A Masai homestead near the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania.  The grass hut is perfect for the climate.

By Terry Wieland


Under Canvas

The fine art of teamwork


Many has been the paean to the joys of the old-time tented safari, wherein you set up camp for a few days or a week, hunted a bit, and then moved on — with a long line of porters in the early days, later with trucks or what were termed “safari cars.”  Generally, the joys stem from the nomadic life, not from the moveable canvas structures themselves.


Alas, the old-style safari is no more.  First, you need vast expanses of unfettered hunting territory, like the old concessions of colonial Tanganyika, and these no longer exist.  Second, you need a safari crew that really knows the business of setting up and tearing down a camp, packing and unpacking with military precision.  That’s no small thing.


Lest you are one of those who think “military precision” is an oxymoron, let me disabuse you.  The army does many things well, and in the immediate wake of the war in Europe (1939-45), thousands of soldiers came home with some skills that may not have been immediately apparent, and not readily appreciated, but which served them well in later years.  Among these were the ability to scavenge, a taste for rough living, and an abhorrence of Spam.


Looking back on what many would consider a misspent life — or at least, unfulfilled potential, as my mother maintained to her almost-last breath — I can divide the first few decades into distinct eras of education, none of which involved actual formal schooling.  In my early ‘teens, there was working on the farm next door, and in my later ‘teens, there was the Army.


In the summer of 1967, I was assigned to crews setting up tented camps for a couple of big military events, one of which was the annual rifle matches at the Connaught Ranges outside Ottawa.  These were self-contained cities, complete with tents, running water, latrines, and electricity.  Where yesterday there was an empty field, tomorrow there were long lines of tents set up with geometric precision.


We were a bunch of callow youths, whose uniforms were often too big because we had not yet attained even the smallest “army” size, and that summer slimmed us down further.  Every one of us came out with more muscle than we went in with, however, and often with a few skills that came in handy later.  The tents in question were the military original of the big marquees that are rented for outdoor weddings.  They were 24×36 feet (roughly 8×12 metres) and slept 12 men apiece.  The floor boards resembled modern shipping pallets, scaled up to a size where it took four of us to lift one.


First, the camp was laid out with little colored flags; next, water lines were laid with taps sticking up out of the ground every six tents or so; then we moved in, unloading and laying the floor boards.  Tent parts were dropped off atop each set of boards.  These consisted of the canvas top, side walls, two tall poles with heavy guy ropes, and a bundle of wooden tent pegs about two feet long.  As well, there were longer, heavier “corner” pegs for the main ropes that went to the tops of the poles.  These corner pegs, eight to a tent, were 30 inches long, three inches diameter, with steel tips and reinforcing steel bands.  Driving them two feet into the ground required both muscle and skill.


One might look at all this and consider it mere manual labour, but one would reckon without the skills of our supervising warrant officers, many of whom had served with the “real” army in
Europe.  If you’ve seen the movie Zulu, think of Colour-Sergeant Bourne.  Their boots were like mirrors, their shirts retained their creases even in the heat of summer, they carried drill canes, and looked at us, first with contempt, later with grudging approval, and finally with considerable pride at having turned this rabble into a bunch of working teams who could erect a tent, complete, in a matter of minutes without a single word of command being uttered.


Devotees of Cool Hand Luke will recognize what happened:  When men are divided into teams, formal or otherwise, and set to do similar tasks, competition soon emerges.  Having been taught from early life how to wield a splitting ax, I took to swinging a ten-pound maul (mallet) like I was born to it, and my specialty was driving in tent pegs.  Even here, competition emerged — trying to see how few swings it took to drive in a peg leaving the exact regulation length showing above ground.  I think the record was two swings, not counting the one-handed taps to get it started, and for the bigger, tarred and steel-banded corner pegs, it was three.


By the end, we could move down a line of waiting floor boards at near a dead run, with tents popping up behind us like mushrooms in a spring rain, and sergeant-majors (sergeants-major, for linguistic archaists) strolling along between the lines with approving nods.  We learned later that these guys, veterans of various wars from Europe in ’44 to Korea, had bets among themselves as to whose teams could do it faster, but with the requisite measured-in-inches precision.


What does all this have to do with Africa?


When I went there first in 1971, to Uganda and the Sudan as a journalist, I often ran into veterans of the King’s African Rifles, now sergeant-majors or officers in the new Ugandan Army.  This was before the complete break-down under Idi Amin, and I recognized the type.  They were impeccably dressed, impeccably behaved, and quietly proud of what they had become.  They could have sat down for a beer with the senior NCOs I’d met that long-ago summer — actually, it was only four years earlier, but it seemed a lifetime — and discussed everything from digging trenches, to shooting Commies, to setting up a tented camp, all with no explanations required.


Later, I had the privilege of seeing an old-style tented safari camp set up, and the head man of the crew was obviously an old KAR vet.  His shorts were ironed, his shirt spotless, he carried a hand-carved stick under his arm like a drill cane, and never lifted so much as a finger.  He just strolled, watched, and occasionally nodded while the camp went up around him.  From the time the first wicker hamper came off the lorry until the tents were up, the fire burning merrily, the clients comfortably ensconced with icy libations, and the tantalizing smells of roasting this and baking that coming from the cookfires, I doubt he said a single word.  Maybe a low growl now and then.


Early writers on the subject — Roosevelt, Hemingway, Ruark — all mentioned this phenomenon, and I don’t think it’s accidental that all three had a military background and recognized the hallmarks of valuable but underrated military skills.


In recent years, I’ve had varied experiences with movable tents in Africa, but in each case it was a matter of setting up a spike camp, allowing us to stay out for a night or two, definitely roughing it and not expecting the usual safari-camp luxury.  One time, I ended up in a tent high atop Mount Longido.  The expedition had been organized at the last minute, and what we lacked was a good major domo of the old school to oversee preparations.  Somehow, someone forgot blankets, which left me shivering through the night in the inevitable rain-forest shower, saved from hypothermia only by the Eddie Bauer goosedown shirt (circa 1975) that I always pack, no matter what.


Another time, we set up camp near the Rift Valley, not expecting rain, but the rainy season began that very evening.  We hastily set up tents, and I awoke the next morning to find my .500 NE double rifle lying in a puddle of water.  That’s one way to find out your tent leaks.


Both times, we were hunting Cape buffalo, and these tales of hardship add a slight glow where none is really necessary.  Mbogo doesn’t need any press-agent burnishing.


The last few years, I’ve developed a taste for sleeping under the stars rather than pitching a tent, but I still love tent life.  We found in the Army, contrary to the thinking of many, that it is vastly more comfortable to sleep in a tent than in a barracks.  I had a pal in Botswana who was setting up a guiding company, and he lived in a tent, permanently, for seven straight years.  When he finally got his house built, he confided, he missed the tent dreadfully for the first few months.  Solid walls and a roof and a stone floor just seemed, well, confining.  It was, on the other hand, vastly more reptile-resistant, which is no small consideration when your main squeeze has a small dog and a horror of snakes.


There are still tented camps to be found, from the Cape to the Red Sea, but most are permanent installations.  Even so, they are much more comfortable than any of the adobe rondavels and small buildings to be found on a lot of game ranches.


Done right, tent life is more luxurious than the Ritz.