Camping is a paradox. On the one hand it’s really simple — you sleep outside — but on the other hand it’s really complicated: before you set off you must check you have a suitable tent (is it waterproof? do you have the poles and pegs?); do you have the right sleeping bag and mat? What about cooking gear, food and water? How many clothes, books, torches and other stuff do I need? Where am I going? Can I pitch a tent there? How am I going to get there? Can I carry that heavy rucksack? And when you’re organising gear for other people it gets much, much more complicated — especially when one of them says “I don’t like camping”.
My Granny used to say “practice makes perfect”. I ignored this advice because it was about homework and things that I didn’t want to do, like playing golf. But it’s true when it comes to camping; I’m out of practice and I don’t know what to take, where to go or what to do.
Last time I went camping was in Romania, about 3 years ago, when I would take my touring bike on the train and then ride for days and days. It took years to get lightweight gear to go on a bike, but now the bike is knackered, I don’t like in Romania anymore and I feel out of practice.
“Let’s go camping in Wales,” said my girlfriend Manuela.
“Great idea,” I said, “it’s not far from Liverpool,” (which is where we now live).
I then found out that getting to Wales will least £80 and a campsite will charge £20 a night just to put the tent up. It was raining outside and the chances are it wouldn’t stop for us. Was it really worth it? Why not just stay in a B&B? Our camping plan collapsed and we both felt a bit glum.
And then I realised that we don’t need to go to another country, or to a campsite; we don’t need to do the usual thing. We can do it my way, the way I used to do it.
By this stage Manuela had decided she wanted to go to a nature reserve instead, to an incredible forest by the sea at Formby, and so the “we” soon became “I”. And I remembered how I learned camping in the eighties.
A Mentor for Camping?
I’ve just seen a brilliant TED talk about the importance of getting a mentor by a man called Tai Lopez. He says we should all get mentors and be mentors for those less experienced than ourselves. I agree. But I didn’t get a mentor when I learned about camping. I learned by doing. And I’m not sure I could get a mentor for this type of travelling; I’m not sure if normal people do it.
I don’t remember talking to anyone about this type of camping before I did it. Was it camping or was I just roughing it? I knew that if I talked about it people might think I was breaking the law and should be reported, or would consider me a show-off. What I was doing was building up my camping skills, which simply means you know what to take and what to leave behind.
My first solo camping was in 1985 on the southern coast of Britain, when I was a sales rep; driving around in a banger and selling Scottish poetry to bookshops in my cheap suit. At the end of the day I would change into jeans, exchange my briefcase for a rucksack and hike to the wild, deserted beaches of southern England (there are loads of them), cook on a petrol stove and sleep on a beach in a waterproof sleeping bag with the name Buffalo on it. This was my training for the next two years in Asia, where I explored Tibet and slept out more times than I care to remember. I wrote about some near misses in my memoir of those times: 9 Months in Tibet (a book that will finally get published this summer).
But I soon forgot these skills. When I hiked with my Buddhist-monk-brother across Serbia I had a huge rucksack full of useless things I considered essential — including a massive office diary that weighed a kilo. I think I burned it or dumped it (at least I hope I did). Many other times I went camping I’d stop at a Post Office and send back a heavy box of books and clothes.
But now I feel like a beginner as I haven’t done it in years. But that’s okay because it means I’m back to being a clueless kid who has to learn from scratch. I need to make some mistakes so I can learn from them. I don’t want to ask for advice or find a mentor as I know what to do — just do it — and I’m afraid that if I ask advice they’ll say “wild camping is illegal”. A day and a night will teach me everything I need to know, and resuscitate useful memories.
Liverpool’s Gobi Desert
But where to go? Wales is too far away, too expensive, and so was everywhere else that sounds attractive (like the Lake District). And then it struck me: I could explore one of the massive beaches that surround Liverpool; beaches that are so wide that sometimes you can’t even see the sea. I heard that this part of England (the west coast) is lifting out of the sea while the eastern side is sinking into it.
Last weekend we went to Southport, just north of Liverpool. Southport is supposed to be a seaside town and they have the paraphernalia of one: buckets and spades, sticks of rocks, merry-go-rounds and the boisterous atmosphere of a resort. And there is sand — miles and miles of sand — but no sign of the sea. It looks like the Gobi Desert. We cycled down an incredibly long pier, almost a mile long, into this wilderness, and only then could we make out a glittering mirage on the horizon; the sea. It was like being on Mars, a place I wrote about some months ago.
My plan is to pack a rucksack, get the train to Southport, walk to the end of that pier and then keep going until I reach the sea. Then I’ll head north, go inland and make for the big nature reserve that lies on the bank of the River Ribble. You can see all this on Google Maps. It looks suitably deserted.
I say “suitably deserted” because my type of camping is about disappearing. I don’t want anyone to see what I’m up to as they’re bound to come up and say “you can’t camp here”. So I like to set up camp when it’s almost dark and leave early before I get discovered by the local busybody. The cover of night will give me plenty of time to eat, read and sleep. But I mustn’t forget my torch, which is out of batteries (camping is all about details like this — you forget one thing and it’s a disaster.)
But I have to get some advice about tides. I heard that they have the biggest tides in Britain in the Merseyside area; they can rise by 10 metres. So maybe I’ll be walking in that desert-like space and a wall of water will come rushing down on me.
I wrote all this before setting out for Southport and the vast expanse of sand that I consider to be a wilderness. The best thing about a wilderness is that very few people go there and you can be on your own, you can test your limits and hone your camping skills. I’m amazed to find a wilderness just up the road from where I live, in Liverpool.
The next article in this series is a report from that wilderness, and you can see it here.
The photo is reflection of me (Rupert) in a tall sculpture made of mirrors, located at the end of the long pier in Southport.