Spend­ing time in the bush teaches you what you can do with­out, says Toast Coet­zer. And it teaches you about what you re­ally need to be happy.


Spend­ing time in the bush teaches you about what you re­ally need to be happy, says Toast Coet­zer.

I’m in the de­par­ture lounge of Kasane In­ter­na­tional Air­port in the north of Botswana. Soon I’ll fly to Joburg and from there I’ll con­nect to Cape Town. But be­sides look­ing for­ward to see­ing my girl­friend Alice later tonight, there’s very lit­tle else in the city that I’ve missed. A TV is blar­ing and the noise is get­ting to me. Maybe I’m get­ting old. Dur­ing the past few weeks camp­ing in Botswana and the ad­ja­cent Zam­bezi Re­gion of Namibia, I hardly saw a TV. Tele­vi­sion tells you what to think; it feeds you ad­ver­tise­ments. You just sit there, pas­sive. I haven’t missed TV. If you’re hud­dled around a fire at sun­set and you’re think­ing about Game of Thrones, then you’re prob­a­bly not a camp­ing per­son to be­gin with. I like watch­ing TV, don’t get me wrong, but I could eas­ily live with­out it. If you told me to­mor­row that I’d never be able to watch TV again, I wouldn’t cry my­self blind. Time spent around a crack­ling camp­fire, with the chirring of night­jars and fruit bats around you, is pre­cious, pri­vate time. Think­ing time. With­out the dis­trac­tion of a TV, you can let your mind take each lit­tle foot­path of thought, strolling along un­til the path dis­ap­pears into tall grass. You de­cide when it’s time for an ad break, whether that means get­ting up to add an­other mopane log to the fire, or top­ping up your glass of Amarula.

Fire­side time is also time to talk to the peo­ple around you – the friends you’ve brought along, or fam­ily mem­bers who have been dream­ing about this hol­i­day for months. Those camp­fire sto­ries are the sto­ries you’ll re­mem­ber when you’re back home. The fire­side is where you build the myth of your bush hol­i­day. The kids will hear the story about that time in Da­ma­r­a­land when you had to dig out the bakkie’s wheels us­ing your flip-flop. They’ll hear it seven times and they’ll re­mem­ber it so well that they’ll tell it wide-eyed on the play­ground at school. Or how about that time the lions roared next to your tent in Moremi? The kind of roar that feeds your imag­i­na­tion and be­comes a half-hour story? The In­ter­net is like TV. No story that starts with “I saw on Face­book…” can match a real-life bat­tle be­tween hye­nas and lions that you wit­nessed at Sun­set Dam one af­ter­noon. Save Face­book for af­ter your hol­i­day, when you can make your rel­a­tives in Aus­tralia jeal­ous with your pho­tos. I don’t miss the In­ter­net ei­ther when I’m in the bush. I go to the bush to turn away from the per­ma­nent gaze the In­ter­net has on my work­ing life in the of­fice.

An­other thing travel teaches you is how lit­tle you need. I re­mem­ber vis­it­ing Zim­babwe about a decade ago, when things there were re­ally tough. Fuel was scarce and shop shelves were of­ten empty. I was in Ju­lias­dale in the east of the coun­try. There was only one shop in town and it of­fered very lit­tle: some canned beans, a few pack­ets of sugar and flour, can­dles, matches. The items on the shelves were spaced far apart from each other – an at­tempt to sug­gest the shelves were full. There was, how­ever, an over­sup­ply of fresh toma­toes and pota­toes. If you wanted to eat, you had to eat toma­toes and pota­toes. Most likely some­one in the dis­trict had har­vested a bumper crop and dumped the pro­duce right there. De­spite the lack of choice, there was enough food in the shop in Ju­lias­dale. I didn’t go hun­gry. Later, back in South Africa, I reeled when I walked into my lo­cal neigh­bour­hood su­per­mar­ket. The choice avail­able was stag­ger­ing. Shelves were jammed full of items. When one packet of chips was taken down, an­other was put in its place al­most im­me­di­ately. I could choose from dozens of brands of soap, tooth­paste and sham­poo. Even the chut­ney shelf was a mine­field – I spent min­utes try­ing to de­cide what tang of chut­ney my taste buds felt like. It’s nice to have so many op­tions in life. Some­times we think it’s our right, that we de­serve such lux­ury. But we don’t. Next time you visit your lo­cal Check­ers, take a mo­ment to con­sider that there are peo­ple else­where who will never see such abun­dance. A long camp­ing trip also teaches you to make do with what you have. If you didn’t pack it into your food crate or chance upon it at a farm stall along the way, you’ll have to sur­vive with­out it. But hav­ing a mea­gre range of in­gre­di­ents forces you to think cre­atively about your meals. I re­mem­ber camp­ing on my own near the Nauk­luft Moun­tains in Namibia once. It was near the end of a long trip and my food crate was al­most empty. All I had left was one green pep­per, some cous­cous and an onion. I looked at these items for a while, then I came up with a plan. I hol­lowed out the green pep­per and stuffed it with cous­cous and chopped onion, then I wrapped it in foil and chucked it on the coals. Would my im­promptu recipe be a hit on Come Dine With Me Namibia? I doubt it, but I still re­mem­ber that meal.

There are other things – and peo­ple – you can do with­out. Like that neigh­bour who keeps park­ing with one wheel in your flower bed. Or your boss. Cities are full of peo­ple, cars and noise. It’s un­be­liev­able how much noise a city gen­er­ates! Dur­ing your bush hol­i­day you get used to kin­der sounds: the rustling of palm leaves out­side your chalet in In­ham­bane, or the mirac­u­lous si­lence of a Kala­hari Desert night. Com­par­a­tively, the sound of 50 peo­ple yakking away in a cof­fee shop – or the 50 peo­ple around me in the Kasane de­par­ture hall – is deaf­en­ing. An un­kind ca­coph­ony. Cars are a nec­es­sary evil. I love my car, but be­cause we all love our cars, it gets out of hand. All that traf­fic. It gives you a headache, then grey hair, and fi­nally your hair falls out. (This seems to have hap­pened to me.) When the traf­fic on the high­way coils around you like a hun­gry python, it’s help­ful if you can turn to a few key mo­ments stored in your mem­ory bank. How about the time you sat in the sun next to the Oka­vango River, dry­ing off af­ter a swim in the croc-proof pool at Ngepi Camp? Or when you climbed that Karoo kop­pie out­side Vic­to­ria West with your son and your dog? What about the Kar­ring­melk­spruit tug­ging at your an­kles as you cast an­other hope­ful fly into its gin-clear wa­ter?

In life, you have to keep your es­cape routes clear. Travel when­ever you can. Not al­ways to the Zam­bezi to catch a tiger fish, maybe just to your near­est dam to catch a carp. Build up a re­serve of bliss, bot­tled by na­ture. Keep it on the shelf for those times when mod­ern life threat­ens to en­gulf you. The an­nouncer’s voice is bark­ing over the PA sys­tem. It’s time to pack up my lap­top and board the plane to Joburg. I’ve re­served a win­dow seat so I can look down on the Mak­gadik­gadi Pans when we fly over them. I swam in a brown pool on one of those pans not so long ago. That’s the mem­ory I cher­ish most from this trip, and I want to revel in it one last time.

It’s nice to have so many op­tions in life. Some­times we think it’s our right, that we de­serve such lux­ury. But we don’t. Next time you visit your lo­cal Check­ers, take a mo­ment to con­sider that there are peo­ple else­where who will never see such abun­dance.

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