Reflections from the campfire | Sunday Observer

Reflections from the campfire

In this age of digital dominance and all things made convenient, one of the less enjoyed places are the outdoor - I am no referring to your garden but the actual outdoors by the rivers and lakes. The art of camping seems to have eluded this generation - it is done in a tone of enhanced luxury that robs you of the essence of true wild adventure. Here are three stories that I remember from my youthful days, when we ventured into the wild outdoors.

Our first camping experience came from school- our scout troop. It was in the late 1980s when we went on our first camp to Kandawela Estate, Ratmalana a few days prior to the Vesak festival. Today this is not considered a “long drive” but at that time camping venues were restricted. About 20 scouts ranging from 13-17 years reached this sprawling coconut estate and pitched our tents. The senior scout in charge was Cheran Rajaratnam. After indulging in a meal lacking in taste which consisted of rice, dhal and sardine curry (the outcome of our own cooking) we were divided into three teams to keep watch at night. There was no threat by man or beast, it was just a scouting routine that was supposed to build our leadership and decision making skills. After the first team completed their watch from 9pm to midnight, it was our turn to do the “graveyard shift”- until 3 am. The only two tasks required were to keep the campfire burning and walk around the tents with a flashlight. The first was done by carefully pouring a cup of kerosene oil into the burning logs every 30 minutes. The second was done while eating an assortment of sweets which included chocolates, marshmallows and toffees.

One of our scouts began to narrate stories of ghosts and other creepy crawlies. Around 1 am I thought I spotted a silhouette of a large figure, which seemed to be holding a sword. I informed the other three scouts. Indeed everyone could see this apparition and a cold sweat set in. We aimed our flashlight in the direction of the figure and it seemed to menacingly stare at us. The lead scout with the flashlight bolted, and we followed. In the ensuing confusion one of us had kicked the kerosene gallon directly into the campfire and the logs burst into an inferno, which caused much panic.

Scout leader Cheran appeared outside his tent and was very much annoyed. He was given an update of the ghost with the sword. Soon all 20 of us marched in single file towards a cluster of coconut trees. Ah, the ghost was a cardboard cutout of an ancient king gallantly holding his sword – the cutout was to be used in a Vesak pandol. There was great laughter among the scouts, and we all ate the remaining sweets. Senior scout Cheran Rajaratnam went on to become an ordained Christian clergy. The fire burnt well until dawn.

My second camping encounter took place in the salubrious hills of Maskeliya. After our A/L exams a few of our classmates visited the relative of another classmate in the hills. Having wasted much time on the road (travelling from Colombo) stopping to have plain tea and eat all kinds of street food on the way we were behind schedule to reach the tea estate- where we were supposed to stay.

Taking a detour from the original destination our classmate from Maskeliya asked us to crash the night at an empty storage house on an adjacent tea estate. After reaching this rustic old storage house by a narrow winding road, we tried to settle in for the night. To our surprise we found the windows all broken and the cold air engulfing the entire cabin. Suddenly a tall black figure wearing a turban appeared at one window, giving us a shock. Alas it was the estate watchman, sporting a large moustache and carrying a double barrel shot gun.

This moody soul eyes the cabin and takes stock of each of us, flashing a torch. He seemed to be mildly intoxicated. A classmate offered him some sweets, which caused the watcher to smile- flashing his red betel stained teeth. Gosh what an eerie face, at this nocturnal hour. He departed with no conversation. Attempts to kindle a small fire failed and we were plunged into total darkness. Our sleep was disturbed around 3 am when we heard a deep rumbling noise- some animal was nearby. Aiming the tiny flashlight through every window we finally spotted the intruder- a huge wild boar. The beast’s body was covered in some kind of mud. On the plantations wild boars are shot and their meat is a delicacy, enjoyed with a glass of arrack. Soon we spotted another 2 beasts roaming nearby. Thankfully they left without any intrusion- the thin wooden door to the cabin was no match for this tough creature of the wild.

The third outdoors encounter took place a few years ago in Pineridge, Michigan. I decided to go on a camping trip during summer. Some campers also indulge in hunting- done with licensed rifles and crossbows. There were three others with me - Adam, Seth and Joe. Campsites in the US are carefully monitored and campers given due warnings on environmental safety and a brochure on local wildlife. We selected a spot far from other tents, closer to the magnificent lake. During summer loads of young people come camping and also enjoy fishing. During our second day we met some beautiful girls at the campsite- both blondes and brunettes! Returning to our tent the four of us began chatting, as the pine logs yielded a steady fire. We were eating beef jerky – a beef item modified from the ancient Red Indian practice of preserving meat by smoke.

Around midnight Adam swore he spotted a pair of luminous eyes in the woods. Suddenly gripped by fear he shouted the word “bear”- and bolted to climb onto the back of the double cab, in which we had driven. At the mention of bear, I too found refuge in the double cab in double quick time, seeking divine deliverance!! Bears sometimes run into campsites and create much drama. Joe an ex Marine thankfully stood his ground and raised a burning pine log. To our relief the mysterious eyes were that of a large moose.

The creature snorted and walked away majestically. Adam was deeply embarrassed for raising a false alarm. The next morning our female friends from the tent next door were in fits of laughter having witnessed our “bear encounter”. Thus the wild outdoors have so much fun to offer. It would be a refreshing break to enjoy a nice camping trip. Go out there and try it.