Camping Without Fences

We spent over a week in Kruger National Park camping behind electrical fences. The fences were certainly not flawless- but they were there. On Thanksgiving we tested our field culinary skills by preparing a mushroom risotto dish. A drooling spotted hyena paced two feet away. As conservation savvy folk we like to give accolades to the unfairly vilified species of our planet (hyenas and snakes to name a few) but we were still a little uneasy. After giving thanks to the myriad of friendships and experiences we cherished this year, we gave thanks for the fence.

A hyena visits us for Thanksgiving Dinner.

A hyena visits us for Thanksgiving Dinner.

Hyenas laughing and pacing behind the fence.

Hyenas laughing and pacing behind the fence.

At this point, we were camping at Balule camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Balule is one of the more secluded and smaller sites available. Located in an arid region of the park with no electricity and limited amenities, Balule boasts a more grounded clientele and a brilliant baobab tree. On one night during our stay, an elephant and calf waltzed up to the fence to investigate campers. Over dinner, a pair of lions roared across the campsite. We all froze and shot concerned glances to each other across the fire - how sturdy is this fence after all? Is it possible that the lions that sound like they are immediately behind us are actually immediately behind us? We were  terrorized by a scorpion and some horrendously hideous creepy insect that chased us around camp. Google 'sun spider' if you want nightmares for weeks. Fences can't keep everything out.

We left South Africa and headed to Botswana- a country that boasts some of the most wild landscapes and experiences on the continent. Unlike South Africa, camping in Botswana is often done without fences. We pulled up to our camp in Chobe National Park and settled on a site by the river. We tumbled out of the land rover, our bodies aching from the sweaty contorted mess cramped in the Landy for seemingly endless hours. Against the tree shading our site, a young elephant skull leaned and an ominous movement caught our eye. A giant river monitor, a pretty mean looking reptile (and I love reptiles) scuttled into a hole in the tree and climbed out of reach. Myles murmured what was on all our minds: "We are going to die tonight". After we set up camp, two attendants rolled up with a smirk splayed across their faces. 'Dr. Phil', one of the attendants, introduced himself and said something along the lines of...

"So, you chose this campsite eh?"....

"Yes. was that a bad idea?"

"No, it's just that two male lions were laying under this tree last night.. but no problems no problems"

Well damn. Apparently giant monitors and sibling lions enjoy munching on elephant heads here. We were a bit edgy for the remainder of the afternoon so when Max, Luke and I were walked back from the showers and heard Lynsey deliver a blood curdling vicious scream, we stopped in our tracks and counted our blessings. Myles was perched on top of the Land Rover and gestured for us to rush and bring rocks.

View from our campsite.

View from our campsite.

Lynsey wasn't attacked by a lion. She was grabbed by a large baboon in pursuit of her grapes. Thankfully, she was not hurt. This vegetarian friend of mine did however spend the afternoon fantasizing about roasting baboons on spits. We threw rocks and chased fellow primates in a mostly pathetic and futile attempt to assert dominance over our hairy relatives. By nightfall we were clustered so close around the fire I think I remember smelling burning hair.

It was hot that night. So cut to the chase, I was naked when I woke up to what I was "99% positive was a lion outside our tent". I worked at a zoo for a few summers and spent time up close with lions before. This rumbling grumbling throaty noise was familiar.  The nudity may seem like a side track, but let me tell you that laying there naked in a thin tent next to what you think are wild lions gives serious legitimacy to the phrase 'I felt like a piece of meat'. Yes, I understand that fleece pj pants would offer little protection in a lion fight. I felt primal.  Feeling my heart thump through my chest, I imagined the tent pulsating in harmony, announcing my carnal vulnerability to the toothy beasts five feet from my bare flesh.

 I slowly pulled a thin little Ghanian sheet over my shoulders for protection and rolled over to Luke- fast asleep. I quietly shook him awake. I whispered "I am 99% positive there are lions outside our tent". We heard what sounded like scratching on thin plastic to our right and imagined a lion scratching away at Max's tent. Luke was armed with his Opinel Knife No9 (safety off)- thank god. Maybe he could knife the lion while I held my sheet up and tried to reason with him "Can't you see we're human! We wouldn't taste good, there are some baboons and a lizard up that tree though. In the meantime, here are some grapes." We could hear more 'lions'  enter the site, brushing against the canvas chair immediately next to our tent. We sat in silence surviving and wondering how long we'd be doing that for. Chomp chomp chomp.  Eventually, we started to hear the animals ripping up grass. An overwhelming sigh of relief came over us as we celebrated and chanted (in our heads of course) "Grazers! Grazers! Grazers!'. .. then the farting started.

Big wet loud farts in all directions. Munch munch munch, fart... I thought they might be buffalo. This was frightening because buffalo are one of the more dangerous African animals you can encounter on foot. They are aggressive and powerful with a set of silly-looking horns that would end up piercing your chest if they caught you giggling at their appearance. The cacophony of farting and grass ripping indicated that a crowd was surrounding our tents on all sides. We imagined our human friends, silent in their tents, wide-eyed and awake listening to farting sounds, succumbing to a delightful mixture of terror and humor. We were too afraid to move and too smart to talk.

 At dawn, we awoke to intruder baboons throwing our things around camp. Eventually, we rocketed out from our tents in unison screaming and waving our arms like banshees to scare the primates away. We celebrated the night's survival, drank coffee, ate rusks and headed out on another game drive. It turns out that African elephant's repertoire of noises includes that same rumbling sound. Myles and Lynsey, our South African friends guessed almost immediately that our night visitors were elephants. Big ol' African elephants waltzed up from the river to eat, explore and scare the stupid humans in strange plastic capsules. Their giant round footprints littered the dirt around our tents.

On the second night we set my camera on a tripod in the land rover and positioned a red spot light on our site. I put the camera on a time lapse setting that took a shot every one and a half minutes. That night, I kept my clothes on as we waited for our visitors.

Sure enough, I awoke to the sound of leaves being ripped off a bush immediately behind our tent. This time unfortunately (or fortunately) it didn't sound like the whole herd came. Knowing that the visitor was an elephant and not a lion may seem like it would be a relief. However, elephants are incredibly dangerous. We were careful to stay quiet and not startle our 10,000 pound guest who could easily crush the tents, crush us (even with clothes on), flip our car and end our good luck. A young woman was trampled to death by elephants in Thailand just last week and in December an elephant flipped a car in Kruger. Despite the light tone of this story I should emphasize that interacting with and camping amongst potentially dangerous wildlife is certainly not a joke and should not be taken lightly. Always respect wildlife. Research, recognize the risks and prepare!

We awoke at dawn and eagerly cruised through the photos to discover a few good snaps of our curious flatulent friend.

Elephants approaching the campsite.

Munch munch munch...while we sit silently and anxiously in our tents.

Adrenaline rushes and 'fight or flight' moments like these are both startling and cathartic. The seconds crawl, your senses peak and you suddenly become aware of every inch of skin, every follicle of hair, every noise and breath. Forgive the cliché, but life moves so damn quickly at times- I treasure all moments that give pause. I also treasure all moments where I feel humbled by nature. Orcas, elephants, bears, scorpions, venomous snakes, Antarctic conditions- maybe it's an abusive relationship but I love when nature reminds me whose boss. As a conservationist, I'm all too aware that this isn't always the case. It's my job to help fight the battles she's losing and regardless of the times she slaps me around,  I'm damn proud of that.

My depiction of the evening. 

While leaving camp, we noticed lion tracks on the road. About ten minutes from camp, Luke spotted him under a tree. With one injured eye and a short mane (an indicator of low testosterone levels), a  golden lion rested in a bed of yellow wildflowers. Eventually, a ranger stopped by. He informed us that originally three brother lions lived here. Recently, one was killed when a zebra gave him a kick to the head- a surprising reversal of roles. The two remaining brothers hang out around camp.

Male lion that lives around this camp, he is blind in one eye.

We left Chobe, where an injured brotherhood of lions march around camp and herds of elephants relieve themselves besides tents and headed to our next site. This one had fences. But don't be relieved. At that campsite, I nearly stepped on one of the world's most dangerous animals- a black mamba snake heading for the girl's restroom.  After all, fences can't keep everything out. The trip was well worth the risks and I'm still far more afraid of humans and society than nature.