SUNDAY TIMES - Camping virgins, take note: 5 must-dos that'll help you survive (& enjoy) your first trip
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Sunday Times Travel By Elizabeth Sleith, 2017-04-16 00:00:00.0

Camping virgins, take note: 5 must-dos that'll help you survive (& enjoy) your first trip

Bought a new tent? Always pitch it at home first to make sure you have all the parts you need.
Image: iStock

Intrepid camping virgin Elizabeth Sleith packs up the car and heads off into the bush to report back on a budget-beating getaway

My fellow South Africans were on the move. At every major intersection from Rosebank to Fourways, there were pockets of protest.

People stood on bridges and leaned into the stream of cars beneath them, doing the two-handed wave. Placards were wafted.

Go away Zuma. Hoot for change.

I hooted but I was also on the move, with my own mission for the people of SA - explore the cheapest way to holiday ('cause don't we all need some of that?); get back to grassroots; sleep in a tent; drink Tassies out of a tin mug; love your countryside, have a good time.

Herewith my investigative report and recommendations containing my DOs for anyone with camping ambitions. To borrow from another politician, yes, you can.

1) DO: ORGANISE

"What should the public do? Organise!" Pravin Gordhan said at his final briefing as finance minister. And that goes double for the camping public, starting with your tent.

The instructions on new ones will always advise that you pitch them at home first to make sure you have all you need.

We followed that advice with two of them. The third, we decided to wing it. Turns out a gazebo tent requires the gazebo, which we'd somehow left lying on the garage floor when we'd loaded up the car. Tent pegged into the ground, as we tried to hoist it, we realised it would remain forever limp without the gazebo poles.

It takes a bit of work before you go but it's worth it. Familiarise yourself with everything you have. Make lists and check them off. You don't want to forget anything. And check the floor before you drive away.

As for food, there shouldn't be a Woolies down the drag so plan your meals with military precision.

2) DO: EASE INTO IT

We had a lot of gear to be fair, from a plug-in cooler box to high-octane torches to a cutlery backpack.

Still, the idea of living in the wildnerness with only utility knives and a fabric house remained fairly intimidating, so I booked a back-up plan.

Mountain Sanctuary Park in the Magaliesberg recently installed an option to help campers bridge the gap between indoor comfort and total exposure. Called Cosy Huts, these little sheds have a plug point inside, a two-plate gas stove, a kettle, a bar fridge. Basically you can pitch your tents outside but have a little refuge to call semi-home. They also have bunk beds if you totally chicken out of the tent experience. But you wouldn't do that.


Birdwatching from the poolside at Mountain Sanctuary Park in the Magaliesberg. Image: ELIZABETH SLEITH

3) DO: CHOOSE WISELY

Those little three-sleeper dome tents seem very common around a camp-ground but they might not be for everyone. Turns out, they're not for me.

My "I'm not going if I don't have one" air mattress, pumped up for maximum comfort, raised me so high off the ground that my nose was almost touching the wall - and when I yawned my not-terrifically-long legs, my toes strained the material. I felt I couldn't breathe. And I didn't know I'd feel like that until I tried to sleep in it.

I'd say if you're considering giving camping a go, find a store where they have some of your options pitched, crawl inside and see how you feel. There are larger, high-ceilinged options. There's no shame in those.

4) DO: LET THERE BE LIGHT

Your campsite could be the coolest place in the world but when the sun vanishes, it will all mean naught if you can't find anything.

Away from the bright lights of the big city, darkness is a thicker thing. Take lights, lots of lights. Then add some more. One headlamp per person at least and then some epic torches.

5) DO: EXHALE

Camping is not for sissies. Between setting up camp and fashioning square meals and trudging up and down to the ablution block to wash your dishes and yourself, there is much to do.

Take all the pillows you want. You'll still crawl in and out of that tent on the hard ground and - if it rains (as it did on our first night) - you'll have to deal with wet stuff and mud.

Those inconveniences, weirdly, are also the draw. Climbing out of a tent in the early morning is a bit like a birth. You do emerge into a new world, dripping with dew and caressed by the crisp, early light.

You feel welcomed by a cheerful twittering of a canopy of birds and the odd delighted distant squeal of a fellow camper's kid.

As the campsite collectively wakes, bacon sizzles on gas braais and moms trail their sleepy-eyed babes to the ablution blocks for a hot wash.

Complete strangers exchange smiles and good mornings. The whole world is lovely and new.

In the day, you play games, watch birds, hike, swim, read and nap.

Then at night, after the hiking is done and the tjops are eaten and the tin plates are safely washed and stored, ready to do it all again tomorrow, pull up those camp chairs and gather round nature's TV - the fire.

You may actually talk to each other more than you have done in years.

Then finally, crawl back into that little house and zip yourself up in that sleeping bag, snuggle down under a drifting moon and listen to the dark night leaning in.

Without a doubt, you'll feel closer to the land. And thank your lucky stars you're in Africa.