By Grant Spolander
I think it was back in 2008 that I had my first rooftop tent experience. It was not a good one. Prior to that I’d heard many reports about the benefits of sleeping off the ground, mainly, that it was safer in terms of predators. Admittedly, I felt a sense of rooftop relief when we rolled into Botswana’s Savuti camp – a place well known for its big lion prides and brazen hyena packs.
Later that evening, we were sitting around a campfire, and as per usual, someone thought it a great idea to tell wildlife horror stories about people being ripped out of their tents, or mauled in their camping chair… you know, delightful bedtime stories before you hit the sack.
I was pretty well “oiled” at this point and felt myself drifting off. Luckily, a few thoughtful campers insisted that I go to bed and not risk falling asleep in my camping chair. It should also be noted that I was on anti-malaria tablets on this trip, which, according to the warning label, read: May cause nightmares and hallucinations.
It was a ridiculously hot evening, so I kept the tent door open but left the mosquito gauze attached. Sadly, however, instead of zipping the gauze closed, I relied only on the velcro strip to hold the screen shut.
At some point in the deepest, darkest, wee hours of the night, I started having a night terror. But I’m not talking about your usual bad dream about missing socks, I’m talking about an eyes-wide-open hallucinogenic undie shitter. The sort of “dream” where you’re awake, but not awake, but screaming for your life.
Anyway, in this particular sleeping-walking freak show, I sat bolt upright in my tent and vividly watched the biggest, ugliest, Black Mamba slither through an opening in my tent. It then reared its head, opened its hideously dark mouth, and repeatedly struck me in my chest, again, and again, and again. Well, needless to say, I didn’t stick around for this to continue happening, and so, I ran…
I ran as fast as I could through the mosquito gauze (bypassing the ladder) and then tumbled through the air until I eventually broke my fall with the back of my neck. I then shot to my feet and kept running barefoot into the pitch dark Savuti bush in my tighty-whities.
Thankfully, an instinctive compass told me that I was running in the wrong direction, so I quickly hit a U-turn and made my way back to the last remaining embers of the fire. My heart was racing, my lungs were burning, my feet were full of thorns, and I had no idea where the hell I was.
Fortunately, thanks to the sounds of me yelling for my life, then running for my life, then ripping through velcro and thumping to the ground, the guy sleeping in the Land Rover’s cabin below me, woke up. The poor dude must’ve had a heart attack of his own as the Defender was no doubt rocking and swaying when I fought the imaginary serpent and then bailed out the door.
So here I am, completely dazed and confused while this poor chap in the Land Rover Defender is scrambling for his flashlight to see what on earth is going on.
“Grant! What the f__k are you doing out here, there are hyenas everywhere, get back in your tent!”
His voice sounded like it came from another dimension, but I slowly turned around and saw a flashlight glaring in my face along with a bunch of reflective eyes glinting at me from under the trees. I mindlessly nodded my head in agreement and made my way back to the Defender, only, I was now on the wrong side of the vehicle and couldn’t find the ladder. After patting the Defender down like I was conducting a drug bust, I eventually crawled back to the “safety” of the rooftop tent.
The next morning, I exited the tent (with the ladder this time) and somehow strolled into what felt like a safari press conference as our entire convoy eagerly awaited an explanation for the night.
Thinking back, I should’ve played it cool and made up some story that portrayed me as a badass camper that thinks nothing of wandering into lion country for no good reason in his underpants. But instead, I told the truth about a black mamba, an invisible ladder, and a terrified run in the bush. The guys were in stitches, and for many years after, that story preceded me. Still to this day, after meeting “new” people in a campsite, I’ll often retire to bed and hear, “Hey Grant, don’t forget to zip up”.