I went for a jaunt down memory lane after a friend told me he was going camping in the
bush. He was going old school camping, not luxurious five star camping. He was going to put up his own tent. He asked me if I wanted to go along. He said he had a spare tent and a sleeping bag. I’d rather sever my toes with a rusty serrated saw. I can imagine no greater human suffering than sleeping in a tent, on hard ground in winter, especially at my age. It would be like taking upon myself the all the sins of my flesh; that is every sin I’d ever committed. It would be an insult to our Lord Jesus who suffered and died for me on the cross taking my sin upon himself so that I should escape penance and hair shirts and flagellation and the wrath of God and the agony of camping. Camping would be beyond torture for me. This I know, because I’ve been there.
I went camping for a whole weekend when I was a Brownie. I must have been nine or ten years old. Some Brownies go camping in huts somewhere remote where there are showers. I don’t think I’d have minded that. We went camping in tents. We camped in teeny triangular tents. It was hell. We had sleeping bags. Sleeping bags are torment. It is so uncomfortable sleeping on hard uneven ground. There was grass under us. Grass isn’t exactly a mattress. It isn’t even foam, or a mat. It’s grass, with inadequately thin nylon flooring separating us from it. And where is the manoeuvring space in a sleeping bag. There is none. It’s a cocoon.
We were kids and it was supposed to be fun. There was a campfire and toasting marshmallows and Kumbuya forever, and because we were kids camping we ate sweets and shone torches and we sat up late chatting in our little tent. The morning revealed that we had not slept alone. Ants. Lots of ants had come into our tent to partake of the remnants of the sweets. Ugh! It was awful and it was cold. Two days of this I suffered. I earned my camping badge. I mean I earned that stupid badge. Oh, what I went through to get it. I promised myself I’d never go camping again.
I was persuaded to break that promise when I was eighteen. Why, oh why? I don’t know. This time was excruciating. We went to Alderney, which is a very picturesque, usually damp, frequently rainy one of The Channel Islands.
After a night of partying on the beach with other holidaymakers we all collapsed drunkenly into our tents, where we were driven by the onset of rain. The rain was quite heavy and the tent was unsteady. It was, again, one of those little triangular affairs. Even drunk it was thoroughly uncomfortable. I remembered my Brownie days. I asked myself why I was
there. We were camping for a week. I didn’t last more than a night.
We’d put the tent up badly. We hadn’t a clue. We girls were not naturals for camping. The roof of the tent sagged low from the rain, and as a result of us trying to fix the sag from inside the tent, the tent collapsed. So we had to get out of the tent, and in the pouring rain and in almost blind darkness we had to put it up again. We were drunk teenagers who hadn’t managed to fix the tent properly even in the light of day. In the dark it was near impossible.
There was a lot of fun and laughter, and slipping around on what had become mud. We sort of sorted it out. It took forever. By the time we crawled back in I’d had enough. We were sopping wet, covered in mud and freezing cold by the time we got finally into our tent, and into by now wet sleeping bags. It was impossible to fall asleep. I lay there shivering with cold, wet to the bone, less drunk than when we started and miserable. Eventually I fell asleep.
In the morning we were still wet. We were covered in sand and mud and hung over. At least the sun had come out. It was Alderney sun, which fell very short of being tropical or even warm, but at least it was sun. We ventured to the ablution block. It was filthy. I couldn’t. It was disgusting. Besides I needed a bath, and coffee and breakfast. It wasn’t happening. Our rented stove wouldn’t light. We couldn’t make coffee. I had the father of all hangovers. I was sticky from the sand and filthy from the mud. I felt revolting. I wasn’t having fun. I shouldn’t have come.
I decided that my solution was to find a hotel in which to spend the rest of the week. I couldn’t camp. I simply couldn’t. But it was holiday season, and all the hotels were full or exceeded my budget. At the last hotel on the island I conceded defeat, but I asked the guy on reception if I could just take a bath. The bathrooms weren’t en suit. I’d be disturbing no one. After pleading for what seemed like an eternity, but refusing accept a ‘no’, the guy yielded to my beseeching. For the gargantuan price of one-pound sterling, I was allowed to take that essential bath.
As I lay in the bath I contemplated the fate that awaited me back at the campsite. A wet tent full of sand, which I was sure would collapse again at the earliest opportunity. The prospect of waking up not to ceiling and carpet and warmth, but to grey sky, filthy ablution block, muddy ground and possibly more rain was beyond what a soul should have to contemplate. I lay in the comforting hug of a warm bath, in a warm bathroom with soft towels waiting to enfold and I said to myself, “Sod this. I’m going home”.
My friends, who had been on the beach making friends while I bathed, were outraged that I was giving up. They tried to persuade me to stay. Someone at the campsite had helped them fix the tent. It wouldn’t collapse again, they assured me. It was sturdy. There was going to be a bonfire on the beach that night. They’d met some really cool guys who we were supposed to meet later. One of the guys had asked about me, they said. He fancied me, they said. I didn’t care. No boy was worth going through this for. If he wasn’t a fairytale prince who had come on a white steed to carry me off to the equivalent of the royal suite at The Dorchester, I wasn’t interested. I needed a real room in a real building. I needed to wake up and see a ceiling, not crawl out of a tent onto half mud half grass. There was not a thing enticing about this campsite situation. I was going home.
We’d hired bicycles. That was how everyone got around the island. We took mine back to the hire place and got the bus to the airport. All the while they were trying to persuade me to stay. But they were wasting their collective breath. As far as I was concerned I had camped as much as I was ever going to camp. Nothing and no one was going to change my mind.
At the airport I was told that there was only one flight out a day and today’s flight was full. I’d have to wait for the next flight, which left the next day.
“But you don’t understand”, I implored. “There’s no room in any hotels and I can’t, I won’t, it is more than I should be expected to endure. Please don’t make me go back to that tent. Please let me go home. I have to be on that flight”. I couldn’t go back to the campsite. I was close to tears at the thought.
“Well, if there’s a cancelation….” She said sceptically.
“I’ll wait.” I said
My friends said their goodbyes. If I was determined to go, then that was that. There was partying happening, and they were missing it.
“You don’t mind if we leave you.” I understood. There was nothing of interest at the airport except the next flight home. I didn’t expect them to ignore the call of party and boys and impossibly cheap wine sundowners on the beach. I told them that I was staying at that airport till I went home. I’d sleep there sitting up if necessary. I was not going to subject myself to the tent experience ever again. Not ever.
“Have a great time. Toodle pip!” I said. “See you in civilization”.
It was an eon before people started to arrive and check themselves in. I sat. I prayed. I begged God to do something. Merciful Lord! He heard my plea. He felt my pain. He brought reprieve. Oh how I loved God that day. There was a cancellation. God rescued me from what felt like the equivalent to my own crucifixion, and I haven’t been camping since.