“Is it too hot in Africa?” is the question I get asked most often by people in Latin America. They have the image of lush forests and the very hot places of Central and West Africa, white man’s grave. I think they do not believe me when I tell them that Southern Africa can be bitterly cold at times. Frankly, I was also surprised when, on arrival, I found how cold it could get!
Muguga and Nairobi in Kenya and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia were cold, the latter very cold but Lusaka, technically in Southern Africa, was rather warm, sometimes even too warm. It was while living in Lusaka that we organized our first safari to Sinamatella in Hwange National Park in early 1991. We camped there during a weekend of July and it was so cold that we had to ask the game rangers to lend us blankets to outlast the bitterly cold nights. I We were there with our baby daughter and I still remember my wife’s concern of not being able to keep her warm! Survive we did but, clearly, we forgot about it.
In comes Ngweshla Picnic site, located in the Sinamatella area, during July! As we were moving through various camps we took small tents so that we could assemble and disassemble them without too much trouble. I hasten to add also that our new nylon tent was “untested” as we had just bought it for the trip.
It was warm when we set up our camp after arriving at Ngweshla in the late morning. After lunch we went on a game drive to explore the area and, although we planned an earlier return, as usual we got delayed following a hungry-looking hyena on the prowl. The sun was setting by the time we got back to camp and there was a chill in the air already. Stupidly we had forgotten to organize our campfire so we did not bother and planned a quick dinner and an early night instead.
By the time we had our dinner it was clear that it would be a cold night so we skipped showers and we went to bed early as the tents seemed to be the only warm place at the time. Following the routine I got into my soft pile inner bag and then into the 15°C sleeping bag. I normally sleep in my underwear but, this time, I left my socks on as a special measure! My wife, more cautious, was well covered in her pajamas and even a polar hat!
If there is one thing I am good at it is sleeping even on the floor with a thin mattress! So waking up in the middle of the night came as a surprise. The latter turned into mild panic when I could not feel my legs. I quickly went through the list of conditions that can leave you paralyzed from the waist down and, before I completed it, I realized that I was suffering from leg numbness due to cold or, put into more simple terms, I was frozen from my butt down, mainly at the back of my legs!
“This is ridiculous” I thought and proceeded to adopt a foetal position placing the warmer front of my leg against the cold back of the other in quick succession. This seemed to work at first but, although I regained the feeling in my limbs, they ended up warmer but far from ideal. My butt remained sub-zero. I beat it with my hands and, painfully, it also warmed up albeit slowly. The situation was bad as I was still far from being warm enough to go back to sleep.
While considering my predicament the little warmth I achieved clearly activated other organs apart from my brain and I felt the need to fulfill nature’s call! “This is great”, I thought while holding on and hoping against hope that I would go back to sleep. All this was taking place while listening to my favourite podcast of the “Two Mikes” in TalkSPORT as there is no Internet at Ngweshla. The topic at the time was how, Rod Stewart’s new wife, concerned about the impact of tight jeans on his reproductive gear, forced him to have cold baths to preserve them! I removed the earplugs immediately as this was not the kind of talk that a person in my current condition needed. Bathing in cold-water gave me uncontrollable shakes and this was not conducive to my bladder control!
To avert a wet disaster inside the tent I summed up my courage and left my tepid bags and put a jumper on and then placed my partially mobile lower extremities into my jogging pants. I was ready to face the cold so I proceeded to open the two tent zippers gently so as not to wake my wife up. My mind focused on my bladder control, I forgot to take a torch, a very useful thing when walking around a campsite at night as the moon was long gone!
Luckily my legs responded somehow and I made a mad rush to the toilet. It was evident that the outside temperature was unbelievably low although I was in no condition for estimates! In the dark and with my bladder nearing bursting point, the slippery step prior to entering the toilet was not in my mind. Earlier in life I had suffered the consequences of the lack of grip of my otherwise very comfortable Crocs clogs and this drawback was re-confirmed as soon as I landed on the smooth tiles of the toilet entrance. I am sure that my semi-numb legs contributed to me losing my footing to land on my cold bum. Luckily there was a buffalo skull placed next to the step for decoration and, providentially, it interrupted my mad bum race!
Miraculously I was unharmed and managed to relieve myself in time. The adrenaline burst of the fall had managed somehow to offset the cold I was feeling and I was slightly warmer by the time I re-entered the tent when I heard “hua wash fat nush” coming from the direction of my wife. I asked her to repeat her message as she was speaking through her nose, the only organ she had outside of her “cocoon”. She was keen on knowing what the noise had been and I reassured her that a buffalo had not mauled me but that I had fallen on the skull of one but survived!
After comparing notes on the temperature situation both inside and outside the tent with her and agreeing that it was in fact freezing I re-entered my sleeping bag, this time fully dressed with the addition of a sleeveless jacket wrapped around my bump not only to stop it from re-freezing but also as an added cushion to alleviate its soreness! Fortunately I felt much better all round despite my tender derriere and I managed to go back to sleep.
The following morning there was no early morning game drive and we remained inside the tents until the sun was up and strong. When we surfaced from our tent we met our son sunning himself. He also froze to death in his tent, despite his recently ended five years in Edinburgh.
Do I need to tell you that the next two nights we slept fully dressed and that I took my torch with me when going to the toilet at night?