Sunday, May 25, 2014

Camping under African skies

One of the highlights of our trip was the unique opportunity to camp in Public Campsites. Participating in cooking and pitching tents were huge bonuses. As well as the time we would have available to gaze at the star filled skies. My primary apprehension before the trip was about the toilet facilities. I was not at all worried about living in a 2 metre x 2 metre tent with only a flashlight to guide us around our bags and clothes in the darkness. 

Most of the loos passed the test quite well. Tiled walls and floors, and flush toilets that worked. Along with the water injection system to clean up. Ah, luxury! Ok, there were bits of toilet paper lying around, and the occasional mess, but then that's fine, we were not expecting five star facilities. The overall experience was awesome. Camping under star lit African skies was an unbelievable experience. Another apprehension was 'what if we need to visit the loo in the middle of the night?'. That turned out to be an adventure. More on this later...

Roika Tented Camp Campsite, Tarangire

In Tarangire, our first night was at Roika Tented Camp. Romeo of Safari Multiways had thoughtfully thrown in one night of sleeping on real beds under real roofing. It was quite luxurious, actually, at a charge close to public campsites. Roika is kind enough to let camping visitors cook their food and eat in a very private enclosure.

Junior set up the tripod and camera and lost no time in getting down to business. It was cloudy that night, so we were unable to catch many stars. The moving clouds were captured with long exposures. 

It was just us in the encloure. I wondered what the enclosure was for. To keep the wild animals away, perhaps. Roika is an unfenced camp. Dinner invariably consisted of a yummy Soup and a main dish, followed by Fruit, and sometimes a bit of Dessert. Luxury in the bush! More about food later.

The lodging was primarily made of bamboo and wood, very well appointed inside. With electricity, too!

A team of armed Maasai folks kept a close eye on guests. We were escorted between the dining area and the rooms after dark. They helped us with our luggage, though we could have managed that. However, it was a chance for al of to socialize, and for the Maasais to practice a few words of English and smilingly earn a few Dollars by way of tips. 

Breakfast will be described later in the Food post. Here is a glimpse of the setting. Cool, eh?

At every camp, Junior and I tried to lend a helping hand as we loaded or unloaded the tent, sleeping stuff and all the cooking stuff. 

Small Public Campsite, Tarangire 

We experienced life at a small, almost private, Public Campsite inside Tarangire. That is, it was a Public Campsite, but very less frequented. 

Junior got to play soccer with the boys at the camp. It was great fun. 

The camera was also set up soon enough as the sun went down. This is our dining table. Our tent is visible in the background. 

Being a cloudy evening we could get a bunch of Cloud photos.

Dinner was served in darkness under the stars, the food lit up by mobile phones and flashlights. Soup, main course and fruit. Temperatures were falling.  

Junior's Mamma back home spent a sleepless night, though we tried our best to reassured her that armed Park Rangers had come in that night to keep an eye on the camp. There were only three tents that night: Tent #1 was for the Rangers, Tent #2 was for Amos and Moses (our driver and cook) and Tent #3 was for Junior and self. Now, what else could one ask for? A quiet Campsite in the middle of the African bush set in an Ellie park. This certainly was great fun. We had been warned about the dangers of leaving cut fruits in the open. Fruit smell is well loved by Ellies and the smell travels many kilometres. They may just decide to come over and investigate!  Well, nothing of the sort happened. 

For the record, here is a picture of the toilet block: a squat toilet, a Western toilet and a shower room in between. 


Nyani Public Campsite, Central Serengeti

There are a string of six or seven Public Campsites in Centrel Serengeti. Amos chose Nyani Public Campsite. We dropped our tents and food gear off at around 4 PM and headed out for the game drive, while Moses set up the tents and cooking gear and got the dinner ready. 

Junior headed for the gents loo, and received a quiet and shy welcome from a Giraffe which quickly vanished into the bush. Imagine Junior's excitement as he came back and described the encounter! By then, after our 2-hour game drive, we had got thoroughly spoiled by the wonders of Serengeti, and this kind of an encounter was not much of a surprise. 

Time to set up the tripod and get the reference points right. Later in the night, references consisted mainly of the outlines of trees, lit up for a few seconds with the flashlight. In the darkness, it would be hard to frame and photograph the sky.

Food was served in the dining hall. About 20 other tents (in total, including visitors and crew) had been set up by then. But it did not feel crowded. There was no noise, either. Here are a few photographs of the post-dinner sky.

Here is our little 2 metres x 2 metres tent. We brought the folding chairs from the dining hall visible in the background, to sit and admire the star filled sky.

The alarm would ring at 05:30 AM. Not a moment to lose. We are in the Serengeti! The loos would not be crowded, as well. Good time to capture the silhouettes of the tents against the rising sun during breakfast.

A look at the inside of the tent, just before we pack up to leave for Ngorongoro. 

Banded mongoose look for food in the bins near the cooking hall. 

Our tent before being dismantled, with the toilet block in the background.


Simba Public Campsite, Ngorongoro

The only Public Campsite in Ngorongoro is the Simba Public Campsite. It is located on a sloping hill side with a giant fig tree right in the middle. The view is marvelous, that of the Crater and Lake Magadi. The setting sun further accentuates the beauty of the location and the views.

Agroup of Maasais greet us.

We help set up our tent. There are two toilet blocks in the Campsite, on either end. Warm water is available, if you reach early enough. 

One of the challenges associated with staying at Public Campsites is to avoid visiting the loo in the middle of the night. Back in Serengeti, I had asked Amos about this. He had answered very gravely: "Look properly, go at your own risk, Lion may be there!". I had timed my last fluid intake perfectly in Tarangire and in Serengeti. 

Ngorongoro, however, turned out different. It was far colder. Evening and night temperatures ranged around 5 C. A very cold breeze was blowing. As a result, we stayed longer in the relatively warm dining hall. The hall had many charging points, so we could recharge our several batteries. And since we were sort of comfortably sitting there, I - foolishly - drank cups of warm, black coffee. Further, being biting cold, we were unable to sit out and admire the stars for more than a few moments. Junior covered himself with a hooded half-jacket and a hooded full-jacket on top of that. 

He set up the tripod outside the tent, set up the exposure, and crawled back into the tent. "It's too cold, cannot sit outside." he muttered. I began questioning my sense of responsibility. Junior's Mamma's words started ringing in my head. "Be responsibile. He is 16 years old. He has his life ahead of him. Your clock is ticking. Be a good parent. Take good care of him." The temperature felt close to freezing, because of the bitterly cold breeze. We did not get too many photos that night!

Junior decided to retire early. So did I. It was barely 9 PM. We had not slept that early in years. By 11 PM, I began to feel slightly uncomfortable. Click. I switched on the flashlight under the covers so that Junior would not get disturbed. I had to be responsible. Go to sleep, I advised myself. Only 6 or 7 hours to go. The pressure was rising. Click went the flashlight again under the cover a little while later. Oh no! It's only 11:45 PM. Ok, only 5 to 6 hours, maybe less. Change the position. Alter the pressure. Ignore the discomfort. That soon turned into 'Ignore the pain'.

After a while, lack of sleep made me click the flashlight again under cover and peer at my wrist watch. 1:00 AM. 1:00 Am? Really? Yes,1:00 AM. Really! Damn! Relax, calm down, just pretend all is well. Be positive. Think about the good times we had in Tarangire and Serengeti. Soon after, the promises came many and fast. I promise to be good the rest of my life. I promise not to harass Junior's Mamma any more. I promise not to bully Junior any more (though he's taller and stronger, and regularly beats me up!). Please vaporize my pee. Please make it magically disappear. Please reduce the pressure in my bladder. Please. I will be responsible, yes, honest, I will. I shall not camp in Public Campsites any more.

Please, oh please, I pleaded! I even had serious visions of turning into a good boy! 

Finally, at about 2:30 AM, I could bear it no more. I had to do what I had to do. Because of the cold, we had both worn two pairs of socks. My feet disappeared into my shoes very quickly. The tent flaps had to be unzipped. Zipppp went the inside flap, about two feet or so. Zipppp went the outer flap. Any wild creature lurking in anticipation outside would have noticed a head poking out, testing the air temperature and the presence of unwanted creatures in the darkness with the help of temperature and motion sensors on the tip of the nose. 

Be responsible. Take good care of Junior. 

Look properly. Go at your own risk. Lion may be there. 

I looked left, then looked right, and opened the flaps a bit more, just enough to crawl out. Right leg out. Reached back into the tent and grabbed the flashlight.  On your marks, get set, go! The left leg followed, flashlight in hand. In my panic I had forgotten that the floor of the tent is raised about four or five inches, perhaps to keep water and bugs away. My left toe got well and truly hooked to the floor part of the tent that is raised. It had to happen, you know. Mr Murphy was at work in Ngorongoro, as well. As I bravely took off whooosh into the night, I just as quickly found myself lying face down on the cold grass, wet with dew, thuudddd!!! 

Managing to break the fall with my arms, I lost the flashlight. It landed and rolled away about three feet, creating a white pool of light on the grass. Fortunately it was the rugged type, so was unharmed. 

Look left. Look right. Look front. Look behind. Look up (predatory bird?). Look down (grass!). I was up in a flash, faster than I ever have picked myself up. Retrieving the flashlight, I quickly zipped the inner and outer tent flaps back in place. I did not want the chill air to get inside the tent. Had Junior seen my plight, he would have laughed his wicked head off. He refers to me as a fossil, anyway.

All that was just the means to an end. Now I needed to walk to the toilet block about 50 metres (150 feet) away. A solitary light bulb was burning outside the building that appeared oh-so far away. Being solar powered, there are not that many lights in the camp. Ah, the brave, successful trip to the loo and the relief I subsequently felt were some of the most comforting feelings ever. The bladder pressure vanished. The safety angle still had to be tackled. I kept furtively glancing around for strange movements and sounds. Not that I could have reacted faster! On my way back, I noticed a fire burning in the distance down the hill towards the crater. By then, I felt brave enough and wanted to investigate. Once again the voice rang out in my head. "Be responsible. Take good care of Junior." I quietly headed back to the tent 50 metres away, actually enjoying the cool air on the way back, feeling rather brave.  

Once inside the tent, I wondered: "Why are we doing this? Why are we enduring the bone chilling cold under flimsy canvas?". For fun, obviously. It's not about saving $$, is it? I asked myself. Nope! But wait a minute, don't you think it's gone too far? Is there any need? I need to be responsible. Ok, so I am going to talk to Romeo first thing in the morning to arrange a room at one of the warm and safe Crater Lodges for the next night. I was carrying credit cards and debit cards anyway, so payment was not going to be a problem. I have enough crisp currency, as well, in case the card machines decide not to work. I finally fell asleep, warmed by comforting thoughts of a cozy Lodge night ahead, and also being called a responsible parent. 

Early the next morning, I was curious to unzip the inner and outer tent flaps and peer out. It was 06:30 AM. The rays of the rising sun had bathed the grass a deep green. Dew glinted on the leaves of grass. The cold night had passed. Ah! What a glorious sight it was. The sky was a brilliant, clear, deep blue. There were only a few clouds in sight. Not a trace of fog. I strolled down and gazed further ahead down the hill side. Lake Magadi smiled cheerfully back at me from inside the crater. 

A lovely day had dawned. The previous night was quickly forgotten. Lodge? What Lodge? Why Lodge? Lodges are no fun! Flimsy canvas tents are far better!

Time to head to Empakai Crater, I thought to myself, as Junior opened his eyes and crawled out, unable to believe the beautiful sight of the dew tipped green grass, the crater, the lake and the blue sky. And the smell of the wet grass and chill air. It was a morning worth living for! Junior had no clue of the goings on during the night.

Our drive and trek around the Empakai Crater were eventful, described in another post. The next night at the Crater was relatively peaceful. I had timed my liquid intake perfectly. 

However, at about 03:00 AM, I began to hear mysterious sounds outside the tent. The sounds were moving around. 

Snort-chomp-chomp-chomp. Very near. 
Snort-chomp-chomp-chomp. A little distance away. 
Snort-chomp-chomp-chomp. Near again. 

The snorting and chomping went on for a while, perhaps more than 30 minutes. I was tempted to peep out. Be responsible. I heard in my mind. I asked Amos about the sounds the next morning. Bufffalo, he said. I had thought it was Wild Pig, which we had seen near the Conservation office when we had gone over to refuel earlier that evening. Wild Pig sound is much milder, he said, and demonstrated that for me.  And so the fun and excitement continued, supplemented with hot, black Coffee and Breakfast. Time to pack up and head down to the Crater. It was the latest that we had left any of our campsites. It was 07:45 AM. The site was almost empty. Most of the tents had vanished. Not a trace of litter was to be found, either. It was a very pleasant sight, the Campsite as good as new, reflecting the serious and disciplined nature of travelers. 

We had noticed this at the Nyani Campsite in Serengeti, as well.  No litter in the Campground. No garbage in the Cooking and Dining halls. Drivers, Cooks and Visitors are extremely responsible people, indeed! 


Lake Natron River Camp

The drive to Lake Natron from our rest stop in the Lake Manyara area overlooking the Lake was close to three hours. I have another post on this interesting journey, leading up to a rocky, dusty, desolate, seemingly forgotten area. The hardy Maasai people live  there.  We reached Lake Natron River Camp at about 11 AM. Just like Roika Tented Camp in Tarangire, River Camp at Natron allows camping guests to pitch tents at the Campsite, cook their meals in the kitchen and eat in a private enclosure.

Predictably, we were the only guests in the Lodge. We may as well have been the only guests for several kilometres. We helped Amos set up the tents in the little enclosure right next to the Lodge. There were no guests in the Lodge, it appeared desolate as staff were busy cleaning, ready to be reopened in the near future. Moses got to work on the food. 

We would sit around, chat and eat that evening and night under the protective gaze of Ol Doinyo Lengai, an active volcano.  

Ol Doinyo Lengai means "Mountain of the Gods" in the Maasai language. The stark beauty of the Lake Natron area made us feel like we had arrived in the "Land of the Gods".

-=-=-=-= Please click below for posts in this series:

Namanga Border Crossing

The Gentle Giants of Tarangire

Tarangire revisited

Endless Serengeti Plains

Migrating herds, Crocodiles and Vultures at Kirawira

Big Cats of Central Serengeti

Camping under African skies

Flamingos at Empakai Crater Lake

Ngorongoro Crater - Wildlife, Maasais and Flowers

Campsite food and Nyama Choma in Mto Wa Mbu

From green to gray, the stark beauty of Lake Natron

Videos - Tarangire, Central Serengeti

Videos - Central Serengeti, Western Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Natron

Two nights in Arusha


1 comment:

  1. Its all very lively. The simba public camp incident is just hilarious. All the posts are thoroughly interesting.
    Travel with adventure is the highlight of this tour. Junior's camera skill is par excellence. Can pursue this profession in future.


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