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Under Canvas: A True African Safari

Under Canvas: A True African Safari

There are places where it isn’t a “safari” without cell service—or, better, Wi-Fi. Direct-satellite television, plunge pools, under-floor heating, gourmet dining, gymnasiums, and conference centers can all be found in one lodge or another in Africa. And, if the mood strikes, you can also hunt big game.

That’s far from the rule of safari in Africa, but it is trending. And there’s nothing wrong in hunting in a certain style, if you wish.

Nobody wants to hear some fossil maundering about “back when,” but back when I began hunting in Kenya as a very young man, safaris still set off in lorries and traveled off the roads until they found, in the hunting blocks they had booked with the game department, the remembered campsites, or the newly prospected ones, at which to raise the tents. Which led me to the belief, valid or not, that the best safaris should be under canvas.

Tents were not necessarily part of the origin story of the great African hunting adventure. Africans built huts and lean-tos as they traveled. Arab traders had shelters of Bedouin cloth woven from goat and sheep hair; the loose weave allowed the wind to pass through in the heat and the smoke to escape, while rain swelled the fibers to make the fabric waterproof.


The earliest British hunter-discoverers—Burchell, Cornwallis-Harris, even Selous—used ox-drawn Cape wagons rather than tents. Then the exploration of Africa enlarged to places where the wagons could not easily go, not least because of the tsetse fly spreading sleeping sick-ness to the oxen and the glacial pace of bovines, which did not rise much above two miles per hour. Porters on foot traveled faster and died less often (or were, to cast it brutally, more expedient to replace).


With porters, tents could be carried, pitched, and struck. The thing is, tents were not effected by safaris but evolved out of them. Theodore Roosevelt, who initially planned on roughing it in Africa with his son, Kermit, as the “early pioneers” had done in the Rockies and Great North Woods (and who were nonetheless “as hardy as bears, and lived to a hale old age, if Indians and accidents permitted”), grudgingly acknowledged that one had to care for oneself in Equatorial Africa as “he would scorn to do” in “lands of pine and birch and frosty weather.”

Throw a blanket down on the ground in Africa and then be prepared to deal with venomous serpents and scorpions, per-haps ticks that could be, in the long run, even more deadly; exposure to malaria-transmitting mosquitoes; and the odd chance of getting dragged away into the night by something out of The Ghost and the Darkness. The first explorers came to realize that the tent was the capsule they returned to after their African space walks during the day. And it could not be just any tent.

In his book Into Africa, a history of the East African safari, Kenneth Cameron notes that Joseph Thomson, the Scots geologist who began his explorations of Africa leading an expedition in 1878 when he was 20, made the mistake of having tents too small and too thin. Not only could you not stand upright in them, but also you had to crawl on hands and knees to enter. And, in a gentle shower, they leaked like cheesecloth. At the end of an arduously long day trekking in Africa, hunters needed—at least the whites did—a stout canvas tent (rolled, they could weigh 60 pounds and required two porters to carry, along with a third porter transporting lines, pegs, and poles) in which they could walk around; sit on a chair; sleep on a cot or in a bed above the ground, with netting draped over it; and which had some sort of extension where they could take a hot—never cold—bath each evening, a ritual as vital to surviving weeks or months in the bush as the boiling of drinking water.

The tent was never optional equipment on a safari; it was an essential fixture. For 75 years safari could not have been safari were it not for tents that were more than shelter, produced by such British makers as Wilkinson, Edgington, and Low & Bonar. They were home in a way that no room, duplicated behind every door along the hallway of a hunting lodge, however palatial, can ever be. No room radiates the heat of the sun into a dark interior the way a tent’s roof does—or gauges the wind by the stirring of its canvas wall. You cannot feel the surface of the ground in a room the way you can in bare feet on the floor of a tent. In a room you probably couldn’t hear a lion roaring or leopard coughing, but in a tent, as you are submerging into sleep, those sounds can be heard and leave you open-eyed, wondering what, if any, security a sheet of cloth, hanging between you and the outside, provides, until you simply resolve to let sleep cope with it and pull the blanket over your shoulder. In a lodge, you live at room temperature. In a tent, it is always the temperature of Africa.


None of that, though, speaks to what the tent represents in the tradition of the safari. In a tent, you physically staked a claim, however impermanent, to a piece of the continent, with all the responsibilities of such proprietorship. A tent also said that a safari was subject to being struck, moved thirty miles, and raised again in the space of a day, in recognition of the hegemony of the game. The game tells us where to be; we should not tell it, as on some fenced hunting ranches. A tent was also a promise that in a few months, or less, your traces would be swept from the land, and the animals would not recall your ever having been there.

For some reasons, some ineluctable, some deserved, some coerced, some coarse and venal, the tent safari has virtually vanished. Does that mean real African hunting has gone as well?

Safariing in tents was never about doing it for its own sake. It was nothing more than the way the safari developed because it was the way the safari worked at the time. Times are different. Can you encounter the real Africa at a luxe lodge? It may be hard, one of those eye-of-the-needle things with the more you have the less likely you are to pass through to the essence of the hunt, but it is not out of the question. An eminent Elizabethan said, more or less, if the heart be right, not much else matters, whether solid walls or canvas ones.


If you ever safaried in Africa in a tent, though, it enrooted something indelible in you that you often remember before your mind goes back to the game you took. Is it, then, the ultimate, the only true experience of Africa? Don’t be silly. When you come at last to Africa, whatever way you find to encamp, that will be the true Africa. If the heart be right.

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