Getting back in the bush in Mozambique and Swaziland, and getting kind of used to it (1,400 words).
When I think about wild camping, I think about crouching. There are no tables, no shelves or cupboards to reach. Bedroom and kitchen are barely off the ground. And I sat directly on this ground for a long time until I finally mimicked Evan and sat on one of my bags. Not exactly a throne, but definitely softer.
The toilet is achieved more by squatting than crouching, but these are just different ways of making your body small. I think this does something to your state of mind. It’s the opposite of standing tall and distancing your shoulders from your neck, to help feel comfortable and confident before an interview, meditation, giving a talk or going on a date.
I crouch to avoid the branches and grasses we’ve pressed down and away to claim a spot that doesn’t feel like ours. When it’s dark enough for headlamps, crouching takes on a different importance. Light coming from our direction is a signal I don’t want to give.
Between 7 and 8 PM a few weeks ago, I stood up straight for the few steps from stove to tent and back again, stretching my back, sick of shrinking. I kept my headlamp on and forgot to point it down. A while later we heard men bantering as they walked down the main road nearby, and I linked their approach to my error. Macaroni sat un-chewed in my mouth as I crouched in the dark, silent and listening. Not wanting to miss any sign of others entering this little space that our trespassing had shown us.
Nothing happened, except the mental muscles built by wild camping got a little more exercise. They needed it. We hadn’t used them since November.
IT’S THE FEELING THAT MAKES IT WILD
Wild, stealth or free camping is where you find a spot away from formal camping infrastructure to rest your backpack, body, boat, bicycle or other vehicle for the night. The term implies that you’ve asked no-one for permission, and may be breaking rules that you’re either aware or ignorant of. It also tends to conjure up images of tents, hammocks or bivvy sacks set up against some rugged wilderness backdrop.
In reality, there are as many variations as there are people doing it tonight all over the world. You can show yourself or you can hide. You can do it in a forest, a desert, a culvert, a building, a field. You set your own rules, and take responsibility for the consequences.
Two nights prior to the one that had me listening with a mouth full of macaroni was the first night in six months that we had wild camped. We’d spent many nights in our tent during those six months, but not without making someone loosely accountable for our safety. We camped at campsites and schools and homesteads. Once we were invited into an abandoned supermarket. These nights were surprising, memorable, felt like adventures. But they’re distinct from wild camping. It feels really different to fall asleep knowing that someone knows where you are, has said yes to your presence.
Six months was more than enough time for the mental and physical muscles to shrivel up. Long stretches without wild camping make your eyes go funny. They stop seeing potential spots from the road, they lose creativity. The crouching itself makes me ache. At first I sleep poorly, my mind obsessed with analyzing every sound. Lumpy ground doesn’t help.
But the most important muscle that wastes away without exercise is a mental one: the motivation to choose wild camping, over and over again. For planning to not have a plan at the end of a day’s ride beyond finding some tiny patch of land to compromise with for ten to eighteen hours.
Yeah, we enjoy wild camping for its zero-dollar cost. But when this motivation muscle is fit, it’s not just money that drives us to do it.
DUNG BEETLES BECOME DELIGHTFUL
The night that ended six months without wild camping was spent in a small stand of trees in southern Mozambique. We were treated to a clear night and a full moon that became pink-orange as it rose. But the best part was how much we laughed at the dung beetles the next morning.
The beetles had been keeping us company for a few days. They’d buzz low and slow across the new tar road connecting Maputo with Ponta do Ouro, a resort town on the South African border. The road had little traffic, no potholes and a wide shoulder. Cycling along it required little attention, freeing us to spot giraffes and cynically speculate about how soon the underlying sandy soil would erode and ruin the shoulder.
I could also spend more time looking out for incoming dung beetles, could take a hand off the handlebars to shield my face. One painfully hit me on the cheek, but our movement and their movement generally didn’t result in collision.
Wild camping balances out this movement. Everything still moves around, but you stop. If you end the day in a village or a town or a campsite, that’s a different place to take in, distinct from the road that led you there. Wild camping keeps you on the road, but flips the environment inside out.
The ribbon of gravel, tar or sand that’s my daytime comfort zone becomes the opposite. The road becomes something to avoid, its nighttime cars and people representing a chance of disturbance. And the kilometres and kilometres passing by my peripheral vision—often barely acknowledged—collapses into a tiny area that becomes my whole universe.
The dung beetles kept moving, but we got to see the other half of their journeys. On the road we’d see them flying by or stuck to the road, dead. But in the grasses around the trees, we saw them making smaller and smaller circles above wherever they intended to land. Then they’d shut their wings in midair, silencing their loud droning. They’d plummet down in sudden silence, often smacking a branch, bouncing off it, and disappearing into the grass. It was marvellous and bizarre.
In different circumstances I would have found this totally trivial. But a night of wild camping usually sets me up for a morning feeling satisfied and relieved, grateful for the little things. Relief implies that I don’t trust the people or animals who may be around. Animals you can trust only to act on instincts. I do find my relief towards people problematic.
PLAYING WITH PERCEPTIONS
Part of it stems from an aversion to being disturbed in a benign way. Having to explain my situation to a friendly farmer or shepherd who is curious, confused or wants to help when I’d much rather be left alone. This happens sometimes.
But the other part of the relief comes from believing that if someone finds you, there’s a chance that they’ll get opportunistic ideas. When I’m out of practice with wild camping, there’s more relief in the morning because there’s more fear at night. That fear is the other reason I’m motivated to keep the wild camping muscles active. It’s a laboratory for interrogating these fears. To test if they arise from experience and evidence, or paranoia. I don’t like to invite evening visitors, which is why I insist that we take some precautions about where we camp, and where we don’t. But those precautions are supposed to help me CALM DOWN once we’re settled in. This takes practice.
That night was the first of three in a row that we wild camped. The muscles grew, the fears got categorized. On the fourth day we cycled into Siteki, Swaziland with crusty scrapes from acacia thorns and dirty pots needing a tap for a proper wash. We arrived at Mabuda Farm, a popular campsite. The trimmed grass, electricity plugs, picnic table and hot (!) showers felt like unimaginable luxury to us. Best of all, no more crouching.
But you’ll probably know how quickly comfort comes to feel normal. That’s another reason we wild camp—not all the time, not as much as we’d like to push ourselves too, but more than we have to.