We pulled into an empty spot for the first of five nights we planned to spend in different campgrounds throughout Kruger National Park, South Africa. Our car rental company had failed to deliver the camper vehicle we had reserved, so instead, we were driving a covered pickup truck.
We looked at the corrugated pickup bed dejectedly, imagining how those hard lumps were going feel beneath our sleeping bags. Just for hoots, I decided to ask the reception desk if they had anything we could use to ease our discomfort. A short while later, a truck pulled up to our site toting a full-on bed mattress, which fit perfectly in the pickup bed. To say we were ecstatic is really not an overstatement. It was the first kindness in a virtual avalanche of good will and friendship bestowed upon us by South African campers.
The next morning, at dawn, we joined a guided safari on foot. Walking through the tall grass, still golden brown in early spring, white rhinos and hippos greeted us, as well as a cobra slithering by. We spent the afternoon driving through the animal-laden iconic African landscape to our next campsite.
That night, the same dread of the pickup bed loomed before our tired eyes. Our campground neighbors were setting up their deluxe camping suite and we struck up conversation. Off-handedly, we mentioned that we would be sleeping in the uncomfortable pickup.
“Oh, we have a spare queen-sized air mattress you could borrow,” they said.
“Really?” A spare queen-sized mattress … what were the odds?
In retrospect, I suppose the odds were pretty good. South Africans are absolutely passionate about braais (charcoal barbecues) and camping. Pulling little trailers behind their vehicles, they stuff in everything but the kitchen sink. When they unload and set up their campsite, it’s like watching a magician pull scarves out of his pocket. They don’t just make a home away from home, they make a house away from home.
The only thing we had to offer our neighbors in gratitude was a selection of beer from our cooler. They invited us to sit with them, so while hyenas and baboons whooped just outside the perimeter fence, we laughed for hours as the lady told stories of her fuddy-duddy mother, quoting her in a witchy voice.
As his parents grew more and more intoxicated, their 12-year old son become more bold throwing out tales from boarding school of naughty deeds and pranks. His parents were simultaneously aghast and amused. It became a family bonding time as we emptied both our cooler and theirs.
The car hire company in South Africa delivered a camper vehicle to our next campground, and we unwittingly took possession of a dilapidated beast we soon came to dub, “El Diablo.” Each day a new ailment plagued the beast … from a dead-as-a-doornail battery, to a malfunctioning fuel pump – I’ll spare you the list. Yet, for every exasperating frustration the beast hurled at us, we simply doled out more and more beer as standard payment to the campers who had the poor luck to be our neighbors … for they seemed compelled, as if it’s a source of national pride, unfailingly and without solicitation to bend over backwards every night to help us.
The first night with El Diablo, we couldn’t get the propane burner to work. We consulted the fellow next door who was kicked back in his camping palace – a multi-room tent with an awning and lamp posts out front – no kidding – and a television with a satellite dish. Though we merely asked his advice, he walked over and happily twiddled with the burner until it lit. While a bull elephant snapped branches off trees near the fence, and hyenas ran back and forth hoping for a helping of our dinner, we finally managed a hot plate of pasta and sat outside our ghetto vehicle next to the tented mansion – we were definitely bringing down property values – listening to the bush come alive, as the nocturnal world woke up to its dawn.
The next afternoon we were running late to reach our bush satellite camp before the gates closed at dusk. It takes about four times as long as the distance on a map would imply to get anywhere because of all the animals vying for your attention. We saw so many elephants – herds surrounded our vehicle on all sides, preventing us from moving – plus everything from saddle-billed storks to giraffes, zebras to kudu, it was hard to keep momentum.
This was the camp I was most looking forward to, with only a few spots and no electricity – a more rustic experience. We were still far away when the sun began to fall rapidly. Torn between speeding down the tarmac at the risk of hitting an animal and driving the limit at the risk of getting locked out, we tried to strike a medium. But as the sun lowered, we drove faster and faster, frantically scanning the roadsides to make sure no animals were going to jump in front of us.
The gate had in fact closed, and we didn’t have the proper paperwork we needed to camp there (long story), but the guard was an amiable fellow and let us drive through to our reserved site…where the passenger-side rear tire promptly deflated.
This is when we discovered only one of our two spare tires was in fact spare. The other was useless with a thorn in its side. This is also when we discovered our jack was essentially useless. The friendly neighbor campers came over to see what we were doing. We had hardly gotten our finger pointed at the tire and jack before one of the guys left then returned with his own jack and tire iron.
We stood idly and watched a stranger change our flat tire. Again, all we had to offer in gratitude was beer. They invited us over to their posh camp to drink together. A lady we hadn’t yet met emerged from their camper truck with two bowls of steaming hot minestrone soup and handed them to us. We were momentarily confused.
“Here, have some dinner,” she urged. Our meager gesture of beer was now completely overshadowed by their continuing kindness, feeding us soup – homemade from scratch, mind you – looking after us little American waifs.
Later that night the lions were particularly vociferous, bellowing back and forth, claiming their territories. Their mortal enemies, the hyenas, whooped in the distance. I heard a zebra, I don’t know if it was in lion-induced distress or calling some other code. It was a warm night and a river of stars tumbled through the black sky, as if the Milky Way was flooding its banks. I slid my sleeping bag from the camper, grabbed a couple beers, and climbed onto the hood of El Diablo. I lay against the windshield in a bush bliss, listening to the primal night beneath an eternity of galaxies.