Shalom days

You don’t need a lot at a camp site to keep people well occupied.  All that’s required is a little space, some breathtaking scenery and the chemistry of getting away to somewhere special as a group does the rest.

Camp photo on Chapel kopje - mid 1970s

When I was a kid we used to get away to Shalom campsite several times a year.  By today’s standards the camp site was beyond rustic.  However, what it lacked in creature comforts was made up for in spades by the ambience, the sense of history and splendid isolation in the wilds of the African bush.  I thought I’d share some scattered memories of our times there.

The getting there was the first epic.  Though it has its dangers there’s a certain romanticism about clambering onto the back of a truck for a 60km journey on twisting narrow roads.  When you’re doing it with your peers, all bristling with the excitement of what lies ahead over the next few days, it makes for a contagious hub bub of shrieking laughter and crazy inanity.  About twenty kilometers into the journey we’d enter the Matopos National Park, an exquisite place with some of the largest granite outcrops in the world.  A riot of balancing rocks, emerald-green acacia trees and African wildlife.  Our convoy of trucks would rumble along, campers a sea of contentment sprawled over the open deck or standing looking forward over the front cab, faces smashed with swarms of insects.

We’d arrive on camp in a boiling cloud of dust and barely before the trucks had stopped piles of bodies would drop off the sides and begin a race for the bungalows and rondavels that were the accommodation.  Once sleeping bags had been rolled out and bags dumped to establish territorial rights it was exploration time!

The 'altar' on Chapel kopje, looking across to Silozwe.

First stop would always be the mad scramble to the top of the kopje rising up behind the camp, clambering up high to where the camp site chapel stood in splendid isolation, eyes drinking in the amazing view of forest and jagged granite crests.  The Chapel was also the focal point for the majority of our camps.  At least twice a day we’d all trek to the top of the mountain, listen to the wisdom of speakers who travelled from all over Africa to attend, or were sometimes drawn from overseas.  Particularly at YFC camps at Shalom there was a strong emphasis on high quality teaching – if you’re going to get away from it all you might as well use the time to get some great input.

Not that the camps seemed overwhelmed by sitting around in a building listening to one bloke speak.  The teaching sessions would be short and sharp, followed by ten minutes of reflection and then it was on with the fun and games, fuelled by the gourmet delights churned out of the primitive bush kitchen.

Dad and me with the Chapel in the back ground.

Over the fence from the camp site was a large paddock, the grass kept low by cattle.  Most times, but not always, the cattle would be herded out of this paddock prior to camp but it was always worth checking.  There was the odd camper given the fright of their life after hopping the fence to be confronted by an angry Brahman bull.  Sometimes these cattle would be the target of envious gazes from the farm boys in our midst, none more so than the Minaar boys who were surely plotting how to get the prime beasts home to West Nicholson, two hours drive away.

With the paddock cleared it became a sporting arena and venue for epic wide games.  Flags or goal posts at each end and a confused mass of sweating bodies striving to conquer.  Keep in mind this was primarily a cow paddock, so vicious rugby games would often result in all the participants finishing up a splendid shade of green, a combination of grass stains and regurgitated grass from the back-end of a cow.  At my first Scripture Union camp at Shalom I came down heavily on a knee in the middle of this paddock, tearing the flesh away and sparking tetanus fears amongst the leaders.  Their medical advice was for me to spend the rest of the camp in track suit pants, despite the heat, to make sure the wound didn’t come into further contact with one of the prime carriers for the virus.  The next day, resplendent in track suit pants I tore the skin off the other knee in the same paddock.  It took several washes to get the blood and faeces out of those pants at the end of the camp.

Volleyball, with the Shalom accommodation in the background.

After the hot and sweaty games it would be a mass exodus to a nearby river.  Though we weren’t supposed to swim there because of bilharzia concerns the water was just too cool and inviting to pass up.  The river also enjoyed a wide sandy beach, and as this was the drinking hole for the cattle, it was a white swath dotted with more of the ubiquitous cow poo.  It was on this beach that our SU camp staged an epic re-enactment of the Battle of Dung Kirk.  Two sides flaying away at each other with dry and not-so-dry cow pats, a famous battle that became the stuff of legend in Bulawayo schools after the camp.

No camp was complete without loading ourselves back into the trucks to be driven to the base of Silozwe Mountain, the tallest peak in the Matopos, which had no shortage of rearing granite crags.  Visible from top of Chapel Kopje at Shalom, Silozwe was a challenging climb, particularly for a kid.  My main memory of it was that it seemed to contain a never-ending succession of false crests.  You’d slog your way up a steep and unforgiving granite slope, legs screaming and lungs burning, only to scramble to the edge hoping for the summit to find another imposing face ahead.  However, the immense sense of achievement that came from reaching the summit, and the spectacular views from the top made it worthwhile, and one of the memorable experiences of any camp.  Cecil John Rhodes didn’t call the Matopos “world view” without cause.

Unforgiving climbs up Silozwe, and hours of games were enough to work up an insatiable thirst.  There was a canteen of sorts, a pantry parlour of Simba chips and frosty bottles of coke.  During sanctions in (and even beyond) glass was in short supply which meant you couldn’t buy a coke without first handing in the previous bottle.  This limited what could be taken on camp and the only time I went to the backwater of Kezi, quite literally at the end of the road, was perched in the YFC people-mover to exchange empties for new bottles to replenish the camp Coke supply.

Shalom campsite, Matopos National Park

Fireside action

Dusk descends quickly in the African wilds.  One minute would be bright, and at time searing, sunlight and within minutes it would be pitch black, with whirls of stars standing resplendent against a black velvet background.  At Shalom, many miles away from city lights, the Milky Way resembled a bright shower of white sparks bearing down on earth.

Night time was the domain of the bonfire, fuelled by a plentiful supply of nearby African hardwood.  The flames would roar and a steady succession of scalding embers would whirl and twirl their way into the heavens, surrounded by a giddy circle of campers who would creep ever closer into the middle as the inferno subsided and the cold night air pressed in.  This was a time of casual chatter, reflection and at times hysterical camp concerts.  The camp fire was a simple but treasured part of the Shalom experience.

The last day of camp was always a time of revised intentions and life decisions followed by sad farewells, to both camp site and campers.  Like all good events the desire for a souvenir of the time away was catered for.  Local villagers would always materialise on the last day laden with local curios for campers to purchase.  Bright beaded bangles, corn-cob (mealie cob) dolls and necklaces constructed from local seeds would be snapped up cheap.  The workmanship always superb, these would be mementos that would serve their purpose of a Shalom reminder for years.

Memories of days that seemed to last forever and camps that will never be forgotten.


One Response to Shalom days

  1. phil says:

    FUNNY! I was so surprised by your pics -across the border -I went to memorable SU camps and we always had scores of Zambian friends enjoying the camps with us. But still great memories of GOD’S provision of learning to walk with Him and His people! TX for a very, enjoyable post!

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