Cooking under open skies

The recipe

I spend a significant amount of time in campsites all over the country. There are but a few things that rival the pleasure of a night under open Namibian skies. With only a small tent, a thin mattress and a sleeping bag, I am ready to depart at a moment’s notice.

When packing for a camping trip I take utmost care to pack my camera gear properly. Every element in the bag gets cleaned and returned to its compartment. Batteries are charged and tested. Cables are tied. Cards are formatted and sensors are cleaned. This could take a day but gives me great peace of mind.

As for clothing, the opposite applies. Clean underwear for each day of the trip is how far I plan my dress code. The rest is selected by the swoop of a hand. If it sits on top of the pile of clean items, it gets thrown in. Add to this a toothbrush and some toothpaste and I feel I have all options covered. Everything else is considered a luxury.

Pan fried Chicken
Pan fried Chicken

As I travel mostly by myself, I do not care much about food or cooking. I’d rather spend the time taking photographs. For years now, I have promised myself that I would exchange hard-earned cash for a mobile freezer. Yet, thus far, I have failed to make good on my promise. As a result, I carry no pots, no pans and hardly any cutlery. If it a perishable, it has to be cooked on the first night, so I have at most one luxury meal per trip. For the second day, it is down to non-perishable basics: bread flour, biltong, canned beef and vegetables, protein shakes, preserved fruits and some snack bars. Unlike at home where I spend hours in the kitchen and live to eat, here I only eat to live.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that many campers do not share my commitment to camping minimalism. No, they commit to quite the opposite: life in a mobile village with every luxury imaginable. They have gas cookers, pancake pans, refrigerators, freezers, electrical lights, icemakers, and as I observed quite recently, even induction stove tops.

For the residents of these mobile villages, cooking is often an all-day affair. It starts early and ends late – very late.

First, there is the greasy-spoon breakfast: eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, pancakes, steak and toast- and on one occasion I have observed someone making French fries. Copious amounts of water are boiled for coffee, tea and other hot beverages. For the adult residents of the male variety, I have noticed that these beverages receive various flavour boosters, usually in the form of a brownish liquid poured from a bottle with a clock on it or elastic string draped around it. With time, breakfast conversations usually get more urgent and competitive as daily duties are discussed and tasks discharged.

Whilst mostly female residents busy themselves with the breakfast dishes, someone – usually a younger, shirtless male – disappears behind one of the village tents to haul firewood. Thirsty work this must be, for he often pauses to drink from a can chilled in a large icebox.

He works under strict instructions of what must be the village alpha male – a large potbellied man resembling a bekantan monkey. Just now, he’ll tell someone to start the car just in case they need something from the local shop.

Lunch is due sometime today. Oxtail it will be. With beans and rice and red wine. And sometime later, after an extensive nap, the villagers will make their way to the waterhole for sundowners with pomp-and-ceremony – in single file behind the alpha male each with an icebox and private expectations of what tonight’s dinner may be, for the kids look a little on the thin side. They might be hungry.

On one occasion I was privy to a rare visual record of life in such a village. I was fiddling with some gear over the first cup of coffee when a young female villager approached me camera in hand. “Could you please help me?” she asked. “I pressed a button and now everything looks nothing like before”. “Look,” and with that she shoved the camera under my nose. Her memory card was full of images of village life. On quite a few, the man in her life posed with his SUV – on the bonnet, behind the steering wheel and on the roof. A few images later, he was building a fire and in others, he was turning potatoes cooked in hot ash and dying embers.

Life in the village is hard work. That was clear. By the time I got to the image of the alpha male asleep in his easy chair facing the slanting sun, I had figured out what she had done wrong. Fixing the camera was easy, but sleeping that night was not.

The village was full of life and joy that reached even the remotest corners of the camp. Five times they invited me to join the festivities, and five times I politely declined. Self-defense you see, for the beef short ribs stewed in glorious, golden, port wine, looked nowhere near done and in only a few hours the camp gate would open.

Despite our differences, I usually get on well with people from the mobile villages. Seeing that my campsite is nearly empty, I frequently accommodate their excess vehicles and trailers. They have use of my bin as theirs fills up so quickly. In return, they watch my meager possessions as they seldom leave the village. And they are, without fail, my most frequent source of entertainment – reality TV so to speak.

Now if I have a travel companion or two, dinners become more important. Then, even I might indulge in a luxury or two. So next time you’re out camping, take some chicken breasts and some green olives and make sure you pitch your tent near a mobile village, just in case you forgot to bring some Amarula®. I’ll bet you good money that they will have some. Ask if you could have a cup or two and promise to return it as soon as the shops open tomorrow.

Light a fire and grab a pan. In only a few moments you have a feast: pan-fried chicken breast with green olives and Amarula® sauce.

Happy camping!

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