Something to declare

Keeping it real ... camping in Africa.
Keeping it real ... camping in Africa. Photo: Getty Images

Milo was never short of confidence. That's not a bad thing when your job is piloting a semitrailer filled with tourists through various bits of unknown Africa. Our gallant driver had to negotiate us past huge herds of zebras, around potholes the size of, well, a huge herd of zebras, and through African cities where chaos is an acceptable norm.

He did all this with a brash cool, we green passengers at the back of the modified trailer watching in awe as he calmly pummelled the truck through sand dunes and roared into the lake-like puddles that occasionally disrupted our journey. That truck was his trusty steed, Milo the fearless horseman whooping in the saddle.

So when Milo announced we were making camp, none of us batted an eyelid. We were making camp. The fact we weren't actually at a campsite didn't seem to be a problem. We'd "bush camped" before, settling down for the night in the middle of nowhere, so pulling into a clearing by the side of the road to pitch our tents was almost passe.

The fact we were hundreds of kilometres from the nearest human settlement, somewhere in the middle of northern Botswana, didn't seem to be a problem, either. The fewer people there were around, Milo reasoned, the fewer people there were to bother you. In Africa, you have to think this sort of thing through.

"All right," Milo said, stepping down from the cabin and surveying his new territory, "this'll do. Just make sure your tents can't be seen from the road. I don't think we're supposed to be here, so best not let anyone know, eh?"

Right. So we set about pitching our tents, a familiar chore after two months on a truck tour of eastern Africa. Lay the tent out, peg it down, criss-cross the poles, clip the tent on, throw the fly over, get a fire going. Relax.

The light was slowly dying, throwing shadows from the thick brush all around us, when we heard the rumble in the distance. Milo heard it, too. "Bugger," he said in his laconic Kiwi way. "This'll be good."

We could see the Land Rover pulling off the highway, making its way down to our little makeshift camp. Park rangers, for sure.

Milo, never short of bluster, summoned himself up to his full 167 centimetres and went out to explain. He came back, shoulders slumped, a few minutes later.

"Righto, guys, tents down," he mumbled, kicking dirt over the fire. "We're outta here."

"What's the problem?" someone asked.

"Ah, apparently, we're on an elephant road."

"A what?"

"Elephant road. They'll come tramping through here about midnight, whole big herd of them, the bloke reckons. If there's a tent in their way, well, it won't get in their way."

It was a rare misstep by the mighty Milo; we slept in the truck by the side of the highway that night. Still, it didn't dim our enthusiasm for camping. We camped for three months straight on that trip, in great campsites, mediocre campsites and horrible campsites, and every single night there was a story to tell.

What is it about camping that is so appealing?

Try explaining the concept to anyone who doesn't enjoy the everyday luxuries we do and they'll think you're bananas. Yes, we could afford to stay in a nice hotel but, instead, we're going to sleep in a glorified canvas sack, cook caveman-style on a fire and fight off insects, snakes and gigantic pachyderms just for the pleasure. It sounds bonkers.

Yet camping is amazing. There's something timelessly fantastic about that thin piece of material separating you from the great outdoors; about gathering around a little fire to undoubtedly burn your food; and the inevitable midnight trip to the toilet, which will involve the difficult opening of a tent zipper and the dark fumbling for an appropriate venue.

But what an adventure.

It wasn't all smooth in Africa. There was the Milo Elephant Incident, which was a close shave with some big feet. There was the flooded campsite in Malawi that ended in a few tents floating Cast Away-style into the lake (minus Wilson). There was a bogged truck in Kenya that required a lot of shovelling, then a lot of laundry.

But there was also the camp in Zimbabwe that had hot showers after someone lit a fire underneath the water tank. There was the chance meeting with a Masai tribesman at a bush camp in Tanzania and the toilet block in Uganda with a flawless view of the roaring infant Nile.

Then there were the everyday campsites, the simple ones where we would gather around the fire each evening, sample the slightly singed fare cooked by a couple of passengers, drink a few beers, tell a few stories, then jump in a sleeping bag surrounded by the sounds of the African night.

That's what camping is all about. Especially without the elephants.

smh.com.au/thebackpacker.

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