Saturday, February 27, 2021

Becoming a Happy Camper

How I became a happy camper by visiting a place with dangers lurking in every bush.

Camping, to me, means sleepless nights lying on a shaky cot or a bouncy air mattress, listening to the rustlings in the night.  A flimsy canvas wall is the only thing separating me from the dangers lurking outside – and I am always convinced that there are many of them.  I am not what you’d call a “happy camper.”

I have no joyful childhood memories of cooking hotdogs around the campfire.  Because of my father’s work as a geologist, my family frequently moved around the southwest United States.  We explored the canyons and mesas of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, the towering redwoods and rocky shore of the California coast, the bluebonnet-dotted plains of Texas, and the wide open spaces of Wyoming.  But we did our exploring in the daytime and spent our nighttime hours in the comfort of roadside motels.

A view of Monument Valley, Utah from the safety of a hotel.

When my son was still an infant, my husband and I didn’t yet have the budget for hotels, so we decided to try our first camping vacation.  I was in my twenties and eager for a new experience, so we went to the nearest sporting goods store and picked out everything we would need for a tenting adventure…a little gas stove, tin plates and utensils, sleeping bags, and a nice roomy tent.  The three of us set out in our old car  for a spring trip to Anza Borrego State Park in the desert of southern California.

It did not go well.

With balmy weather and a desert in bloom, the daytime was lovely, walking the park trails and reading the brochure describing the resident plants and animals we spotted.  I managed to scrape up a dinner of beans and franks in our little tin pot and all seemed well as we went to bed.

About midnight, a wild desert wind blew in from over the mountains.  We looked at each other a little nervously as the tent began to tremble, shaking harder with every gust.  Suddenly the tent corners tore from the spikes.  Now nothing except the center pole was holding the tent to the ground.  We bolted from our sleeping bags and spent the next two hours wrestling with the tent, with hubby barking orders - “Grab the corner!  Hold the canvas down.  I’ll hammer the stake back in!”  - and me in tears - “I’m trying!  It’s too heavy!  Oh, my God, the whole tent is going to blow away!”

We finally managed to secure the tent corners, but in the midst of the commotion, baby Brian started to cry and by morning he had a high fever which we recognized as a symptom of his frequent ear infections.    That was enough for me.  On the eight-hour drive home the next day, I swore that my camping days were over.

But the great outdoors beckoned and, thirty years later, we decided it was time to give camping another try.

Rob and I set up camp on the shores of Lake George near Mammoth in the Eastern Sierra mountains of California.  From our campsite, we could look across the lake at the dramatic peak of Crystal Crag.  We hiked for miles and ate a delicious dinner – cooked by a chef in a Mammoth restaurant.  The summer sky was blue and the wind was calm.  Surely I would be able to get a good night’s sleep in this lovely setting.

Lake George and Castle Crag, Mammoth, California

It did not go well.

Those things that go bump in the night were still out there.  Every thump of a branch, every rustle of the leaves, had me convinced the brown bears that prowl this mountain could smell the food we had packed for breakfast and were outside ready to rip through the canvas and devour us in our sleeping bags.  Weren’t rattlesnakes looking for nice warm beds to curl up in and would those damn crickets ever shut up?   And just as I would feel a little wave of sleepiness overtake me, my 50-year-old bladder would give me a wake-up call and I would have to venture out to the camp outhouse, my flashlight sweeping the pathway for the red-eyed ravenous bears.

In the light of morning, I could laugh at my trials, but I once again vowed to stick with a nice cozy bed for future trips, so it was with some trepidation that I learned a few years later that our upcoming trip to Africa was entitled “Serengeti Tented Safari.”

                                          Africa - Masai Mara, Kenya and Serengeti, Tanzania

“What in the world?”  I stared down at the pile of shredded newspaper on the floor of our tent.  Rob and I had just returned from a day of exploring the zoological wonders of Kenya’s Masai Mara to find this mess.  I picked up the largest pile of newspaper and discovered it was the wrapping around a carved wooden giraffe we had bought at the Nairobi Giraffe Center earlier in the trip.  I checked around our tent cabin, but nothing else was out of place.

“This is so weird, Rob. The staff must have thought the newspaper was trash, then put it back when they figured out it was our giraffe.  But why would they have left the mess on the floor?”  We walked up the wooded path to the reception building to report the incident.  The receptionist chuckled.  “Hakuna matata.  No worries!  It was not the staff.  The baboons have learned to unzip your tent cover.  They come in looking for food.”

Hmph…it might have been nice for them to have told us this when we checked in, I thought.  I would have been completely freaked out if I’d been awakened by a baboon rifling through my bags in the middle of the night!  We had seen baboons squabbling out in the bush that morning, mouths wide open, huge fangs bared.    

Before this disconcerting incident, our trip had gone well.  In fact, our first stop at the Karen Country Lodge in Nairobi had been downright luxurious – a huge bedroom with a fireplace, comfy couches, and a modern bathroom.

Karen Country Lodge, Nairobi, Kenya

And here in the Masai Mara, our first “tent” experience at Sentrim Mara Lodge was not at all what I thought of as tent camping.  Yes, our room had canvas walls, but it was huge, with a high ceiling attached to a strong wooden frame, and an adjoining stone building containing a dressing room and bathroom with a modern shower.  I could definitely get into this “glamping” – until I learned that baboons knew how to open the zippered exit to our balcony!

Our "tent" at Sentrim Mara Lodge, Masai Mara, Kenya

With this new knowledge, my second night was once again filled with my old camping fears.  I was alert for any strange noise – and sure enough, I heard one.  A loud rustling sound kept up for hours just outside the front door.  Too scared to go investigate, I lay awake in the pitch black, imagining huge baboon fangs scraping away at the canvas.  In the morning, I called a passing staff member to report the noise.  He poked a stick into the rafters, then roared with laughter at my startled scream as a large bird flew out of the thatching under the porch roof.   

But by our third night, I was beginning to get into this unique experience.  The safari drive memories were blotting out my silly fears, and I slept like a lion cub, curled up in my mosquito-netted den.

The gorgeous Moivaru Lodge in a jungle setting outside of Arusha, Tanzania had us back in the lap of luxury for one night on our way to Tarangire National Park.  No baboons here – just adorable blue vervet monkeys swinging through the trees outside of the lodge’s restaurant.  The “scariest” creatures on the grounds were the busy army ants that marched across the path leading to our cabin.

Moivaru Lodge, Arusha, Tanzania - Can you spot the line of army ants across the path?

We were back to tented camping at our next stop, the Burunge Tent Camp Lodge.  Once again, one could hardly call this “tent camping,” as we sat on our wooden porch enjoying the view of Lake Burunge and its large flock of pink flamingos.  This tent was also on a high platform, with real beds, bathroom, and shower.   But our tent was the furthest away from the lodge restaurant.  The long path back was poorly lit and lined with thick bushes on both sides.  On our walk back after dinner in the dark, I clutched Rob’s arm tightly, sure that our flashlight would suddenly illuminate the eyes of the predatory beasts waiting in those bushes to devour us.  But once we were inside, it felt as comfortable and safe as any hotel room.  The only sounds here were the sleepy birds twittering in the forest.

Flamingos of Lake Burunge, Tanzania

Our last stop of this trip was Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and our first day was like stepping into a wildlife documentary - lions, elephants, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, warthogs, colorful birds, all within a few meters of our Land Cruiser.

But I knew there was one final  tenting experience awaiting us – and Cosmas, our guide, had warned us this last tent camp would be a more primitive experience.  I fretted internally about this final camp throughout the entire trip, remembering the unpleasant camping experiences from the past.  My nerves were on edge as we approached our camp in the hills overlooking the Serengeti plains.  Tour companies are not allowed to create permanent lodges here. The tents must be moved periodically to protect this important national park’s environment, so it was no surprise to find a campground of ten small canvas tents, stretching out in two lines from the large dining tent.  I was not happy to learn that, once again, our tent was the farthest one from the center.

Naturally, our tent was at the farthest end of this line in our Serengeti Camp.

Our “beds” were cots, and the windows were zippered flaps.  There was a canvas wall inside separating the sleeping area from a real toilet on a wooden platform, and another canvas chamber with a make-shift shower.  When we wanted a shower, we notified a staff member who would fill the 4-liter bucket outside with hot water.   We pulled a handle inside the tent to release the water, and soon discovered that it lasted long enough to get an adequate shower.

The shower bucket supplied enough hot water for two quick showers.

“Please do not leave your tents at night,” warned Cosmas at our dinner meeting.  “The animals roam right through the camp after dark.  You will find a whistle on the table in your tent.  If you blow it, a staff member will come to your aid.”   We campers stared back at him, open-mouthed and wide-eyed.  “Don’t worry,” he laughed.  “The only animals who might come in your tent are the mice.  Just be sure you don’t have any food in your tent and you’ll be fine.”

After dinner, Rob and I walked down the dark path to our tent, once again swinging our lanterns back and forth to warn off any lurking beasts.  But here’s the thing.  Africa was working its magic on this reluctant camper.  I climbed into my shaky cot, snuggled under the thick blanket, and thought back on the wonders of the day.  A tree with seven lions napping on its branches.  A mother cheetah teaching her cub how to hunt.  Elephant families parading across our path.  A pair of secretary birds building a nest in a tree.  Huge herds of impala and Thompson’s gazelles.  Monkeys that hopped on our vehicle hoping for a hand-out.  

Smiling at the images dancing in my head, I drifted off to sleep, listening with delight to the sound of a lion huffing in the distance.  I had, at last, become a happy camper.

For more about our visit to the Serengeti and photos of the wonderful wildlife, click here:  Day 1 on the Serengeti


  1. "...listening with delight at the sound of a lion huffing in the distance..." I love this image and your transformation, Joan!

    Like you, I never camped as a kid. We lived in Detroit! So I was well into adulthood, actually middle-aged, before I had my first camping experiences. But, with travel to Africa also, I learned to be okie dokie while tent camping. Thanks for this great post. xoA <3

  2. Thanks for reading, Annis! Yep, it's pretty hard to be unhappy with anything when you are out on a Serengeti safari. It was jaw-droppingly wonderful from morning to night. We DID get animals walk through the camp at night. Our guide said that the lions know we are in there, but they apparently look at the tent as an impenetrable barrier.

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