Sleepout by Victoria Craddock

Have you ever wondered what activities become the stories you share for years to come? We cannot speak to all of them but we can share some insights into an epic EcoTraining right of passage, the sleepout event.

A wild night out EcoTraining style looks slightly different from what one would typically associate with ‘a wild night out ..’ For us, it’s a night of becoming one with the bush, of keeping your wits about you and growing intimate with the sounds and sensations endemic to wild Africa. The sleepout is an EcoTraining right of passage; a night where one’s senses become heightened to every nocturnal nuance.

Photographs © Victoria Craddock

Departure from camp

Before the adventure can commence, everything required to survive, and indeed to simply enjoy the night,  must be arranged. Students spend much of the morning busying themselves with the logistics of packing their kit and organizing miscellaneous equipment. Surprisingly, even though the group will seldom venture further than 5km from the main camp, the necessity for sufficient water supplies, a trusty spade, tea and coffee, a table from which to serve said tea and coffee, as well as dinner, breakfast, snacks and, of course, personal goodies, means the rusty old camp trailer is a vital sleepout accompaniment.

Camp orientation

Camp setup can only be described as primitive. That said, a few essentials must be addressed; collecting a nights worth of wood, heeding the safety brief, reaching a clear consensus on where the ‘ablution areas’ will be, deciding where to unravel your foam mattresses, as well as the ‘when, how and who’ of the night watch.

Dusk to darkness: fire making

Nighttime in the African bush is an experience like no other. As the sun slips behind the distant acacias, it’s time for the fire to be lit. A small one-log flame has to suffice, for some, this means suppressing the urge to create a raging bonfire.

Over the coming hours, this flame will serve to keep the night watch compliment awake and warm, to create an almost-negligible deterrent for predators, to heat food, boil water, and of course, enhance the bushveld ambiance.

Photographs © Victoria Craddock

The Night Sky

Once the sun has completely retreated, the stars come out to play. Being detached from the synthetic city glow, and having not semi-blinded themselves with the glares of technological devices, students marvel at the night sky. Prominent celestial bodies are highlighted and constellations are identified. Ancient astronomy legends are told and wonderful stories are shared about Orion the hunter, The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades, Taurus the bull, and the myriad other constellations that rise and set at different hours of the night.

The African lullaby

Once 10 pm rolls around, it’s time for the first-night watch shift. Campers who are not sitting guard, make their way to their mats and unroll their sleeping bags. Top tip: never unroll your sleeping bag before you’re ready to sleep unless you fancy the idea of a critter cuddle.

Photographs © Victoria Craddock

True to every romanticized recollection of African night sounds, the noises that touch one’s ears are both unusual and unfamiliar. Hooting owls, laughing hyenas, crying jackals, and roaring lions all layer their calls over chirping insects and melodious frogs. As camp noises dull, this symphony intensifies, encouraging the emptying of the mind. This backing track does a strange thing to the rhythm of sleep, on one hand, it’s the most restful night you can imagine, on the other hand, you never fully lose consciousness. It’s as if the part of your brain responsible for self-preservation is at war with the feeling that you’re returned to the place of belonging.

Night watch

While there is a time to surrender to the soporific lull of the bush, the time for acute alertness must also be observed. Night watch is the time for the latter. At some point, over the course of the evening, each student must take a turn to keep guard.

Your hour awake, alert and alone is a magical time. The gravitas of yours being the only eyes to search the darkness on behalf of your dozing buddies is truly humbling. Even more so when a hyena ambles into camp and sniffs around at the toes of those who are sleeping in blissful ignorance.

As long as the 60 minutes seem, they are passed doing regular torch sweeps (taking great care not to give the slumberers a flashy awakening, and in doing so creating enemies), stoking the fire, and lapping up the immersive experience. It’s just you, a tiny flame and the vast expanse of the night.

Photographs © Victoria Craddock

Rise and Shine

As dawn breaks, if you’ve managed to remain asleep, you are awoken by the evocative noises that intensify as the nocturnals send out their final cries and the diurnals greet the day.

Air crisper than a starched sheet hits your lungs and brings color to your cheeks. Camp ignites with embellished stories of the evening’s affairs and sentences to the effect of

“did you see how close that hyena came to the trailer?” and

“a Western Barn Owl gave me the biggest fright while I was on my way to the ‘bathroom’” and

“Did you guys see how crazy that shooting star was”

can be heard rippling across the inhabited sleeping bags.

It’s a brand new day, coffee from a tin tastes like the finest brew and the crick in your neck feels like an adventure survived. With the lure of a hot shower and cooked breakfast, it’s time to respectfully bow to the bush and head back to the main camp.

About the Author

Victoria Craddock is a past Apprentice Field Guide student of EcoTraining and a freelance Blogger.