Cycle camping in France
MY afternoon on the high, rolling plateau had been a delight. The soft drizzle of the morning had evaporated and was replaced by a wind torn sky that gave the sun an opportunity to cast its spotlight over distant hills, the cloud shadows moving over the landscape, filling every scoop and hollow in a chequerwork of black and gold. Far and wide, under the infinity of this domed sky the land stretched away, ruffled and tumbled, ridge over ridge, horizon over horizon, rolling moors and shadow-stained glen, clear-cut land and glistening lochans.
Greatly enjoying the theatre of it all I walked into the early evening, into the upper reaches of a wild and beautiful mountain corrie where I camped on a little patch of clumpy grass, sheltered by a low moraine. At times like this I go onto automatic pilot – the well practiced procedures of setting up camp and arranging everything for the night have become so ingrained that I could probably do it with my eyes shut. Which is as well, for so often I find myself at this point of the day tired and thirsty and there have been times when that well-oiled routine has meant the difference between a comfortable night and a grim one – especially in bad weather.
This evening was easy. The pack came off and I pulled the tent from its stuff sack, leaving everything else I’d need for the night in the pack so I didn’t lose anything. When choosing a campsite I usually check the ground to see if there is a slope and if there is a slight one I tend to sleep with my feet at the higher end. The tent poles and pegs live in the same stuff sack as the tent so I pulled them out and connected the pole ends together. I then staked out one end of the tent so it didn’t blow away if a gust of wind should catch it. The poles then went through the sleeves, I pulled the tent panels out firmly to avoid any creases in the groundsheet, then staked out the corners and the guy lines.
Once the tent was erected it was time to pull out the sleep-mat, inflate it, and lay it inside the tent. Next came the sleeping bag. I pulled it out of its waterproof stuff sack, gave it a shake or two to allow the air to fluff up the down and inflate it a bit then I laid it on the sleep mat. Next job, before I finally crawled inside the tent, was to take my two water bladders and fill them. On this occasion there was stream of fresh water close by away so I filled the bladders using my mug to take the water from the shallow stream.
Wild camping in Kintail
I then took out my stove, pots, knife and spoon and the rest of the things I might need for the night – a bag of food, a book, tomorrow’s map and a headtorch. By this time I was ready to lie down. After a day’s backpacking and all the bending down involved in putting up the tent I find my back tends to stiffen up, so it’s great to lie down inside the tent for a few moments and just stretch it, a moment of bliss.
Next came the best moment of any wild camping experience. Lighting the stove, putting on a pot of water and anticipating the first brew. After that the evening passed like so many of them do, in a fuzz of eating and drinking, between long periods of simply gazing out of the open tent door. I always carry a book, and in more recent times a Kindle, but I’m always amazed at how little reading I actually do. After the last brew I snuggle down in the sleeping bag, re-arrange my pillow and drift off to the sound of the breeze and the musical tinkle of the stream, into the deep sleep that only a hard day’s exercise in the fresh air can provide.
From my earliest days as a hillwalker I’ve always enjoyed camping in wild places. My first wild camping experiences were in the Campsies, just north of Glasgow. A school friend and I would take the bus from Glasgow city centre to Blanefield and then, burdened by poorly designed rucksacks and far too much heavy equipment we would toil uphill, find a little nook by a stream, and put up our old canvas tent, borrowed from school. We didn’t have proper sleeping bags but old tartan rugs and we cooked on pots pinched from our mothers’ kitchen. The blackened, soot encrusted pots that were later returned got me into a lot of trouble, but we didn’t have camping stoves and an open fire seemed more in keeping with our romantic notions of wild camping.
Many of the romantic notions came from books like Alistair Borthwick’s wonderful ‘Always a Little Further’ or WH Murray’s ‘Mountaineering in Scotland’ and ‘Undiscovered Scotland’. The late Bill Murray, Scotland’s finest ever mountain writer, was an enthusiastic advocate of the use of a tent when exploring remote quarters of the world.
“To come suddenly on to a mountain plateau and there to see its lonely splash of fawn between silver snow and blue sky was in itself enough to lift a man’s heart,” he wrote. That “splash of fawn” may have lifted Bill’s heart, but his tent would have made modern backpackers grimace at the thought of carrying it.
“The tent was made of reinforced cambric, fawn coloured, with a sewn-in groundsheet, and at each end a circular sleeve-door and ventilator,” Bill wrote. “A ventilator in use could either hang outside like a small wind-sock or be drawn inside – a point that proved of great importance. The poles were bamboo and the tent-pegs aluminium, broad bladed for snow. Around the outside ran a broad canvas skirt, on which snow or boulders could be piled up and the tent anchored independently of pegs. The guys were of stout rope. The tent’s weight was ten pounds, and the size four feet high by seven feet long by four and a half feet broad. It was testified that the tent had withstood hurricanes of a hundred miles per hour in the Himalayas. The price was six pounds ten shillings.”
My wife relaxing above the Falls of Glomach on the Cape Wrath Trail
Nowadays a modern backpacking tent, for two people, weighs about a third of Bill’s tent, although it costs considerably more. But while good, reliable gear is important, I think I’ve realised over the years that the really vital point of wild camping is that there can be intense joy in simplicity. We live in a wonderfully complex world but occasionally that very complexity can create certain stresses and we long for a simpler existence, even if just for a short time. It’s then, tent up, ensconced in a sleeping bag and a mug of tea at hand the tensions of life can begin to evaporate.
Someone once told me that to really know a mountain you had to sleep on it, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Backpacking, especially for several days at a time, offers an opportunity to escape the strictures of modern society, removed from the artificial constraints of twenty-first century living, and allows you to come close to the natural world once more, to ‘connect’ with it, to remember that we are part and parcel of that world and not a stranger dropped in from outer space.
For many of us, urban living has broken the tie we once had with the natural world. When was the last time you crumbled raw earth in your fingertips? When was the last time you washed your face in the dew? When did you last skinny-dip in a crystal clear highland burn? Even many of our farmers, those you would think are still deeply embedded in the ways of the earth, are invariably at odds with the land because of their modern force feeding, agro-chemical practicies, because of the demands put on them by politicians to qualify for subsidies, because of the large scale factory farming that many of them have adopted. I suspect very few of them would agree with the words of Henry David Thoreau that: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
I’ve often wakened in the morning to see deer grazing within a few feet of my tent and I’ve often sat outside the tent in the evening, binoculars at the eye, watching golden eagle in remote mountain corries. The song of the skylark and the warble of curlews provide familiar background sounds to wild camping and my tent has been visited on occasions by hedgehogs, mice, and on one memorable occasion, a red fox!
The fox was obviously used to campers and I was wakened during the night by the sound of something in the bell-end of the tent. By the time I found my headtorch and switched it on the fox had hauled my bag of food out of the tent and was dragging it across the ground. Fortunately it dropped the bag as I gave chase, dressed only in my underpants!
Experiences like these add colour and vibrancy to wild camps and the outdoor experience, some of which have been hugely memorable for different reasons – camped in a wild frozen landscape on Baffin Island in Canada in temperatures that were touching minus 35 degrees. We were curiously cosy in our little tents as we gazed out on an Arctic sky blazoned with the light show that is the Aurora Borealis.
On another occasion we camped in the crater of an extinct volcano in Guatemala. The only problem was that the neighbouring volcano wasn’t extinct, and every half hour or so we were wakened by a bang and loud roar as the thing erupted and I’ll never forget the night I camped high on Mount Ararat, the mountain of Noah’s Ark, and woke to see the shadow on the mountain cast over the flat plains of the Turkey/Iranian border by the rising sun. All the romance, mythology, and biblical resonances of that fabled mountain seemed to be heightened by the simple beauty of what lay before me. At that moment of sublimity, if all the animals of the world were to have marched by me, two by two, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.
In more recent times, as the old knees and ankles begin to creak a bit, I’ve taken to cycle camping, carrying all my camping gear in panniers and camping wild. Last month an old friend and I cycled from the English Channel to the Mediterranean, some 850 miles, camping along the way and I’ll often load up my old mountain bike and take to the byways of the Cairngorms National Park for a couple of days or so.
Byways. I love that word with its suggestion of peeping over horizons and its resonances of things half forgotten. Offer me the choice between a highway and a byway and I’ll plump for the latter any day – straying from the beaten track has always appealed to me whether I’m walking between two geographical points or more metaphorically, refusing to go with the flow, avoiding the main trod, or simply, going my own way.
The great Scots author Robert Louis Stevenson shared a similar philosophy. He too recognised the value and joy of being in such close contact with the natural world – to hear the call of an owl in the trees overhead, or waken to find a roe deer browsing quietly outside your tent.
At such times the wild camper experiences an intense gratitude for such simple gifts and this appreciation was beautifully articulated by Stevenson after spending a night under some pine trees in the hills of the Cevennes in southern France.
“I had been most hospitably received and punctually served in my green caravanserai. The room was airy, the water excellent, and the dawn had called me to a moment. I say nothing of the tapestries or the inimitable ceiling, nor yet of the view which I commanded from the windows: but I felt I was in someone’s debt for all this liberal entertainment. And so it pleased me, in a half laughing way, to leave pieces of money on the turf as I went along, until I has left enough for my night’s lodgings.”
Evening view from a wild Wester Ross campsite