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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

The Joys of Camping Wild

I have my husband to thank for introducing me to wild camping. Our first trip together, twenty-five years ago, was to somewhere in the highlands of Scotland. Details are hazy but I remember the novelty of carrying a rucksack with a Karrimat sausage attached to its exterior, the teamwork of setting up the tent, and the voluptuous pleasure of resting tired, aching muscles in a cotton-lined sleeping bag (I have it still, now worn and threadbare, but loved all the more). I also remember my husband’s patience in showing me the tricks of a way of life to which he was well accustomed. Since then I have emerged, dishevelled and sleepy, from tents on desolate desert beaches, tents in sultry humid rainforests, and tents at Andean altitudes of 4000 metres above sea level.

Camping in the Peruvian rainforest. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

When we go camping these days, my husband and I have our designated tasks and we swing into action the moment we arrive at our chosen site. One of my chief delights is making myself at home. Over the years I have developed a personal routine, one that maximizes my chances of being comfortable most of the time, based on lessons learned the hard way. Here’s an example of a habit of mine: after unrolling my sleeping mat and placing my pillow at one end and unfurling my sleeping bag over the whole, I always finish making my bed by folding my sleeping bag over once or twice, thus exposing a smaller surface area should the tent leak in a storm, and also reducing the chances of sand getting inside when less finicky companions move in. It’s a simple precaution but one that has spared me discomfort on plenty of occasions.

Camping with The White Rhino. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

I must admit, though, that our camping style has become more luxurious over the years. Where a couple of decades ago we used the most basic of equipment – tiny tent, backpacks, foam mats, a Trangier, our legs – now we have inflatable mattresses, a cooker with two burners, and an old and embattled Toyota Landcruiser, dubbed The White Rhino. There’s more. About six months ago we raised Rhino’s roof and built a wooden platform inside to sleep two small people. Other interior adjustments allow two adults to sleep full length below. We can now easily accommodate our family of four, and have even been known to spend two nights in this tin can of a ‘tent’ with a Jack Russell, two cats, and a parakeet.

Camping, whether in a tent or a converted car, means giving myself a break from life at home. It’s an escape from dishes that need washing and putting away, meals that need to be cooked, bedtimes that need to be adhered to, dogs that need to be fed, bills that need to be paid, homework that needs to be completed, and the call of the internet that demands to be obeyed. Of course, meals still have to be prepared, and dishes cleaned, on camping trips, but it’s so much more satisfying to barbecue chicken drumsticks and vegetable brochettes over a smoky campfire nurtured by the kids, or to wipe plates and glasses with kitchen paper and then rinse them in the shallows of a murmuring river (no soap!), using its sands to scrape away food remains.

Building a fire. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

The mood of a campsite changes as night falls and shrouds any and all imperfections. And then there’s the pleasure of watching a blazing, leaping fire, feet stretched towards it, cold beer in my hands, the darkness pressing in all around. I can tell my daughter is out there, dancing a slow ballet, by the cherry end of her stick as she twirls and draws on a black canvas. When the flames falter, night softens and becomes less dense, and I can see her outline. Finally, there are only embers left, writhing like worms with pulsing hearts, and it’s time to toast marshmallows. Time to feel like a child again.

Meanwhile, we talk dreamily about fire, why our ancestors revered it, why we are irresistibly drawn to it, how it can give so much, yet command such respect. We talk about mindfulness – about listening with ears on stalks and sensing with hairs on end and seeing with eyes wide open. We talk about misunderstood animals (spiders, snakes, and vultures), black holes, and the foibles of grandparents. When we camp in wild and lonely places, our conversations are like tentacles that feel their way over the ground, and through the trees, and up towards the stars. They are about ordinary things, but they seem extraordinary to me because we rarely let them wander so freely at home.

My idea of bliss. Photo: Jessica Groenendijk

During our last camping trip a couple of weekends ago, after just such a conversation, I experienced one of those profound moments of happiness and gratitude that are almost too intense and physical to contain. I remember thinking, “This is my idea of bliss.” And I wanted to share it with you. So I grabbed pen and paper, and in the silvery light of a three-quarter moon, jotted down notes for this post. If you haven’t yet experienced the joys of camping in the wild, try it a couple of times and let me know what you think.

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