While wild camping in the South African bush, a traveler finds that in order to experience the local wildlife, she’ll need to listen closely.
The sky turned into pink streaks of bacon as the red sun dropped behind the trees. Everyone fell silent as the supposed safety of daytime dispersed and darkness crept in. The nighttime was a dose of reality: I was wild camping in the South African bush – tent-less, without barriers, exposed – hoping to not be eaten alive by lions, and the only form of protection present was a guide with a shotgun who was already snoring.
The fire popped like bubble wrap, and stars populated the sky. A green light appeared on the dusty floor near where the guide slept. I watched the light, and it watched me back. It looked like the firelight was reflecting off a piece of jewelry someone had dropped, but then there was another green light. And a red light, too. There were multiple red and green flashing lights, like the bush was signaling something through Morse code.
“Does anyone else see those lights on the floor?” I asked, pointing out a couple in the camp’s circumference.
The American boy, Max, lifted his head. “Yeah, I assume they’re spider eyes.”
I swore out loud and scrambled to my feet. The eyes reflected on the ground like sequins, blinking and moving, some stationary, watching and wondering who their new campmates were. If the eyes were sequin-sized, the bodies must be the size of a small rodent, and as that thought burned my brain, I tried to suppress the will to faint.
“What ze fuck is zat?”
I swiveled round to face Annabel, the French girl, as she lay in her sleeping bag and followed her outstretched arm to a spider-like thing that was racing around the fire with a speed that looked fast-forwarded.
“It juz came from underneath my sleeping mat.”
My campmates got up to inspect the creature while I stayed at a safe distance, pulling the strings that tightened the hood over my face and tucking my sweatshirt into my sweatpants, blocking all easy access routes until I looked like I was wearing a cross country-designed burqa.
“There’s another!” Max said, and the group made excited oohs. I pulled my sleeve up to check my pulse.
There was movement to the right: the guide had risen from his beauty sleep and was shuffling over to inspect the commotion. “Aw, my favorite,” he said, voice gruff. “What a beauty, hey?” admiring the thing like he was watching his soon-to-be wife walking down the aisle. The hairy spider bolted between the human feet and vanished into the darkness of the bush.
“Iz it a spider?” asked Annabel.
“I think it’s a scorpion,” said Shauna, another American.
“That, my friends, is a solifugae,” the guide told us. “Not quite spider, not quite scorpion. They like heat, so you’ll find ‘em round the fire, and they’ll try to get in yah sleeping bag, too, given half the chance. Fast little fucker, hey?” The group nodded in agreement.
Everyone returned to their sleeping bags and settled back in, but eyes remained open, waiting to see what discovery would introduce itself next. The guide threw more sticks on the fire and then went back to sleep. Silence returned.
The Milky Way cut the sky in half, and shooting stars bedazzled the blackness. With no light pollution for miles, it was an uninterrupted show of space activity: satellites, shooting stars, and constellations. The night sky was the only thing that could be seen other than the fire-lit camp and the shadows of spindly trees. I was about to sit back down, accepting that I would be room sharing with spiders and solifugae, when I felt a familiar sensation that caused a nauseous dread to rise within me.
“Um, guys,” I said. The group waited for my announcement, faces orange from the firelight. “I need the toilet.”
The three campmates glanced towards the sleeping guide, then back to me, assessing my predicament.
“Well, pick your spot, I guess,” said Max, fanning his arm to the wide, open dark. “If we hear you scream, we’ll come running.” He pulled his sleeping bag to his chin and snuggled inside.
I laced up my boots (after Annabel checked inside for solifugae) and picked up the torch. In front of camp was where the bush started to get bushy: layers of knee-high, spiky plants that were perfect for hiding hyenas and bush dogs. Behind camp was a stretch of rocks that marked the two-meter drop into the dry riverbank. To the left and right were long corridors of open space.
“Do you think I should take the shotgun?” I asked, spinning round and alternating my gaze between the three of them.
They stared at me, unblinking. Shauna spoke. “Um, no?”
“Right, okay,” I said. “Good thinking.” My palms were sweating despite the cool air. “I’m going to go now.” I stalled. Max yawned. “Okay, bye, guys.”
I shone the torch and checked the rocks along the riverbank from the safety of camp. Then, I checked again. After triple checking, I dashed out into the wild, performing a straddling run like a king’s dancing jester so I wouldn’t tread on spiders, solifugae, or God knows what else.
I stood at the top of the rocks and peered into the dry riverbank. Nothing. I turned the torch off and squatted. Urine splashed off the rocks and sprayed my shoes and legs as I forced out pee like it was burning acid. I hurried back to the group.
“You survived,” said Max, eyes closed. I lifted my sleeping mat to release any cozy solifugae, examined the ground for any nearby eyes, and wrapped my sleeping bag up to my eyeballs and huddled within it.
“Do y’all know about the woman who got eaten in her sleep by a leopard?” Max’s question dangled in the darkness.
“Seriously?” Shauna said after a few moments. “You wanna share that story now?”
“What happened?” asked Annabel, propping up on her elbows.
“There was this woman wild camping in the bush somewhere, but she was doing it, like, every night for like a week or something, and then this leopard started watching and tracking her movements. It knew where she was gonna be each night and then, yeah. One night it ate her.”
The fire cracked and sparks flew into the air.
“She died,” he confirmed.
“But, like, why would you tell us that now?” asked Shauna, voice shrilly, neck protruding like a tortoise peeking from its shell.
“It’s a cool story.”
“Cool? Are you for real? You know, you really-”
“Guys, be quiet!” said Annabel. “Do you hear zat?”
A lion was groaning in the distance. A few minutes passed, and then it groaned again.
“Do you think it’s hunting?”
“Lions do do most of their hunting at night.”
“But if it’s hunting, would it be making noise?”
“Iz it getting closer?”
The group became silent; my ears strained with such attention I would have had a heart attack at the sound of a sniff. The guide’s snore caught in his throat, and he spluttered and gasped for a second, blissfully unaware of his inappropriate timing. The shotgun lay beside him. I glared at the sleeping man, casting nightmares upon his deep slumber and hoping he knew how wrong he was for taking me on this dangerous, spidery bush tour that I had happily agreed to go on.
The lion groaned throughout the night, the sound traveling from different directions and distances. Hyenas called, leopards growled, and hippo honks were mistaken for thunder. I fell asleep to the sounds of the bush echoing across the starry ceiling.
When my eyes opened, the sky had a pink hue, and the rest of the group was already awake, sipping coffee around the burned-out fire. I packed my backpack, collected any remains, and along with the group, I left the unremarkable, open space where I had slept. The guide kicked at the campfire mark to remove all human traces and began to lead the group back to civilization.
He stopped twenty meters from camp and crouched down to inspect a rock. “A rhino was here last night.”
“How do you know?” I asked, shuffling closer to the man and his shotgun.
“From the way this rock has been angled. It was by a rhino.” The guide stood up – a majestic wizard of the bush – and did a three-sixty. I followed his gaze, expecting to see a tiny set of ears and a heavy horn poking out from between the leaves. I waited for his instruction, bracing myself to leg it in the opposite direction when he pointed and screamed “RHINO!” leaving everyone to fend for themselves, but all he said was, “Okay, let’s keep it moving, hey.”
The rhino was never spotted. Neither were the lions, the leopards, elephants, hyenas, and hippos that all shared the vicinity. But I had heard their sounds, witnessed the nighttime, felt the vulnerability of being the weakest link in the African bush. Despite coming on the wild excursion with the hope of encountering some of the most fearsome species in the world on foot, I decided I was quite okay with not coming face-to-face with any of the big five; spiders and solifugae were terrifying enough.