Gearing up

Getting away and taking a break has taken on added significance post-pandemic. Most folks are in need of a scenery change – and with money being inevitably tight, DIY holidays are becoming more popular. So, no hotels, guest houses or even self-catering. Fiona McDonald has some suggestions for making camping enjoyable.

Camping: So often everyone’s worst nightmare. Ask anyone in your social circle and someone is bound to have a horror tale – of leaky tents and rain for days, losing food to thieving monkeys or hyenas, noisy neighbours in campsites or of (shudder!) horrendous ablution facilities.

But it needn’t be like that. Advocates of camping will tell you that the key to successful and enjoyable holidays or weekends is simply being organised – and having a list. My gold standard when it comes to camping is of driving south from Zululand, with memories of turtle tracks on moonlit beaches still fresh in the mind after a blissful 10-day break camping at Mabibi. The stay had been genuinely blissful for a number of reasons, with preparedness and checklists having been the key.

We wanted for nothing because we piggy-backed our tent pitch and camping foray with a family who did it all the time, with a fully kitted 4x4 trailer. Frosty cold beverages after a hot day on the beach? Check. Ample shade and kit for a day of snorkelling, dune surfing, Frisbee and beach cricket? Check. Board games and cards for the kids and adults to enjoy when not on the beach? Check. Binoculars and bird books to consult when sitting in the campsite wondering what that little brown job in the tree canopy was? Check. (Although nowadays there’s a mobile phone app for that sort of thing.) And they had a portable mini solar panel to charge tablets and mobile phones, even if there wasn’t any signal in camp!

But as our group of friends returned to Durban, there were one or two things we realised would have made life in our tent – good as it was – even a little more comfortable. A simple brush and pan or handheld mini vacuum would have assisted in keeping the sand and ants both out of the tent and sleeping bags. (Tip: if going the vacuum route, get one which can be recharged in your vehicle.)

For the total novice, perhaps without the organised and outfitted mates, here are some suggestions of the basics.

The first and best tip is to try before you buy. There are lots of places that hire or rent out equipment which is very handy for the big-ticket items such as tents or even trailers and battery-operated fridges. This way you can figure out what you do and don’t like about the functionality. It will help to narrow down what works for you and your specific needs before you have to lay down cash on a tent or a fridge/freezer.

Start small – like a weekend away at a destination that’s not too remote. That way, if it’s completely disastrous, it’s not too much of a schlep to strike camp and head home. It goes without saying that before even packing the vehicle, it might be prudent to check the long-term weather forecast …

Very important on any camping trip is to plan ahead – have an idea of what meals you’ll have and when. If operating out of a cooler box, the meat should be used up as soon as possible to avoid spoiling – then you can go to pantry staples like pasta or tinned goods. Pack other little extra treats, bars of chocolate, marshmallows and Marie biscuits for fireside fun obviously… A small bag of kernels makes a lot of popcorn! Savvy campers also premix things like pancake batter so all that needs to be added are the milk and eggs.

Then a plastic basin or two is handy for either doing the washing up or doubling as a bowl for mixing bread dough. To go with that a dishcloth, sponge and drying up towels. If you’re camping for a week or more, some laundry will have to be done. And even if it isn’t, you’ll need to dry towels either from swims or showers – so don’t forget the pegs and possibly a clothesline (bungee cords or a rope offcut is handy). On the topic of towels, you can use normal towels but the lighter weight, more compact camping towels are handy and dry amazingly well. Swimming towels too. Bearing in mind the natural beauty surrounding you, try and use as many biodegradable products as possible – from dishwashing liquid to body wash. Don’t forget a spare roll or two of toilet paper …

Let there be light! The head torch is your friend – but don’t forget spare batteries. They’re particularly useful for those night-time trips to the ablution block to shower or wash the dishes after the braai. Solar lamps, candles or hurricane lamps and rechargeable lamps are standard in most South African homes due to years of load shedding so add them to the checklist.

Be prepared. Take along a First Aid kit because stuff happens. Kids climb trees, stub their toes on rocks or someone might be stung by a bee or whack a thumb with a mallet driving in the tent pegs. You just never know. Bug spray! A mosquito in a tent at night is a deadly, wicked assassin.

Finally, don’t forget to be considerate of fellow campers – so no loud music or raucous parties that go on until the early hours. People are getting away to enjoy nature after all. Have fun and enjoy your surroundings. Take the walks and swims and make special memories.