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.