Bush Camp Etiquette: How to Avoid Becoming the Ugly [Insert Your Nationality Here] When in the Bush
“Etiquette” is something your grandparents used to practice. It’s a phrase often used to describe the correct position of the pinkie finger when sipping tea, or the proper order for each fork in a place setting. But it’s also a term that describes common courtesy, a lost art that is particularly important to revive when one is thrown into the confines of an African bush camp with other travelers from across the globe.
Webster’s defines etiquette as “the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life.” In the event that you lack Webster's idea of good breeding, please consider this article to be an appropriate authority for proscribing the conduct to be followed in an African bush camp.
The Reason for Etiquette
The reason behind this article is to limit the number of travelers in Africa who fall into the definition of the “Ugly [Insert Nation Here].” Back in simpler times, the “Ugly” traveler was universally known as the “Ugly American,” except of course in Southeast Asia, which has always been the traditional breeding ground of the “Ugly Australian.”
But today, if you inquire among bush camp staff, you will learn that nearly every nation on earth has an “ugly” version of its travelers, and that there’s little consensus as to which nation is the worst of all.
I've heard some camp staff criticize the “ugly” version of the Russians for their noise and rudeness. I've heard others complain about the “ugly” version of Chinese tourists, who arrive with neither knowledge nor respect for the animals they’re there to view. Still others go on about the “ugly” Brits, who treat safari like a football match to be observed while inebriated, while one or two even complain about the “ugly” Canadians who won’t stop apologizing for things that aren’t their fault. It doesn’t matter what your nationality is, there is an ugly version of you that can ruin the safari for all nearby travelers.
The difficulty with this concept is that no one who qualifies as an “ugly” version of their nationality has the sufficient self-awareness to realize that this article is describing them. That’s why this article is aimed at the rest of you, to ensure that you aren’t swayed by their actions to descend the slippery slope of ugliness. Rather, by displaying a proper example of travel etiquette, you just might have a positive impact on your fellow national travelers, and restore a sufficient level of common courtesy that will allow all of your jeep and camp companions to enjoy the experience. What follows are a few key tips to achieve this.
The Hierarchy of the Jeep Seats:
A typical safari jeep has three rows of seats behind the driver, each a little higher than the one before it. The back row of seats is the highest. Much like a childhood school bus, these seats tend to immediately attract those travelers who still think of themselves as a badass. But within a matter of minutes, the relative advantages and disadvantages of each row will quickly become apparent. From that moment on, each jeep ride will be preceded by typically unspoken negotiations and power plays to determine who will sit in which seats.
The back row of seats appears to have an advantage for game viewing, as it puts those occupants higher than their companions, with a better view of game that is distance or hiding grass. But as a lesson in basic physics would easily demonstrate, the back row of seats rises and falls far more than the forward seats each time the jeep hits a bump or hollow in the road. It should be kept in mind that most of the jeep tracks that are followed on a safari are nothing more than a collection of bumps and hollows. For some, the pelvic contortions that are required to remain in one’s seat make this a welcome form of core exercise at a bush camp that otherwise lacks a decent gym. For others, this is a potential ruptured disk just waiting to happen at the worst possible time. These seats tend to be favored by adventurers, by those who are trying to convince themselves that they are still young and fit, and by martyrs. As someone who falls into all three categories, this is the row of seats I tend to favor.
The middle row provides a less-jarring experience, but it is also a common location for the spare tires, immediately where your feet would normally rest. This means jamming your feet into a tiny space on either side of the tire, which forces your hips into an angle never intended by nature. The viewing position is superior to the front row, but inferior to the back row. It’s a compromise row that suggests that you are unwilling to assert yourself and grab the front seat, yet selfish enough to ensure that a few other guests’ spinal columns will be at greater risk than your own.
The front row of seats is generally considered the optimal seating for most travelers, despite its lower position, primarily because it involves far less movement with each bump. It also permits the occupants to hear each comment from the guide who might be speaking while facing forward. This row is always the target of each pre-drive negotiation dance. One couple will slowly and quietly move toward the seats, while another will loudly discuss between themselves which row they would like for this particular drive, as if a public discussion is a declaration of right that will prevent any physical claim to the row, just as a third dives in and grabs the seats as if they were entirely unaware that anyone else might want to sit there. These latter travelers also tend to take the front row for each drive, without the slightest acknowledgement that it might be polite to change seats on occasion. For the sake of etiquette, don’t be this kind of traveler (see “ugly [insert nation here]” discussion, above).
And then there’s the passenger seat beside the guide. This seat is an article subject unto itself. Guides will usually pile this seat high with gear to ensure that the seat can’t be occupied by the type of traveler most intent on sitting next to the guide, in a seat that suggests importance and experience. But it is often a futile effort, as the traveler most intent on sitting in this seat won’t allow a few minor obstacles to get in his way. Don’t be this guy (or girl), either. If a guide is willing to welcome a traveler into the passenger seat, they’ll invite someone to sit there.
And in case you expect me to discuss how you can get to sit in the tracker seat that’s on the front of many jeeps, you are already missing the point of this article.
The best approach to take toward the hierarchy of jeep seats is to treat the seats as if they are disputed territory in the Middle East. Determining who will sit where will involve international negotiations. There may be language difficulties and cultural differences that hinder the negotiations. And there will most definitely be a history of past yet unrelated traumas that will affect each party’s negotiating position. But even if the prospect of successful negotiations is futile, it’s preferable to an anarchic free-for-all that will only spoil the mood just as you’re about to head out in search of wild dogs tearing apart an impala carcass. [Though it might sound as though an anarchic approach would be the appropriate mood for such an afternoon].
The Common Dining Table:
Many camps follow the practice of throwing all guests together at a large dining table each evening for dinner. The pretense is that this is designed to encourage a dozen or more guests from all over the world, who speak diverse languages, to broaden their perspectives and learn from one another. In reality, it provides rollicking entertainment for the staff as they watch these strangers make awkward, pigeon-English small talk over their appetizers.
If you hail from an English-speaking country, then you have a distinct advantage, as English tends to be the default language that is spoken at the common dining table. But if you do hail from an English-speaking country, then you also carry a huge responsibility, as it immediately qualifies you for potential ugliness in this particular setting. It is important to keep in mind that the Belgian couple across the table, and the Italian family to your right, may not speak English as perfectly as you. Do not correct their grammar, interrupt if they are speaking slowly, or laugh at their pronunciations.
On the other hand, if you were educated in America, keep in mind that the Belgian couple or Italian family may have obtained an education ensuring that their English is far superior to yours. Pay attention to their pronunciation, sentence structure and adjective usage. It may be a significant opportunity to advance your own language skills.
Avoid National Stereotypes:
This article aside, the use of national stereotypes can be offensive to the targets of such abuse, and stereotypes can introduce a negative energy into any bush camp setting. For example, while attempting to enjoy a recent safari drive, I cringed each time my Dutch jeep-companions made a veiled WWII comment in the direction of the German couple in the front seat. Despite hailing from a former Allied nation, I opted to remain silent and not choose a side, though I felt sorely tempted to throw in a few comments about windmills and wooden shoes to help balance the field.
We all see some portion of the world through stereotypes, but nearly all stereotypes are offensive to the subjects. In the interests of bush camp harmony, try to leave stereotypes at home and embrace the bush as an opportunity to learn about people, along with wildlife.
The most important reminder when it comes to stereotypes is that you must never, ever, bring up a stereotype that relates to the nationality of your hosts. Never ask your guide or camp host if her ancestors were cannibals. Never compliment them on their English or ask them where they learned it (it’s probably their national language). Never exclaim wonder that the cook knows how to make a chicken casserole or bake delicious bread in such a remote setting. Instead, take some time to notice that your guide will be one of the most knowledgeable people you’ve ever met on issues such as animal behavior, geology, astronomy, biology, and even world affairs, all while showing an ability to converse with guests in multiple languages. A safari trip should be an opportunity to destroy stereotypes, not perpetuate them.
Avoid Political Discussion:
Many of us live in bubbles, surrounded by like-minded friends and family who share most of our political views. But a bush camp will throw you together with a diverse group of strangers whose political views may differ substantially from your own. Despite the temptation this might offer, this is not an opportunity to try to educate or indoctrinate them to adhere to your views. Rather, it’s an environment where you should tread lightly on all subjects political (this also applies to religious views).
I was once at dinner at a bush camp in Botswana when a new couple arrived. They sat down, fresh off their bush plane, and announced to the table that they were from that country run by that communist Kenyan (in case you think this was a reference to a bygone era in Kenya, please note that this was a reference to Barack Obama in 2013). It’s unlikely that they could have said anything else that would have done as much to quiet the table, other than perhaps announce that they had no appetite for dinner because they’d just killed and eaten a baby rhino on their jeep ride from the airstrip.
When politics are handled with kid gloves, it can prevent not only awkward moments such as this one, but can provide covert opportunities for seeking out and finding like-minded travelers. This can be particularly satisfying after you’ve already spent a week or more on a trip that challenges all of your preconceptions. A few carefully dropped phrases or grunts can identify yourself to a fellow traveler as one who is willing to reinforce their world views with a one-sided conversation about politics. Just have that conversation beyond the earshot of others.
In short, the rule is remarkably simple: travel with an open mind, and show your hosts and fellow travelers the same respect that you would like to have shown to you, and your trip will be free of international political incidents or embarrassing moments that may end up in someone’s future article.
(all photos by D.J. Richardson, copyright 2020)