Fly camp, spike camp; a fantastic wilderness experience
Main camp offered a marvelous view of the Zambezi, with a perfect sunset over Zambian hills across the river. Hippos usually wandered among the tents at night, chomping noisily on choice grasses, and it was a certainty that we’d get the full symphony of hyenas on a nightly basis. Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park faced the camp, with the roaring of lions frequently drifting across the river. For the first several years we hunted and filmed with Chifuti Safaris, this camp was headquarters, and it became home for several weeks each year.
There was another option far to the south, a best camping tent simply called Fly Camp. It offered a bit more than a fly, but instead of the traditional heavy canvas safari tents, it was a one of the smallest cluster of light among those big tents for camping, with dining under the stars and the campfire looking out across the sandy bed of the Chewore River. In the years we hunted there, Fly Camp changed slightly every year depending on the floods, but it, too, became one of my favorite places. It’s definitely a best tent for a family (best family tent) or a group of adults. Elephants would frequently stroll down the riverbed, and there, the roaring of lions was up close and personal.
IT DOESN’T MUCH matter what you call it. What we’re talking about is a rough camp, in remote country–on any continent. In many parts of the world “fly camp” is the preferred term. I have always supposed this was because a primary component was a fly tarp that may stop rain, but certainly won’t turn insects. Similarly, I have always assumed that a “spike camp” was a temporary camp “spiked out” from a more permanent situation and lacking some (or most) of the amenities.
Sometimes this is a matter of degree–understanding, of course, that a fly camp in Africa is often more comfortable than a main elk camp in the American Rockies. Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi, from Mana Pools National Park east to Mozambique, is perhaps that country’s most remote area, wild Africa little touched since David Livingstone strode along that stretch of river. Most of the region is managed as designated Safari Areas, meaning no human habitation is allowed, and until recently in one of these areas, Sapi, no permanent structure was allowed either. So the main camp on the Zambezi, though perfectly comfortable and quite adequate, was a lot rougher than many Africa camps, It was a tent camp with shared facilities.
Fly Camp was very good to me. In the several years we hunted the area I don’t think I ever shot a buffalo out of main camp, but with just a couple of days at Fly Camp we’d have an old bull in the salt. On the safari that produced our Boddington on Leopard film, we were badly stuck and striking out at both camps, but it was a bait out of Fly Camp that produced a fine torn as the safari came perilously close to the 11th hour. Come to think of it, temporary camps have been pretty good for my leopard luck. There was a wonderful spike camp in Namibia’s Bushmanland, but it produced a leopard too quickly; I really didn’t get to enjoy it.
Now, in the Lower Zambezi, the difference between Fly Camp and Main Camp was truly just a matter of very small degrees; neither camp was permanent, but neither camp was within the true spirit of the ad hoc temporary camp. Truthfully, this isn’t done much in Africa anymore. Hunting areas, concessions, are more permanent, as are the camps within them. This is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how your own thirst for adventure competes with your appreciation for creature comforts.
In the Cameroon forest in 2006 we went to what they called fly camp on the Upper Boumba, but it was really just a new forest camp, elaborately built and beautifully designed in the way of most African camps, but still a work in progress. There were no beds, just lawn chairs that lay out flat under mosquito netting. After one night I gave up on that and slept on the floor. However, the game was there, and no matter where you are, that is often what drives you to more and more Spartan quarters.
In 2001, during a brief window when Chad was open and safe for hunting, my hunting partner Chris Kinsey and I, under the able leadership of legendary professional hunter Alain Lefol, covered 500 miles of country looking for various specialized rarities. In that context every camp was truly a spike camp, using lightweight (and very nontraditional) Cabela’s tents. We started in the crumbling sandstone heights of the Ennedi Mountains, hunting aoudad, and we hunted Dorcas gazelle in the huge sand wadis that once held great numbers of addax and scimitar oryx. Then we worked south to the Sultanate of Dar Sila, where the Sultan gave us an audience and permission to hunt. At that time, before border incursions from Sudan, the small-bodied western greater kudu were still plentiful and we both took great bulls. Finally, we struck south to the border with Central African Republic, hoping to find korrigum, the big-bodied, purple-colored giant topi, in one of the last places they were on license.
We set up our final tent camp near some dwindling pools in the Aoukele River. We found plenty of red-fronted gazelle, and in this primarily Muslim country even,’ pool along the Aoukele held monstrous warthogs. There was no sign at all of korrigum, so we struck southwest along the Aoukele, carrying what water we could. Our camp that night was a true fly camp–sleeping mats under the stars, a supper of shish-kabobs of warthog and gazelle. The only water was a filthy pool far beyond reclaiming, so we were out of time, but just before dark we’d glimpsed one korrigum so we felt we had come far enough. The next day my partner, Chris Kinsey, and I each took a korrigum, an all-day project that left us perilously low on water. So in the dusk we packed up our fly camp and made our way back by starlight and GPS, collapsing into our colorful Cabela’s tents in the dawn.
On a sheep or goat hunt we do things different. The camp may be permanent or carried on your back or packhorse. Either way, when you leave camp you rarely leave without your sleeping bag. Darkness may find you on a mountain with rams in sight but unapproachable, so you suffer a cold night hoping to move on them in the morning. Funny, I don’t ever recall referring to being stuck on a mountain overnight as a camp of any kind, but those are nights you never forget, and they put into perspective the relative comforts–and milder climates–of Africa’s roughest fly camps and coldest winter nights.