Paul Smitz
Australia AU
Mar 14, 2017 March 14, 2017

Paul has long written about his travel experiences, including many years as a Lonely Planet guidebook author, and in recent times has been joyfully exploring wildlife-rich southern Africa.

Category: Amazing Wildlife Encounters

Looking forward to a spot of outdoor sleeping on your upcoming southern African safari? Feeling a bit anxious about only having a thin sheet of canvas between you and the four-legged locals?
Well, if you’re concerned about safety, it might reassure you to know that fenced campgrounds, or sites with some kind of perimeter, are the norm in two of the region’s safari drawcards: South Africa and Namibia.

Safe and Sound
In South Africa, unless you go way off the beaten track, you’ll probably be setting up camp behind some protective wire. In some cases, such as in the more-developed parts of Kruger National Park, that wire will be electrified – not heavily, just enough to deter the spotted hyena that has one glittering eye on your dinner. Similarly, in Namibia it’s unlikely that you’ll have any close encounters of the animal kind at your campsite. Accommodation at Okaukuejo in the west of the country’s centrepiece national park, Etosha, is separated from the waterhole where animals congregate by steep ramparts topped by a stone wall. On the other side of the park, the security at Namutoni is even more impressive – you sleep within the grounds of an old German fort.

This approach seems reasonable. After all, while many of us like to feel at one with nature and acknowledge our biological bond with other species on this planet, we can’t pretend that the easygoing relationship we have with our pets is transferable to our wilder cousins. We can’t walk up to a wild dog with rubber ball in hand and toss it into the underbrush, expecting a fetch response. Nor can we go up to a lion and wave a squeaky toy in its face, then give it a brisk rub behind the mane – not even one of those heart-melting cubs. The ‘wild’ in ‘wild animal’ is self-explanatory.

But then again, Africa’s wildlife is far more interested in foraging, and in hunting its usual prey, than bothering you while you’re snuggled up in your tent. That’s why there are plenty of places in southern Africa where campsites are open to the surrounding bush – no walls, no wire. In national park campsites in Botswana, and particularly across the vast expanse of Zambia, animals can flow through a campground like wet season rains. And what a grand (and safe) experience that can be.

An Elephant Parade
A few years ago, while travelling around Zambia, I visited South Luangwa National Park and stayed in a popular campground overlooking the park’s namesake river. I pitched my tent on a wooden platform nailed up in the branches of a large tree, about a dozen feet off the ground – for some reason I fell for the gimmick (I call it my Ewok moment), but fortunately I didn’t fall out of the tree during the night. The next morning I was stowing the last of my gear into my car when I spotted a procession of big, floppy ears marching through the trees at the other end of the campground. The ears resolved themselves into a small group of elephants taking their morning constitutional along the river.

African bush elephants are an intimidating size – except for the babies of course, which couldn’t look less intimidating when they dash around with trunks hoisted in the air like disoriented snorkellers – and the sight of these enormous animals approaching my car made me a little nervous at first. I was used to checking them out from the elevated safety of a safari truck, or at a distance through the window of my car, not while standing out in the open with my feet planted in the dirt. But I learned that as long as you stay well out of their way, there’s little to fear. Anxiety gave way to delight, and I spent a few wonderful minutes contemplating the dizzying wrinkles on those massive hides as they trooped past.

Photo by: Terry Feuerborn

Hungry Hippos
A more common experience on that Zambia trip, a lot of which was spent camping beside rivers and lakes, was to be woken up in my tent by the disconcerting noise that a hippo makes when it’s eating grass – a weird combination of chewing and spitting. It’s quite memorable to be stretched out in a sleeping bag while a one-and-a-half-tonne vegetarian mows the lawn around you, occasionally grunting (and farting) in satisfaction. The animals’ endless chomping could explain why a group of hippos is often called a ‘bloat’.

You wouldn’t know it from their mild-mannered expressions, but hippos are among the most aggressive and unpredictable of African animals, if not at the top of that list. So it may seem a tad crazy to be having a snooze where the animals wander ashore for a night of munching. But there’s little to worry about if you stay inside your tent. It’s only if you stray outside (hippos don’t like to socialise), and particularly if you get between them and the water (cutting off their escape route: a definite no-no), that you might attract their attention. Besides which, in many of the Zambian campgrounds I visited, staff members armed with flashlights would patrol the riverbank and encourage the hippos to move on – the animals don’t seem to like being in the spotlight.

King of the Beasts
Even one of Africa’s iconic predators, the lion, is more likely than not to ignore you when you settle down for the night. Towards the end of my Zambia trip, I stayed in the northern part of Kafue National Park, at a lodge that’s famous for the prides of lions that roam the area. In fact, one of the lodge’s owners, Chris, is a bit of a lion expert, and he’s quite casual when it comes to encounters with the king of the beasts. One night we were sitting out front of the lodge, enjoying a few sundowners, and I said I needed to go to the toilet. Chris pointed me down a well-worn path that led to a loo set in the bush. As I headed off, he gave me a bit of advice: ‘Oh, and if you see a lion stretched out in front of the toilet, just step over him. They like to lie there after they’ve eaten their dinner’. I’m sure he was serious, just as I’m sure that the relief I felt when I saw the empty toilet doorway was even greater than the relief I felt after doing my business inside.

Camping without Borders
Yes, camping in the southern African wilderness can involve some anxiety, and there’s always a little risk involved. But safety won’t be your main concern. It’ll be figuring out how to make your friends back home understand just how special it is to get up close to the region’s amazing wildlife, to mingle with the animals on their own turf. So if you have the opportunity, embrace the concept of campgrounds without borders, and have an unforgettable safari experience.

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Looking forward to a spot of outdoor sleeping on your upcoming southern African safari? Feeling a bit anxious about only having a thin sheet of canvas between you and the four-legged locals? Read all about camping on safari and what precautions you'll need to take in countries where this is common, like South Africa and Namibia.