afraid....

    a friend and her husband and their two daughters 13 and 11 (who were also raped)... were murdered in Wells Grey Park in B.C. several years ago... 28 years I think now.... along with the grandparents who were with them... and then they were burned beyond recognition... ...... Vince may remember it if he was on the west coast then ... Bob and Jackie Johnson... .... nobody could believe it...but it happened.

    I think it's best to at least use as much common sense and logic as possible... although, I know it's impossible to predict disaster...

    we don't camp out here in Alberta because Greg has a great fear of bears ...and there have been plenty of attacks and deaths from those recently too.... sigh...maybe the city is safer.... hahahha....

    Perhaps it would be a good idea to camp out in the ranger's yard this time ... not well hidden ....

  5. A tent is a raincoat with an ego problem. I have never understood the fascination with flirting with the red-fanged and sharp-clawed creatures of the day or the night, in the wild or in the city. But too many people in my life have been subjected to lethal and near-lethal violence. There's no shame in wanting to be safe -- and taking steps to ensure it.

    Surely there must be some kind of compromise you can strike between the extreme vulnerability of sleeping on the ground in a plastic bag in country populated by the fanged, venomous, potentially venal, and hungry, and the extreme insularity of 4-star civility.

  6. Interesting post. Here's my two cents on your camping fears: all living creatures (except those with serious and severe mental problems) have fears of predators. It's in the hard-wiring and is why we still exist. You just happen to be on one extreme of the fear continuum. I once read that lawns surrounding houses are what humans do, almost unconsciously, in order to make it easier to see predators.

  7. Ha, Melanie, funny...I insisted on a tent we could stand up in. And sheets!!! The thought of being casually flattened by an elephant (who would know better, I'm sure - also we were nowhere near elephants) did not appeal to me. I wanted the the tent make an impression :-)

    Pam J I love the lawn hypothesis!

    Apart from the night of terror (the first night's camping was also very nervous), there were the others, and these are the memories I will carry forever, whose enjoyment-value is almost more appreciated than the time itself was. But now that I know my wuss-parameters, I need to be clever about where we decide to camp, or I will make myself and the trusty protector miserable.

  8. Oh and one more thing. To Bumblevee: Cities ARE safer than most places, statistically speaking. Well, I guess it depends on what city and what part of the city you're talking about and the time of day. But I contend that when my husband and I used to take our kids to NYC for long weekends (the kids were in the 8 to 14 age range then) we were all so much safer than in our all-American suburban Montgomery County, MD, neighborhood. And current events tell us daily that safety in this world is hard to predict. All those people living and working at Fort Hood, TX, last Thursday probably thought they were in one of the safest places on earth. I'm just saying.

  9. Its funny, I used to deal with this problem every summer working in the woods of Maine. 65 cultured, educated, intelligent people would show up. A good percentage of them would have a great deal of fear of the darkness, the woods. They were sure there were men in the woods, waiting for them, waiting to take them, kill them, hurt them, whatever they concoct.

    One night I spent two hours searching our property for two running men who had not said hello to three women they passed on our single road. I went everywhere, spoke with everyone. As it turned out, when I returned to my cabin, a young man with the same clothing description was in the cabin speaking with his mother. He was wearing flip flops. I asked him if three ladies had said hello to him. He said yes, but didn't respond because he was rushing to see his mother. Two men? the flip flops could sound like two. They were scared out of their wits and didn't feel much better that I 'solved' the case.

    I never used a flash light there at night. For a couple of reasons- one my senses were better tuned without, two I didn't want to be spotted (fear). But the dark and unfamiliar terrain is a
    potent stimulator. We like groups and feel safe
    in them. When I have camped alone I often built branch barriers so that I would hear something coming my way.

    Anyway, whats my point? Knowledge and experience can go a long way to conquering that fear. My father in law likes to tell a story about his boy scout troop. Two boys would stay up on shift to man a large fire because it would keep the grizzlies away in Glacier National Park. Whereas the tourists would sleep in the cabins that the bears could easily break into, the boy scouts slept out doors near the fire.

    Good luck!

  10. Great post. The problem with South Africa is that it's not a fear of the boogeyman - it's a fear of very real people, not mythical escaped serial killers, just plain old criminals who have no respect for your property or life. And unlke other countries where you may awake to find your car stolen or your stuff outside your tent messed about with, if criminals do decide to go for you, you are likely to suffer extensive physical and psychological harm. I used to love still, lonely places, but now in SA they just scare me. There is a lovely passage in cry, The Beloved Country that addresses the same thing - no matter how lovely your country, you can't enjoy it if you are constantly having to live in fear.

  11. I shouldn't have read your post... I'm taking a trip back home to SA in a week... and I have those kind of night terrors, too.I lie awake in Boston at night, sometimes, imagining things... but even though my imagination runs wild I always remember that although we should not become hard and guarded, we should never become soft and too cosy in our environments either. Reality is that we are usually safe (you know, depending on where you live, etc) but bad things happen and could happen. But there is no point worrying about something that hasn't happened (and probably won't happen), is there?

    Hope you think of a great trip where you can get a good night's sleep!

  12. i love your honesty and bravery marie. i truly truly do. and i love looking at your pictures from this trip. to the idea of camping vs. the idea of fright for your life and night terrors on an otherwise wonderful holiday i'd counter: maybe no camping this time? maybe a niiiiiiice hotel room...?!


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