It had all the hallmarks of being my best birthday ever.
I have not been away for my birthday, since our honeymoon 32 years ago. Yet, here I am, waking up in my favourite place in the whole wide world.
Listen to the sounds
I lie there, listening to the call of the hyenas. There are still 32 more minutes to the 5:30 am wake up call. Part of me is willing myself back to sleep. That will be the part of me that doesn’t do mornings. I try to sandwich my head between the duvet and the pillow, kicking myself for forgetting to pack ear plugs.
But the other part is thinking “the hyenas are singing happy birthday, so wake up, hear the sounds, and listen to the camp come to life. I wonder if those two courting lions will be around again today..”
About an hour to be precise. Because that is when the first sounds of the camp had really woke me. I heard movement. Whispers. The fire being rekindled (not a euphemism by the way). Pots and pans clattering. In my head, that was the porridge going on. You don’t want to be inside this head some days, sleep deprivation does strange things to my imagination. But this was crazy early for porridge.
So back to 4:58 am
Those who know me, and it’s not a requirement to even know me well, will know I am not a morning person. Even with a good nights sleep I don’t speak much before mid morning. Six hours is not enough, but it was too late. My internal alarm clock had gone off, and I was already tuning in to the sounds. From under my duvet. Muffled but plain as day. I loved the hyena call, the first birds tuning up, the insects awakening. This was the sound of Africa in the morning as I strained to see what else I could hear.
Damn it man, is that someone snoring!
Hold on. Did you say Africa?
Okay I should probably press pause for a moment and explain.
Remember in Picture Perfect I mentioned I was in training for a very special trip?
Well here I am. I am actually lay on a narrow bed, with a duvet, under canvas in a mobile camp in Chobe National Park, in northern Botswana. Bed with duvet? “Not real camping then?” I hear you say.
Hey! My toilet is a hole out the back of the tent, with a pile of sand and a tin mug for back filling. Yeh, yeh, so it has a toilet seat suspended above it (that actually made me laugh hysterically when I first saw it). And my “bathroom” has a canvas wall round it, a shaving mirror (not for me you understand), and a bucket shower.
Oh how I am looking forward to my shower later. It’s now been almost two days since my last one. The day temperatures are hitting high 30s. The nights are cooler, but a menopausal woman in her almost mid 50s, sweats her way through even the coldest of nights. Yesterday we were up and packed and away sharp, no time to shower, then spent over 6 hours on a blistering hot dusty safari truck. I ain’t complaining mind. It’s just that those hyenas might be able to smell me by now. I am already dreaming about my hot soapy shower under the warm African skies after brunch.
Meanwhile back inside
..the tents are lovely. Simple but lovely. Colour coordinated cushions and throws add an air of elegance. We even have a cloths rail with equally colour coordinated hanging organiser. The camp team “in change of interiors” were incredibly proud of their tents. And so they should. It was indeed somewhere between camping and glamping. Yet 24 hours before, there was nothing here. Like, I mean, nothing. Zilch. Not a sausage. They found a spot and built the whole thing from scratch.
Five fabulous sleeping tents, with en suite bathroom, a camp fire, a dining tent and funky folding sun loungers! We had side tables and everything. A solar charged paper globe ceiling light finished the whole thing off nicely. Take a wander behind the mess tent and you will find more canvas, a catering unit and staff facilities.
Okay, it’s not all roses and petals and pretty shapes created out of towels. The zip on my bathroom door doesn’t meet at the bottom, leaving a hole just big enough for a snake to slide in, unnoticed, during the night. He might well be lay directly below me, right now. Me on the top bunk. Sleep deprivation, remember. Plays tricks. And yes I bash my trainers out before putting them on, too, checking for scorpions! A trick I learnt, trekking in the Sahara.
Meanwhile, there is just a waft of canvas between me and those hyenas. There are no fences. If I get up now, and it’s still pitch black. I might find a leopard sat on my loo. I am in the bush. A bush in wild Botswana.
And I am already bloody loving it!
Morning Morning. Hot Water?
That will be our wake up call then.
There is something quite satisfying about a canvas bucket of warm water and a flannel after a sticky nights sleep. Enough to wash away the cobwebs. Then it’s a quick change into clothes and wander across the camp for breakfast. I wonder what today’s excursion will bring.
There is a different air around the breakfast table this morning. A gentle buzz, good unforced humour. Perhaps it’s having survived a night without being eaten in our beds? It’s fair to say there was a palpable tension in the vehicle on the way to camp the day before. Heat, bumpy roads, anticipation of the unknown. Mr Smith (excuse the formality, two Steves, too complicated, I’ll explain later) and I have done a mobile camp before, and even slept under the stars with just a mosquito net and a two way radio for protection. But the unknown, and the responsibility to each other, must have been inside us all, a little, I think.
Yes, today definitely had a different air.
Maybe it was the teamwork needed so everyone got the right breakfast ingredients into the right cup/bowl. In darkness, with head torches. One eyed monsters seated around the table, looking slightly ridiculous in our practicality? “Coffee on the left, hot water on the right”.
Or perhaps it was the lovely Ruth, a now long retired aviation mathematician, with her dry one liners. Ruth who would keep us in stitches for the entire trip as she grew ever bolder, both vocally and in her quest to get herself in position for the perfect shot. “I am only little”.
Today she almost sat down at my breakfast bowl (it’s okay, I wasn’t in my seat at the time) and, in doing so, set the whole table in hysterics. Rosamund, with shaking shoulders, managed to splutter “it’s the sign of a good holiday when you have had a fit of hysterics, and I am halfway there”.
John, a retired professor in Thoracic medicine, and Rosamund a retired teacher, are husband and wife, and are aficionados when it comes to photographic tours.
Anyone hear the lion this morning?
Lion? Did I miss the lion? “All I heard was Steve snoring next door”
So this is the other Steve, half of our husband and wife professional photographer team. Together they are wholly responsible for bringing our group together – and keeping us right. That’s no mean feat. On both counts. He shall be known as ‘photo Steve’ for the avoidance of any confusion.
I should also point out ‘photo Steve’ had himself warned us about his own snoring on our first night. On a houseboat. With walls. Like – that must be some snore. So I don’t think my assumption was totally misplaced. Was it?
Blank looks. Ann, his wife (and other half of this crack photography team) says “not Steve, I’d have shut him up”.
Ah, the realisation dawns. Someone did say lion, and I had indeed mistaken a roar for a snore. Duvet over my head. That’s my excuse.
“Coffee on the right, hot water on the left”
“Did you hear camp rise this morning?” Sue is also a single traveller, another keen photographer and competition judge. Indeed we did, Sue.
“Which one’s hot water again?”
With two of us already managing to put a teabag into a cup of coffee, you are probably getting the drift by now. It was going to be a fab, if mad, three days!
We leave at 6:30
It’s the same time every day. Timed to get out just as the sun is rising. As we finish our final preparations for the morning drive, packing the camera bags, Mr Smith quietly whispers “happy birthday” and passes me my card.
Thank you. I had wondered how long it would be and, by now, I had figured this one would pass very quietly.
Our transport for the next five game drives is an eight seated open sided, specially adapted, Toyota Landcruiser. Ann & Steve Toon, our hosts, use Pangolin Photo Safaris as their ground team. I will tell you more about this awesome combination in another blog. But for now it’s all about today.
Did I mention, it’s my birthday?
Just Ruth to muster now, and we can get off. Photo Steve heads off to round her up. Two figures emerge from Ruth’s tent and make their way to the vehicle. As Ruth climbs in she simply says “I think you might have my pyjamas in there”.
Well, the look on his face was priceless. Steve had his hands full with a bundle of Ruth’s two fleeces and coat – and he did indeed have Ruth’s pyjamas.
You know when you can’t actually breathe for laughing? Woman down! I can’t speak even. This was going to be a great day.
As Game Drives Go
..it was a lovely one. Mornings are generally quieter, lots of bird life, until the mammals start to emerge. We followed the tracks, along the banks of the Chobe River. A chance to spot a zebra or a giraffe perhaps, both of which had been in short supply up until now.
We had just spent our first three days on a houseboat, traversing the Chobe, with twice daily sessions on a specially adapted photography boat. We could see into the park, but not access it from the water. So being inland, seeing it all from a different angle, was a lovely change.
A full vehicle has it’s challenges when it comes to everyone getting into position for a great shot. Borrowing a shoulder, a knee, squeezing into a gap are a necessity. Because a vehicle full of photographers means your opportunities extend way beyond what you see. The how becomes just as important, and arguably more so. Getting the right angle. The right light. The right position. “All I can see is tree, forward a bit”.
Because that was what we were all there for. To make a good photo into an amazing photo, through the use of some simple, yet well thought out, techniques.
I am the rookie in a vehicle full of some serious kit and skills. I have lots still to learn. But four days in, and my birthday and Christmas wish list is already gathering a few items to help me on my way.
We travelled along the track to a “stretch point” – designated areas for a picnic and a comfort break. This one, close to the very edge of the park, is quite different to anywhere we have seen in all our years of safaris. Flat open plains, almost. When I think back to when we first thought we would like to visit Africa, this was the very picture I had in my head.
A beautiful, peaceful start to the day. To my day.
Did I mention, it’s my birthday?
Time flies when you are having fun
In no time at all we are pulling back into a camp welcome. I love this. The camp staff are there when we leave and when we return, to wave us off, and wave us back.
I have captured a few interesting shots today. And, now I am already planning my own little birthday celebration.
I am going to enjoy my brunch, then open my cards and presents. My camera SD card will be set downloading while I have a lovely shower and wash my hair. Then there is going to be a comfy chair, outside my tent, with my name (and bottom) on it. I might read my book or maybe start some writing. Maybe even enjoy a nice long birthday G&T before we head out later this afternoon.
Small pleasures. But it’s a hot day, and I am in my favourite place so I am going to enjoy some time just listening to the sounds and soaking it up.
Shower is ready
If you have never had a bucket shower, it’s a treat. The guys heat up the water, and fill a canvas bucket. It has a tap and shower head and it is suspended above head height. And the technique is open the tap, wet all over, shut it off. Shampoo, soap. Now rinse. So leaving enough for Mr Smith.
And there is something exhilarating about stepping outside, in your birthday suit, and showering under the hot African sun.
A couple of bees are loitering around the tap. I swat them away. Tap on, rinse, tap off.
Soap and shampoo. I was planning a shorts day – so needed a bit more time to smarten up my legs too. Is that too much information?
Bzzz! A few more bees. Damn, are they after my soap? Swat – “Buzz off!”
I plough on, won’t be long. If they just stay up near the bucket I will be fine.
Bzzzzzzzzzz! “Go away”.
By now I am dancing around, trying to avoid the growing numbers. I decide to rinse, get rid of the soap, as I am sure that is what they are after. There are several now and I am sure there was one in my hair just then! I go for one last rinse, then give up, swat the tap, switch off and beat a hasty retreat. Dripping wet, I head back to the safety of the tent.
Mr Smith is still calmly viewing his images from today. He doesn’t even look up.
“There are loads of bees out there now, I am sure it’s the soap”
Still no response.
Ouch!! Ow, ow ow! $%&£! £$%&!
Well that’s got his attention. And everyone else in camp, too, I learned later.
I have been stung. Back of my thigh. In the safety of my tent too. You little beggar – did I mention, it’s my flipping birthday!
Swarm of Killer African Bees – Eight British Tourists Evacuated from Camp
The next couple of hours would see the bee invasion gather momentum with incredible speed. And the reason being was relatively simple.
The season is dry and the bees are desperate for water!
And four out of the five tents had opted to have an afternoon shower.
I have no idea how they know where to find the water. The camp did not exist there until yesterday. But they knew. And they came in droves. We zipped up the back of the tent and watched as the numbers behind the mesh screen grew. Sting ably removed, painkillers taken, and antihistamine applied, I tried to sit out the front of the tent, hoping the bees would be distracted out the back. We tried all manner of insect repellents. But wet hair and delicious smells of lotions and soap, were obviously too much for any bee to resist. It was oppressive now inside the tent, with all the doors zipped, I couldn’t settle.
One by one
..our camp mates emerged from their tents, each with similar stories. John proudly shared his video of my shower. Whoa! I wasn’t in it! No, he was merely capturing the bees at their best – or worst. Imagine some kind of Alfred Hitchcock film. You get the picture.
Thankfully there was only one other bee sting, among the guests. Not “thankfully” for Ann and I, of course, but we were grateful nonetheless. But for the staff it was a very different story. They were now also battling hard. Shower buckets were hastily emptied, in the hope the bees would dissipate. Back in the catering unit it was carnage. The staff were determined to keep going, brave faced, for the sake of their guests. But cooking needs water. Lots. And so they too were being swarmed – and stung.
It might help at this stage to understand what it is about these bees…
The Africanized bee
…also known as the Africanised honey bee, and known colloquially as the “killer bee“, is a hybrid of the western honey beespecies (Apis mellifera), produced originally by cross-breeding of the East African lowland honey bee (A. m. scutellata) with various European honey bees. Africanized bees are typically much more defensive than other varieties of honey bee, and react to disturbances faster than European honey bees. They can chase a person a quarter of a mile; they have killed some 1,000 humans, with victims receiving ten times more stings than from European honey bees. They have also killed horses and other animals.
Thank you John (and wikipedia) for pointing that out.
But the biggest thanks must go to Ruth! She had opted to take her shower before dinner (the bees are gone again by nightfall). With no water to attract them, her facilities were declared bee free.
And by now we were all needing to pee! In a loo, which was in our “bathroom”. A bathroom infested by killer Africanised bees. Well there was no way I was baring all and risking a repeat performance. Sting, or indeed its removal.
Afternoon tea was taken standing, slightly on the move, as we talked about how we could manage the next 36 hours without needing to leave camp. It’s tough. It’s meant to be a wild experience. And that includes anything the wildlife should throw our way. Plus – the staff want us to have a fantastic experience. It really really matters to them.
But the reality of the situation is, we are over an hour away from a medical centre. And there is no mobile network in the park. Radio contact is limited too. The simple fact is, if someone was to receive multiple stings, they could actually get very sick. And while we could have opted to stay out of camp all day, and even not shower at all, we had to think about the staff too. They were there, in the heat of the day, when the bees are most active, with no respite.
And so, reluctantly, the decision was taken to leave camp the next morning (a day early) and move onto our final location.
24 hours later, we arrived back at the hotel, our final destination. Grateful they had just enough rooms to bring us back early. Tired and ready for a good shower. And the talk at the hotel was all about the bees.
There are in fact several permitted mobile camps in the park, operated by different companies and groups. Their locations are constantly on the move, but bookable in advance.
Our photo guides, Steve and Ann, had not taken the decision to dissolve our own camp lightly. We are stoic, yes. But more importantly, we share a deep deep love of Africa. Giving up on this immersive opportunity is not in our make up. We were all a little gutted to have to cut short our experience, but completely respected it to be the safest and most sensible decision.
So it was reassuring (although, deeply saddening too) to hear we were not the only camp affected. Many were reporting the same problems – bees looking for water. Two operators have even taken the decision to cancel their bush camp experience, entirely, for the rest of this season. A sensible precaution. We hadn’t simply set up underneath a bees nest.
It is important to understand, this winter has been exceptionally dry for the region. And so things like this are unusual and entirely unpredictable. It is a real bush experience….there are no cameras (except ours). No suspended bridge. And definitely no Ant and Dec and fireworks when you leave. Just warm hugs and friendly waves and a “come back soon”.
Would I do a mobile tented bush camp again?
Hell, yes! In a heart beat! One bee sting is not going to stop me. I love the bush. The smells. The sounds in the morning (especially). I love the atmosphere too. It’s as if everyone sheds a little of their formality and starts to just be themselves.
Oh, what’s that sorry? My birthday?
My birthday was brilliant. Memorable – for so many reasons. Okay, so my leisurely afternoon, didn’t quite go to plan. Apologies for the colourful language which emanated from my tent – that bee could certainly sting! And its removal even more painful (thanks Mr Smith!). But, putting that aside, I still had an amazing day.
A birthday toast and drinks around the camp fire (happy anniversary to John and Rosamund too) and good company and a lot of laughter at the dinner table. Rounded off with a verse of happy birthday and a super birthday cake rustled up by the camp chef. Now that’s enough of a challenge in the middle of the bush anyway – let alone with bees swarming around you. So thanks Eric and the whole crew.
It was a perfect end to my perfect day….