by Juliet Blake
Vice President, Production
I was never the type to tiptoe into a pool and let the cold water slowly take me over—cannonball right into the deep end is my M.O. It seems as though I would take the same philosophy when in comes to camping. I had never once spent a night in a tent. Come to think of it—I had never spent a night in a log cabin in the woods “camping.” Yet here I was on my way to Africa to spend three days camping in one of wildest places on earth. Nervous, me? No.
Camping in Africa immediately stirs images of large white canvas-walled cabins in the bush. Arriving at camp this idea was quickly replaced with reality—we would be camping in small tents. These would not be tents of the safari images I grew up seeing in National Geographic magazine. This was an adventure out of an R.E.I. catalogue. There would be nothing between us and the wilds of Africa but a thin layer of mesh and plastic.
There was too much to be done to think about this right away. There were animals to be filmed and locations staked out for filming the next day. But as the daylight grew more faint and my dinner settled I became ever more aware of where I would find myself sleeping in just a few short hours. Now my goal was to get the tent closest to the mess tent and surrounded by plenty of other tents that could easily serve as a meal or distraction for whatever animal might try to venture in from the dark and devour me. My plan was foiled. There was going to be nothing between the darkness and me—but an empty shower tent.
It was time for bed, and I was thoroughly exhausted. I climbed into my tent and began to settle in for the evening. In the darkness of Africa without light, with no TV or the familiar glow of city lights, my imagination ran wild. I thought about the animals lurking just beyond the edge of darkness around me. Then I heard it: chewing. Loud, slow and very close (Maybe the tent amplified the noise—I will never know). I was on edge and not going to fall asleep too easily, it seemed, but I would over come this. It was just a hippo, (I was somewhat less calmed as they are the deadliest animal in Africa), but he had plenty of food to munch on and I couldn’t be on his radar. I lay back down and tried to will myself to sleep, when something decided it wanted to explore my tent. A rustle along the side of my tent sent me to my feet and out the tent.
Our videographer had grown up in and around Serengeti National Park and reassured me many, many, many, many (in fact more many’s that I should write) times that there was nothing to worry about. The lions were wary of humans, hippos had plenty to graze and baboons were sleeping just as we were. Now this all sounds well and good in the light of the mess tent surrounded by a dozen other people, but back in the darkness of your tent it isn’t so definitive.
Nonetheless, I headed back to my tent to try and get a good night’s sleep, but it seems that my imagination was not content to let me get any kind of peace, or sleep for that matter yet.
At this point I let my curiosity get the best of me. I had to know what was out in the darkness. I was like a child who shines his light in his closet looking for monsters before bed. This was my plan—I would shine my flashlight out into the darkness, just to reassure myself nothing was there waiting patiently to devour me as I slept.
Anyone who has gone camping knows this was clearly not a smart choice. I scanned the darkness. It seemed so far away and yet so close at the same time. All I could see was the small pocket the flashlight illuminated, and past that, pitch black. For someone who grew up in the suburbs, and who currently lives in the heart of the Washington, DC, this is a bit of strange feeling. My first close up scans revealed nothing, which brought some relief.
But there could easily be something lurking just behind that bush, or by some far off tree, my 5-year-old-self screamed from deep inside me. So I shined my light deeper into the darkness—still nothing. But when I turned to my left I saw the very familiar glow from the reflection of an animal’s eye in the dark. My heart jumped. There is something out there! Then my brain tried to rationalize this for me—it’s just a fox or something small scampering through the bush at night.
My curiosity really has not waned any since I was 5, so I continued to watch this eye in the darkness to find out what it was. Clearly the saying about curiosity and the cat is rooted in moments like this, because the eye suddenly turned and became a pair of eyes. Two eyes, too far apart to be a small fox just out for a nightly stroll. These were the eyes of a large cat, and they were looking straight at me. Frozen, I watched it for a bit longer, until the eyes shifted and sauntered back into the darkness beyond my flashlight.
The eyes departing into darkness did little to put to rest my fears of being torn apart in my sleep. I briskly walked back to the mess tent, where the crew was gathered. At least here there would be distractions. Again I was told that there was nothing to fear and that the lion would keep its distance as there was too much going on here, between the lights, laughing and fire. Yes, that is all well and good over here, but my tent was far away, and by far I mean a few feet, from where we were, and clearly a much more welcoming target.
At this point I was asked if I would like a sleeping pill to help me fall asleep and not focus on the animals around me. I thought about it. First I thought, no, I want to be able to hear whatever it is coming to get me so I can get away. But I quickly realized that if I were to hear it coming it would already be too late. So at least I would sleep through my painful final moments this way. So my first night camping was quickly followed by my first sleeping pill.
Needless to say no lions or even mosquitoes came to bite me in my tent, and I slept like a baby.
Video Preview: ”Understanding Elephants” — In order to understand what an elephant needs, scientists track how an elephant moves.
Video Preview: ”Saving Elephants from Harm” — Scientists tag an elephant in order to stop herds from moving into human territory—and into harm’s way.
Don’t miss Explorer “Science of Great Migrations” premiering November 9th at 10P et/pt.