Sunday Safari Series,  Travel,  Wildlife Photography

Memories of Sleeping Under The Stars in Beautiful South Africa

It is fair to say we are no strangers to an African safari. Drifting off to sleep to the grunts of a hippo, and waking to the soft roar of a lion calling her cubs, is the most incredible feeling. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. Yet the thoughts of actually sleeping under the stars had never appealed to us.

Africa Gets Under Your Skin

Our first-ever holiday to Africa was back in 2005. It came about as a result of one of those conversations which go something like ‘if you could go anywhere in the world for a holiday where would you go?’

An African safari came the reply. But we were ultra-cautious in our choices back then. So we booked two weeks on Watamu beach in Kenya, with two fly-in excursions, each lasting just over two days. Our safety net being we would soon be back on the sun lounger if we hated it.

Except we didn’t hate it at all. Because it was love at first sight. We had made friends, crossed language barriers and I cried like a baby when I had to leave. We knew from that moment that this would define our holidays forever.

Fast forward sixteen years and by now we have stayed in lodges in four different countries on this amazing continent, each time getting a little braver than the last. From our first Kenyan hut, complete with solid walls and doors, to a luxury tent with a four-poster bed. And in Tanzania, a completely open-fronted studio where the Vervet monkeys steal your toothpaste and the lion might just curl up on your sofa. But more about that trip another day.

Because now it’s time to face our nemesis. Sleeping under the stars.

Welcome to Garonga

Garonga sits within the Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve, a prime big 5 region, west of the Kruger National Park. It is an intimate experience offering just one of six luxury tented units. With open decking and views of the river bed and watering hole it really is food for the soul. We chose it for our first ‘proper’ safari in 2013. And were delighted to learn they zip you securely into your tent at night too.

We remember our first breakfast. As we reflected on our sightings that morning, we were offered the option to fly camp. You’ve got to be kidding, right? We were still not entirely brave enough to go wild for the whole holiday. So we had even combined this trip with the more regular tourist attractions in Cape Town and the Wine Route. Five nights was enough for starters.

We politely declined. All the while shaking my head vigorously, lest they should think we were still persuadable. Besides, there was always next time, because we already knew we would return.

You see Garonga is special. Not just for the wildlife sightings, and we are photographers after all, but their whole ethos is about taking time to just be at one with nature. There aren’t dozens of vehicles either. The lodges who share ownership and management of the reserve have strict policies on vehicle movement and no crowding. And it is respected by all. Which is handy when you are trying to get the perfect capture without a herd of 4 x 4 trucks in the background.

Lion and lioness being cute

And Bernie and his team at Garonga take outstanding care of their guests of course. But I am not here to sell you a holiday.

Because it is time. Time to face our fear of sleeping under the stars.

Five years later

It was 2018 and we were feeling much braver. So much so we booked out fly camping experience before even leaving UK shores. In Tanzania we had slept with a vervet monkey bouncing around in the roof of our studio and showered with geckos every morning. We could surely endure a night sleeping under the stars.

So the day dawned. And after our evening game drive, we were delivered to our resting place for the night. Our tracker climbed the ladder first with a ‘wait here’ caution as he checked the area for visitors. He then carried up our provisions for the evening.

Now I should maybe say at this point I am not a fan of camping. All that shuffling around in a tent you cannot stand up in, living out of a rucksack, is really not my idea of fun. Although it is fair to say, their raised deck, overlooking a water hole is more a tad more luxurious than your average tent.

While I already knew the sleep out was a little ‘treehouse’ style, I wasn’t prepared for the reality. The main area consisted of a double bed and somewhere to sit and dine. A canvas washstand would serve as our dressing room in the morning. Then across a narrow bridge, we discovered a fully flushing toilet! Not plumbed in of course, but there was a large container of water which allowed you to fill and flush.

Bed with mosquito net for sleeping under the stars
Toilet on a decking

This was glamping. Glamorous camping, at its best. We could get used to this.

Then it was just us

With final instructions on how to work our solar and paraffin lamps, he handed us our torch and a two-way radio and bid us goodnight

‘I will collect you at 5:45 am tomorrow’. And then one last reminder not to descend the ladder, he drove away.

Now we were totally alone. Just us. About to spend the night sleeping under the stars. with no night watchman. Unless you count the aptly named Smith’s bush squirrel.

South African bush squirrel in a tree

The first thing we noticed was the peace and tranquility. The lodge is not big, a maximum of twelve guests at most. But six of us shared the same game drives and meal times. I wouldn’t have called it noisy. I am an extrovert, I get my energy from being around people. Especially when they are such good company. Yet the quiet stillness, punctuated only by the occasional sound of a baboon or hyena, was almost overwhelming.

We looked out over the dry, waterhole. It was bliss. I think I could have stayed like that forever. Or at least until it was time to fly home. As the day gradually slid into dusk, the sounds changed. The birdsong gave way to the sound of the insects. And then eventually, nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

three hyena pups on a red sand background

Now that’s what we call a sundowner

We sipped our gin & tonic as we watched the sun finally set. Basking in the silence. No need or want to make conversation. It was just us two, in quiet companionable silence. And South Africa’s wildlife, sharing their bedroom with us, for just one night.

Supper was a simple affair. Which is just as well as we had been so intent on watching for elephants we had allowed the light to drop before turning up the lamps. It was a little breezy too, which was playing havoc, often casting us into complete darkness. Our dinner and drinks bag became a lucky dip as we peered in with a torch to discover what the kitchen and bar had sent for us.

Babotie! Mmm. Delicious. If you haven’t tried it then I would liken it to a Moussaka in some ways, only with a twist. Served with a salad followed by chocolate cake and the now, almost compulsory ‘when on safari’ glass of wine.

Recipe for Babotie

Out tummies full, we sat back and cast our torch out across the vegetation below. Night time is a good time to spot animals, especially at a water hole. Heart thumping, I was praying I would see the eyes of a lion or a cheetah, or even a warthog, anything at all in fact, looking back at us. We spent a while patiently peering out.

But these animals knew there was no water there today. Nothing stirred. South Africa slept.

And so we retired to our bed.

South Africa sunset over the bush

Sleep well, stargazers

Now the bed itself is worthy of closer inspection. A deep sprung comfortable mattress sat upon a raised platform. A super thick duvet kept out the chill. Covered in Goretex, a breathable waterproof membrane, it protected us from the elements.

I put on my thermals, then packed all my day clothes back in my overnight bag and zipped it tight.

‘There ain’t no snakes getting in there tonight.’

And then I carefully placed my shoes upside down, on top of the bag, and as close to me as I could. Ready in case I might just need to get up in the night and cross the bridge to the bathroom. With no lights to guide us now, I could tread on a scorpion. But I told myself scorpions can’t climb ladders. Can they?

We had been warned there was a low threat of some rain. But we were prepared for that too. If it rained we had capes. Yes, seriously, we had poncho-style capes. A radio for emergencies. If you found a snake in your bed or a leopard had taken up residence in the tree, around which the deck is built, then radio for assistance. It was not to call for a taxi because of some precipitation.

Tables thoughtfully placed either side of the bed, provided the finishing touches, which made it look and feel almost like home.

Except when you looked up all you could see was thousands and thousands of tiny white stars. And it really was magical.

There was only a fleeting thought that we might get a visitor in the night. But I was reminded of something a previous camp host once said.

‘The lions are not interested in you. You don’t smell like something they want to eat. That is unless you smell like a warthog’. Well, I guess that might well have become true come the morning.

And so, as we gazed up at the stars, I felt myself drift off. With just a mosquito net between us and the stars — and the wildlife.

Good morning Makalali!

I slept like a log. We awoke refreshed and after a wash with the leftover flasks of water from our tea, we were collected in time to join the rest of our party, ready for our morning game drive.

But a night sleeping under the stars had given me some time to think and reflect. And I realised I was now seeing this particular trip through different eyes.

Second visits often present their own challenges I think. Might it feel like the ‘same old’. Would we still feel the spark of magic we felt the first time? And could we ever be bored by driving the now familiar route in and out of camp each day? All these questions had prayed on our minds a little, prior to the trip.

But for now it was time to go find ourselves some of Africa’s finest wildlife.

People do often ask ‘don’t you ever get bored of going to the same places’ And we answer, why would we?

Every day still brings something new. It’s not like watching a movie or a TV schedule where the lineup or the plot stays the same. There is always something else to see and to learn. And with ever-improving photography skills, every day is exciting too, as you try a new angle or a different exposure setting.

Epilogue

Our safari guide Josiah had a wee book of quotes he used to hand round his guests at the start of each day. As Steve and I climbed into the vehicle, with renewed energy, exhilarated by our sleepout experience, he invited me to open at a random page and simply read aloud:

Naked? Perhaps not. Unbound? Well yes, I think so. Because our sleepout experience had given us something we didn’t anticipate. You see, with nothing pressing to do, no conversation to make, no clock to watch – we did indeed feel free.

So how about you? Would you be brave enough to try sleeping under the stars at least once in your lifetime?

Today’s blog was written by Marie T Smith: “Some nights, when I am restless and cannot sleep, I imagine myself back in one of my safari beds. When I bring back to my mind, the sounds of the hippos. Or the distant gentle breathy roar of the lion as she calls to her pride ‘over here, over here’. Then within minutes, I am asleep.

You can read more about our safari adventures in our Sunday Safari Series

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