Imagine you’re a microscopic insect who has crawled through the hole in the middle of an old vinyl record. You look around, get your bearings but all you can see is a vast open space that stretches out to the horizon in all directions. There’s nothing in the foreground, apart from irregular grooves that all look the same, and as you start exploring you find yourself doing something you never normally do: watching the horizon.
This is what it was like when I explored the vast open space that lies between Southport beach and the Irish Sea. After an hour of walking I found myself scanning the horizon and turning round to enjoy being alone on a flat, round earth.
Although I only explored a tiny patch of this wilderness it was hard going and I felt I was entering another world. I could see a circular horizon, a vast sky, occasional sea birds but no other human beings.
In my last blog post I said this area “was like being on Mars” and I wanted to come back and hike through it. My plan was to get the train from Liverpool to Southport, walk across the sandy wilderness, reach the sea and then find somewhere to camp at the River Ribble Nature Reserve, located a few miles to the north.
Things didn’t quite work out to plan. First of all I had to overcome the toughest challenge of all — my own sloth. Part of me wanted to capture the feeling of being in a desert but another part of me was saying “hang on a minute. Take it easy. Conserve your energy. Take a break. Why not stop for tea and cakes and charge up with energy.”
As there was nobody to set the pace and drive me along I found myself in a teashop eating scones. By the time I reached the outskirts of Southport I was tired and had a wee nap on the grass.
By the time I set off it was 16:00 and I felt I was going on a month-long expedition into the wilderness. I had a big rucksack with food supplies, cooking gear, warm and waterproof clothing, a tent, mountain boots, a book of short stories by Rudyard Kipling called The Man Who Would be King and my diary.
An hour later I was tired and thirsty, but I couldn’t stop or put my rucksack down as the sandy desert I had seen a week before was now a vast mudflat and it was so sticky that I couldn’t sit down or put my bag down for even a moment. Soon enough I couldn’t see my boots at all; my feet had become big brown lumps of melted chocolate.
All I could do was keep going, even though my forward march towards the sea was interrupted by little rivers that were too deep to wade across. There was no question of stopping, no prospect of rescue as there was nobody at all on the whole horizon and this gave me the energy I needed.
If someone had been watching from above they would have seen someone wandering in circles; wondering what on earth he was doing there. But it’s wonderful being in the wilderness as you can forget your daily worries, disconnect in a way that mindfulness gurus talk about and just think about putting on foot after another.
I remember meeting an old man who’d fought in the Libyan desert with the SAS in the Second World War . He used to sneak up to German airbases, put time-bombs on their planes and then run away.
“Where would you hide?” I asked him.
“There’s plenty of places to hide in the desert.” he told me.
These words never made a lot of sense to me — until this trip. From the pier I had seen a vast swathe of sand but now I was squelching through it I realised there’s a lot more to this ecosystem than I’d assumed. First of all, there’s a network of little rivers that you can only see close up. I kept coming across little gulleys, strange combinations of mud, sand and shells; unusual colours and shapes. There were also a lot of little birds around.
After I don’t know how much time I gave up on reaching the sea and turned inland, to the nature reserve in the north where I going to pitch my tent.
I reached a small hill from where I could survey the road ahead and work out which bit of the nature reserve, which I assumed to be a forest, I should camp in. But when I reached the top of the little hill I realised that the nature reserve was not the vast forest of my imagination — it was a swamp — and to make matters worse there were houses and roads on all sides. I was still in Southport.
My will to find a place to camp and continue walking the next day went out of me, like the air leaking out of a tyre. My shoulders, hips and feet were aching and I was knackered. Now that I had no real need to keep going; now that I had an option of going home to a warm bed and a loving embrace I jacked it in and walked back into town and got the train home.
But it wasn’t a total waste of time. I’d had an interesting experience on the mudflats and intend to come back with the right equipment — a good pair of wellies. I also found an suitable place to camp out in Southport itself; on the edge of the golf course, in a copse of trees where you can’t be seen from the road.
The most important thing I learned was that this type of expedition — hiking and camping — is like running a marathon. And you can’t run a marathon without first doing some training.
If I was more sensible I would practice before heading out like this, but I never do. I’ve done a few long trips of this nature (walking across Serbia; riding a horse across Eastern Tibet) and I always set out totally unprepared and as a result the first few days are pure agony. But after a week or so it becomes really enjoyable and I feel I could keep going forever. Maybe one day I’ll walk round the world.
Photo of Southport Mudflats by Rupert
If you’d like to see the first article in this series click here.