Bats in my belfry vs my private steam room: the bush camp / luxury lodge debate

Posted by Sean Hunter Christie on 13 March 2012

I liked Umlani Bush Camp, it was like Motswari Safari Lodge but more rustic, completely off-grid, out of cellphone range, and open to the Timbavati Game Reserve, though a double-strand high wire keeps out the pachyderms.

The first thing the lodge manager, David, did was warn about snakes. The camp, he said, situated on a bushy river bank, was serpent Mecca. On cue, a nearby wail signalled the appearance of a large vine snake on the path from the staff quarters. Five minutes later a false alarm sounded. It was just a monitor lizard slithering in the leaf litter, but a few hours later a bush snake visited Umlani’s guests at lunch.

In this age of facility-based game tourism, I’m personally nostalgic for ye olde bush camp, where electricity is considered a nuisance and the oft-repaired water tank is more Trinepon putty than original plastic. My grandfather on my mother’s side built a breeze-block cottage on the shores of Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe’s artificial inland sea, in the late 60s. There were three of these in a row, overlooking a ficus and beyond that was an inlet which used to lap at the cottage foundations in the lake’s early years, only to fall back a kilometre or so and stay back. These structures were on National Parks Board land and the agreement was life lease for the farmer who negotiated the deal—when he died the cottages would be removed without a trace.

In time he did, and they were, but lor, what a spree was had in the thirty odd years to that point. There were no fences, and impala and bushbuck grazed the kikuyu lawn. A herd of buffalo made frequent use of the river course, as did lion, more frequently heard than seen. I took an interest in the little stuff: the ant lions, velvet ticks, matabele ants and lapis luzuli charaxes that crawled and flitted around the camp grounds. Every morning a Parks official, in full uniform, would wheel a barrow filled with illegally netted fish up from the bay to their lodgings behind our camp. Out on the lake we caught only bream and tiger fish, but the barrow contained other treasures: Cornish Jack, Chessa, Pink Lady, Labeo. Once the barrow, always discreetly covered with a black plastic sheet, had a crocodile’s tail.

Umlani Bush Camp reminded me of all of this. At night both the breeze and whatever happened to be crackling or lowing in the surrounding trees came right through my rondavel’s reed walls and chicken wire windows. Bats literally did flit in and out, and I wondered: surely this is the experience tourists pay for? Surely they pay to be wound back in time, to be inconvenienced almost? Surely nobody returns to Milan, Amsterdam or London and says, you know, the linen at ________ was bloody amazing, the biscotti to die for? Why then this industry gravitation towards high-concept lodges, offering hot-rock massage therapy with waterhole views, and guppies to nibble on your toes? I’m probably flogging a very dead horse but it nevertheless seems to me that an Endearmint on the pillow every morning should do it for most tourists, so long as they see a few of the big five, feel cared for and are able to clean themselves and eat decent food.

In his now quite famous essay Game Lodges and Leisure Colonialists, Caught in the Act of Becoming, South African intellectual Njabulo Ndebele makes the following claim: ‘The pleasure of the game lodge lies in its ability to provide personal conveniences and luxuries far from home. These conveniences are an essential link to the home base. Signifying the success of conquest, they are the concrete manifestation of the movement of the dominant culture across time and space, and its ability to replicate itself far away.’

Hogwash, or rather, it’s difficult to dispute the claim that the bush lodge was and remains a colonial space, but I do not believe for a second that home comfort is where the pleasure of the game lodge lies historically, nor where it is inevitably bound.

Umlani offers, for example, very little in the way of facility-based luxury, and yet it was here that Dave Matthews, one of the most successful musicians of recent times, chose to spend time a fortnight ago with his family and friends. And take Sabi Sabi’s Selati camp. Formerly a hunting lodge, for years it was kept much the same way it was found, electricity free, the rooms so infernally hot guests slept under frozen kikoi’s, and yet even as Sabi Sabi’s other lodges became more luxurious Selati had its devotees.

I’m not suggesting every bushveld visitor be given a spade and a loo roll in the lodge entrance foyer, but speak to the doyens of the industry, the men and women who were there at the start, and you’ll find many of them expressing nostalgia for a simpler framing of the bushveld experience, and concern at the number of wet wipes being handed out at tea time.


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