Phoebe Smith, author of 'extreme sleeps', explains her obsession with Wild Camping
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It all started in Woolloomooloo during an argument with an Australian. With the World Cup in full swing, blaring out from the one tiny, flat-screen TV nestled behind the bar, the place was rammed full of Aussies hopeful that tonight was their night. During the half-time reprieve I had unwittingly struck up a conversation with one of them who, after establishing me as a Brit aka ‘the enemy’, proceeded in typical pom-bashing fashion to list all the reasons why Oz was better than the UK. And I was countering every one of them – or trying to, at least.
When he mentioned the Sydney Opera House, I knocked it back with Big Ben. When he cited the Harbour Bridge, I could easily hit back with the Tower of London. But when he brought up Ayers Rock, I found myself at something of an impasse. Sensing a weakness, he hit back again with the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. When I had still failed to come up with a counter argument, he finished me off with the Great Barrier Reef.
I felt like a failure – as a Brit and also a traveller. Here I was, hundreds of thousands of miles away from my home country and unable to think of a single natural landscape that draws tourists to its shores. I knew they were there, of course. But up until that point I was as guilty as so many of us Brits are – I had taken our home country for granted. ‘Why go to Scotland when I can go to Saigon?’ was the mantra of us backpackers.
Over the following months after my bar-room argument, I made my way in almost meticulous fashion all over Australia, taking part in activities alien to me back home. Eventually I made it to the aforementioned Ayers Rock (or Uluru), where I walked for hours around the mighty monolith learning about the Aboriginal Dreamtime, and spent several nights camping out in a swag.
Back in the UK, if someone had asked me to give up a long weekend in the comfort of my own bed, to travel miles into the middle of nowhere to see a big rock and risk being bitten by a number of deadly creatures while I slept, I would have quickly told them where to go. But here I didn’t even question it – in fact I initiated the quest. Here it was a rite of passage for every backpacker worth their salt, a must-have tick on the list of ‘Things to do before you leave Australia’ along with skydiving, getting drunk in Cairns and attempting to surf on Bondi Beach.
I’ll never forget my first night under swag. When the chirpy Aussie guide handed it to me on picking me up from Alice Springs, I looked at him, concerned. A swag is essentially a combined sleeping mat, bag and pillow wrapped up in a flimsy bug-shield-come-bivvy-bag. I failed to understand how a thin sheet of fabric would protect me from the multitude of nasties. In Australia, practically everything can kill you – from deadly spiders in the city, to Great White sharks in the sea, freshwater crocs in the billabongs and venomous snakes in the desert – and paranoia soon sets in, you believe that they are actively seeking you out. Rather than offering me protection, it seemed more like a convenient way of packaging me up like a giant snack.
But from the moment I saw the sun slump down in the dusky sky, casting a light show of oranges and browns over that giant rock, I forgot all my fears. Gone were my worries about brown snakes (lethal), funnel-web spiders (can kill you in less than two hours) and bull ants (can cause death in twenty bites). Instead, I lay in my fabric cocoon with a piece of bug-shielding net over my face and looked at the stars overhead illuminating the Red Centre with their twinkling glow. The only thing going through my head was ‘Wow!’ After a blissful night surrounded by the natural world, I felt exhilarated and was thirsty for more.
On my way back from Oz, I detoured to Jordan and headed off into the desert plains of Wadi Rum with a group of Bedouin – the nomadic tribe who call this landscape home. There, I spent days exploring ancient, weathered sandstone jebels (mountains), clambering up and over wind-scoured natural arches that link one range to another and sleeping underneath the Milky Way on the lip of a rocky overhang with nothing but a blanket to keep me from the lizards. Despite the apparent dangers hiding behind each stone, all I could do was gawp in wonder at such a wild place.
My last stop before returning to the UK was Lapland – the Finnish part of it, over 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. I had gone from extreme heat to punishing cold, from sleeping on rocky promontories to a heated wigwam in temperatures of –34ºC outside. By day, I travelled by husky sleigh or snowmobile, and by night I slept under reindeer skin, peeking out from the canvas doors to watch the night sky. It wasn’t the cold that got the adrenaline pumping through my veins – it was the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) coming out to play.
When I finally landed back in Blighty I felt the post-travel blues familiar to many returning travellers. I’d had some pretty remarkable experiences and seen amazing sights, and for a while, it seemed like the milky grey skies of Britain could never compete. I mooched around the house like a sulking teenager, bemoaning the lack of excitement in my hometown.
Then a few months down the line I was sitting in a bar in Manchester mouthing off about how brilliant it was when I was Down Under. I was in mid-flow with a girl from Wigan telling her about the greatness of Tasmania’s Bicheno National Park, when she interrupted me to point out that if a shining lake, trees and fells were what I wanted, then I should head a couple of hours up the M6 to the Lake District National Park. Like a sudden bolt of lightning I remembered the argument I’d had back in Woolloomooloo.
I had been so wrapped up in the virtues of ‘abroad’ that I had been ignoring what lay on my own doorstep. I made a resolution there and then to stop being such a tremendous arse and become a tourist in my own backyard.
The very next weekend I stayed with my dad in Wales and got up early to go walking. It was nothing too technical – a brief foray of about 10 kilometres around a local reservoir, a place I’d visited many times as a child. But before that day, I don’t believe I had ever really seen the place. The sun was picking out the ripples on the water’s surface transforming the large grey puddle from my childhood memories into a glittering pool of possibilities. Interpretation boards I would never have read in the past, I now pored over with intent, hoping to learn more about this landscape that was, all at once, new to me again. The inscribed local legend of a Fairy Freckled Cow had me mentally transforming distant hills into bovine shapes as my eyes searched the horizon, now spotting the intriguing remains of old follies and sheep pens. A climb up a steady slope took me to something of a promontory from where I could hear the ‘go back’ calls of the grouse hiding in the heather-clad slopes at my feet. It was as if this small unassuming hill was alive and shaking as these nervous birds darted around me. A weaving track led me through a beautiful avenue of twisted trees, then deposited me at something of a shoreline and a little wild beach where I sat for a good while surveying the scene. It was funny how rediscovering somewhere I’d been to many times before as a child, was now, as an adult, like going there for the very first time. And I was loving it.
From small beginnings I started to head much further afield, venturing off the well-signposted tracks only occasionally at first, until I was happily climbing mountains and skirting lakes around the country unconcerned whether or not there were way-markers. But I still felt there was something missing. At first I wasn’t sure what I was searching for, only that I was searching. Then, after something of an epic daywalk on Snowdon, it hit me. Visiting these places was all well and good, but I needed to take it further. I needed to prolong the thrill of being ‘out there’. Up to that point, if I went somewhere at the weekend, I began my day walks at all-singing, all-dancing, facility-laden campsites, so the first step was obvious – switch from luxury pitches to farms with more basic amenities which would encourage me to spend more time out in the wilds, rather than in the tent. But that wasn’t enough. Once back in the safety of a site – albeit basic – the sense of adventure lessened somehow. Then a friend suggested I forgo the campsites completely, and make the move from mild to wild camping – making walks last multiple days, staying out, camping free wherever I liked – mountains, countryside or coast. Doing that would remove me from all mod cons; the only bathroom available would be the one I dug myself, the only shower a wet wipe and the only drinking water sourced from a stream and boiled courtesy of a camping stove. The idea intrigued, scared and excited me all at the same time, so I gave it a go with a number of willing volunteers. The first night I could barely sleep with the novelty of it all, of being able to select your own site right in the heart of the mountains, literally in the middle of nowhere. After surviving my first campsite-free night I was thirsty for more and persuaded my friends to come and join me on further wild camps. The rougher it got, the more it felt like a proper adventure; the higher and more precarious the camp became, the more I wanted to push my tent pitches; the longer I could endure sleeping out, the more exhilarated I felt.
I had become officially infatuated with what I called ‘extreme sleeping’ – a kind of addictive high-adrenaline sport; but rather than being defined by pushing the boundaries of physical activity, my particular pursuit was marked by a distinct lack of it. But it was more than just an overnight buzz I was after, more than just finding ways to push the zzz’s to the max. Along the way, I wanted to prove to both myself and the next person that I met in a bar (Aussie or otherwise), that the landscapes and experiences available right here in the UK could rival anything found elsewhere in the world. That although it is only a small island, there are still wild places far away from crowds and phone reception, just waiting for intrepid backpackers to discover. My quest took me from the most southerly point in England right up to the far northerly outposts of Scotland, as I attempted to discover what makes a good bed for the night. Some of the areas I explored were completely new to me, whereas others were favourites I’d been to before and wanted to experience at night when the starlight makes places more magical and brings out another side to their character, one hidden from day trippers. Along the way I learned a lot about camping – not least how to stuff a sleeping bag back into a compression sack in less than thirty seconds and how to make a mean cowboy coffee – but more than that, I learned a lot about myself. For those of you wondering, I can tell you right now that I don’t like to wear khaki. I have no interest in dining on the carcass of a dead pigeon and I don’t dress head to toe in outdoor brands to do my weekly shop in Tesco. And just to clarify, I don’t have a beard. In fact, I’m so far removed from the traditional outdoor stereotype that if you met me in the street you might not suspect I was a wild camping addict at all. But that’s what’s so great about extreme sleeping – anyone can do it – as I soon discovered.
Every journey has to start somewhere and my voyage, into our wildest landscapes, began with a single camp. This wasn’t just any night under canvas. What made this a truly monumental escapade was the fact that, for the first time, I was doing it all by myself…Phoebe's book, 'Extreme Sleeps: Adventures of a Wild Camper' (Summersdale; £8.99) is out now.