While in Botswana, safari camping was at the top of our travel list. But it wasn't without challenges, like how to stay clean.
This picture of me, taken after one day of Botswana safari camping, says it all. I'm wide-eyed and smiling but you can see the worry in my eyes. You can also see plenty of sweaty hair and a cooling, wet handkerchief draped around my neck. And that was my northern Botswana and Chobe safari experience in a nutshell: awe-inspiring, monumental, a bit overwhelming, and really, REALLY sweaty.
In so many ways, I was ill-prepared for the rigors of Botswana wilderness safaris. I had done exhaustive research. I had been camping dozens of times. Heck, I had even lived in southeast Africa before. But the heat, sand, dirt, and sweat hit me like a ton of bricks. It wasn't that I was unhygienic, per se. I was just out of my element in so many ways and feeling cruddy sure didn't help.
Ryan, I suspect, was absolutely in his element. But I was at the outer limits of my comfort zone. And, trust me, life does NOT begin there, no matter what the philosophers say! This is the blog post about keeping clean on camping safaris I wish I could have read before my trip.
The Art Of Washing Up While In A Tent
If you're thinking that trying to wash up in a tent sounds a bit ridiculous, well you are absolutely right. And pre-safari, I might have agreed with you. But after just one day on the road, less than 12 hours since my final hotel shower, I was feeling grimy and unkempt. And, I must confess, a bit ashamed.
Who was I to be feeling fussy about a lack of facilities? Was I suddenly some high maintenance travel diva? Sure, the drive was a long, dusty one and I had applied sticky sunscreen and bug spray a'plenty. But it's not like I was bereft of opportunities to tidy up a little bit. The kindly safari guides had even set up a hand washing station before dinner. But I still didn't feel like myself. When I timidly mentioned maybe I could figure out some way to wash up a bit with wipes and water in the tent, Ryan looked doubtful. Was this going to be one of my irksome, finicky packing projects - to be undertaken in the dark, in the heat, in a tiny tent after a long day? I suddenly felt foolish. Surely only an inexperienced, faint hearted traveler would care about such things.
I should have listened to my gut. Changing into sleeping clothes and crawling into a sleeping bag when you're not clean is such a yucky feeling. It didn't help that it was the first night and I knew things weren't going to get any cleaner. Blah! I've also since learned that I'm not alone in my thinking.
My friend Jenny has a hilarious blog post about life in a remote island of Cambodia, where vipers are abundant but opportunities for washing your hair are more scarce. My other friend Keena has written a remarkable book about her childhood, partly spent in Botswana, and she knows a thing or two about adjustments, expectations, and tomfoolery when you're trying to keep it all together in challenging moments. It's been of tremendous comfort to me to know that even the most hearty souls can have a few "good grief" moments on the road, when you just want an hour that's full of soap and free of bugs.
If I could get a re-do of my Botswana tent time, here's what I would have done.
I would have closed the exterior windows of our heavy canvas tents for extra privacy. Now, those windows were a major pain. You had to go outside the tent to close them and there was no way to keep a crack open for air. It was so hot that we slept with them open, privacy be damned. I still should have done it. I should have organized all my clothing and cleaning items, nipped outside to close the window flaps, gone back into the tent, and put on my trusty headlamp.
In the headlamp illuminated darkness, I should have stripped down and used my wet wipes to quickly wash myself down. I could have been redressed in a minute before heading outside for fresh air while I reopened the windows. Yes, the process of wiping myself down likely would have produced sweat but at least it would have been fresh sweat!
My Botswana safari camping packing list for tent wash ups
In a re-do world in which I know my own best self and what makes me cozy and content, I think these simple washing up efforts would have made a difference. Maybe not in terms of outward appearance. I was beyond help in that regard! But I would have felt more like myself and ready to take on the challenges of the next day. If I were to sign up for more Botswana wilderness safaris, this is what I'd pack for easy tent washing up.
Thankfully, my 'should I or shouldn't I' tent washing turmoil was soon in the past, as we were able to set up a bush shower before long.
No Botswana safari lodges around? Time for a bush shower!
You've probably seen some version of a bush shower before, even if you've never been camping in Botswana. They're increasingly popular at campgrounds and beaches for parents to easily rinse off their kids next to their vehicles. In our case, the shower was a basic one, a large, canvas, cone shaped bucket with a spigot on the lower end to control the water flow from a shower-head style opening.
The safari staff rigged it up from a tree and we helped build a four sided canvas privacy screen around it. A folding camp chair, placed just outside the shower where the sides of the canvas formed a flap-door, was handy and helpful for holding clean clothing and other shower gear. A thick, perforated rubber mat on the ground completed the set up, keeping our feet out of the muck as the excess water flowed through. Some of the more posh camping groups, which had staff to scout ahead and set things up, had a similar set up but with a larger, more substantial shower and broader privacy room.
I'm not going to sugar coat things. When the bush shower was first set up, I was in DIRE need of a shower. Camping and safaris are dusty, sweaty affairs at the best of times. When you add in multiple layers of thick sunscreen, bug spray, and all the general debris that I manage to spill on myself during the course of a day, well, I was a prime candidate for assessing the effectiveness of bush showers.
It was GLORIOUS. The water was warm but not hot, the result of being held in the truck's storage tank all day. For me, it was the perfect temperature. While I thought I wanted icy cold spray, the warm water had the desired effect of being refreshing while also making me feel clean. The water pressure was better than I expected from such a basic set up. While the square canvas shelter wasn't exactly spacious, it did feel secure and private. My hanging toiletry kit (I use this Eagle Creek Wallaby toiletry kit, size small, from the Pack-it Spector series) easily hooked around the frame of the shelter and the camp chair outside was very handy for holding towels, clothing, and so on.
I assumed I'd have to take a rapid fire, thirty second shower, turning the water off as I lathered up but there was plenty of water for everyone and the canvas bucket was easily refilled. If you're in a similar situation, I'd still recommend keeping the showers brief as a courtesy and to carefully conserve water but you're not exactly on a timer. I even managed to awkwardly shave my legs one day!
Packing for Botswana safari camping bush showers
Being mindful of the environment and not wanting to use products that were especially thick, soapy, and frothy in case I didn't have sufficient time to rinse them off (an ill-founded fear as it turned out...) this is what I used in the bush shower.
Based on reading about other people's camping safari experiences, some people have also used bucket showers. In fact, in the safari literature we had before the trip, they referred to the washing situation as "bucket showers" but there's a difference between the two. Imagine a similar set up, but instead of a canvas shower hanging from the tree, you have a large bucket of water on the ground with a small dipper.
Working in pairs with a friend to act as a lookout, go to a semi private area like behind a tent. Bring along a camp chair or two for your belongings. Pour one dipper of water over your head and work in a modest amount of shampoo at the roots. Let it sit for a moment for extra cleansing power while you get your body wet, wipe it down with your cleansing cloths, and then rinse. Finish up with a final dipper or two to wash out your hair. Congratulate yourself on surviving being more or less naked in public with lions and leopards hanging out just beyond your line of sight. It's not quite as relaxing as an elevated shower and a privacy screen but it will feel MUCH better than a tent based clean up with wet wipes.
Not quite as posh at the Botswana safari lodges but still pretty great: The resort shower blocks
Many rustic Botswana safari camping adventures include a night or two on the grounds of a resort or rest stop which has a section for camping, plus a large shower block. This was a much hyped part of our trip, with promises of spacious, modern showers and endless hot water. And I have to say, our visit to Sitatunga Campsite (part of the Delta Rain outfitters, just outside Maun) did not disappoint!
However, thanks to the bush showers, I wasn't quite so desperate for the resort shower blocks as I thought I would be. I was still grateful for the extra space to move around and for the chance to use all my toiletries knowing that there was no need to watch the time. I know that some people didn't use the bush shower to wash their hair (I'm not sure why???) and they were thrilled they could do so at the shower blocks. Maybe they just felt they needed extra space and time and hot water to make it worthwhile.
I repeated the same procedures I used for the bush showers, minus using the Olay dry cleaning cloths. Here, I used the Body Shop shea butter shower cream and, since I had it with me, Eminence's stone crop exfoliating powder. I love this product - it's a dry, carry-on friendly powder to which you add a bit of water to make an exfoliating paste. In theory I guess I could have used it in the bush shower but I didn't want to fuss around with the little container in the rustic settings. But with room and time to spare, I was happy to deeply scrub my face, neck, and arms.
I still used my modest travel towel and my bag for carrying clean clothing. I was also very happy to have my flip flops with me. While our shower block was clean and well maintained, it was still good to have an extra layer of protection.
All in All: Our Botswana safari camping experience was a trip to remember.
We booked our 7 day "Best of Botswana" safari camping experience through TourRadar. They're a third party booking site and they were acting on behalf of Acacia Adventures Holiday - who in turn had Lewis Safaris of Maun, Botswana conduct the tours. Whew! We paid about $1200 each, plus $650 each in mandatory fees (we saved a bit by finding an online coupon code).
While $1850 each sounds like a lot of money to pay with no guarantee of a shower, it represents an incredible value in the world of safaris. Doing a Botswana safari camping trip and "roughing" it let us be much, much closer to nature and see far more of the country than the typical Chobe safari lodge experience, which would have cost us more and delivered less. While it was a challenging experience in many ways, it was also an incredibly rewarding one. Grimy or clean, it's a trip that will stay with me forever.
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