I have written before that my first night under canvas was spent not in a back garden or some British coastal camping site furnished with communal bar and toilets, but in a very, very remote part of Kenya. ‘Go big or go home’ was the challenge to my languishing Dora the Explorer.
My first experience of camping was in a very small, idiot-proof tent (a compact, bijou residence) and took place so far away from home, that I knew there could be no running away. The tent was in the heart of a Kenyan tea-growing district and our school party had permission from the owner of a local orchard to erect our canvas circus in the heart of their rural community. The local children perched on the branches of the surrounding trees, not wanting to miss out on the novelty of so many westerners showing such ineptitude and needing so much equipment to get them through their stay. By the time the campsite was erected, it was pitch dark and I knew that, even if I wanted to flee professional responsibility for the students with me, there was no local hostelry to escape to.
So, I was very, very late to this camping malarkey, and I was shocked to realise that – at nearly 50 years old – I liked sleeping under canvas. Don’t get me wrong, I was clueless about erecting the tent (not a surprise when you see the Ikea furniture I have constructed when flying solo) but I found that I liked this pared down way of living. Camping was uncomplicated, everything I needed was in my rucksack – even if I couldn’t find it – and it was a welcome respite from all things electrical. Besides, the students with me were proving to be the very best of travel companions; I had to remind myself that they were not there to look after me.
Now I would not want you to think that I have spent the subsequent years making up for lost camping adventure opportunities. No, that would be silly, when there is a perfectly good bed and en-suite readily available. I have camped again since – bizarrely, each time in Kenya – however I am relieved to ‘get it’ when friends tell me that they can not wait to go wild camping again, or have even pitched up in their own back gardens during lockdown. Dare I say, if someone offered me the loan of a tent ( I did not rush out to buy my own ‘two-man’ when I returned from Kenya for I was still getting over the shock of owning my first rucksack and sleeping bag) and offered to accompany me, I think I would say yes.
I have not asked him, but I guess that Favourite Man would be reluctant to join me on any impromptu camping adventure. It turns out that he spent many, many family holidays under canvas and he tells me that camping is not quite so exciting when you have three young children to amuse, and an antisocial, insomniac family pitched next to you on a campsite. His recent back operation also provides him with a creditable reason to have little truck with sleeping on the ground.
I hope he will come with me on an adventure to Kenya some day. I am reminded of a camp site I later visited in the Masai Mara where the owners had erected ‘tented rooms’ for tourists who wanted to boast that they had camped on safari, but really wanted to stand up to their full height under canvas and sleep in a real bed. These tented rooms had bunk beds and blankets – a safari version of glamping.
I would love to tell you that when we stayed at this campsite, we teachers all shunned these tented rooms. We did, but after 10 nights under canvas in that orchard – most of them wet – we gratefully accepted the offer of some upgraded wooden cabins secreted behind these tented rooms. I confess that these cabins had their own eco shower and flushing toilet as well as a double bed and mosquito net. The students knew nothing of these cabins and the home comforts they provided, and all gamely pitched their authentic tents nearby. Strangely they never seemed to clock how fresh-faced we teachers looked in the morning, or notice our clean hair or our absence from the queue for the solar shower and long drop. The truth is that every night after dinner the teaching team played Spoof to select the unfortunate designated teacher who would sleep under canvas on the student campsite.
I came to love this particular campsite. I don’t want to boast, but I am quite good at Spoof.
My thoughts turn to canvas again this week as I listen to the story of 11 year old Max who has camped in his garden for the last year to raise money for his local hospice. When his neighbour bequeathed him his tent before he died, he told Max to use it for an adventure. This inspiring young man has exceeded all expectations by raising over £275,000 for the hospice that looked after his neighbour so well when he could no longer use his tent. I suddenly feel a little ashamed of my Kenyan dabble with sleeping outdoors. It strikes me that while we have been tested by restrictions to ‘stay home’, Max has been teaching us how to have an adventure in our own backyard. He is a junior Major Tom.
As he marks a year under canvas, Max has the perfect excuse to return indoors, but instead he has raised his game by extending his camping invitation to young people across the globe to join him on his big ‘camp out’ this weekend, even if they camp out in their own front room. It sounds like the only way Max will be persuaded to return indoors is if he is sponsored to do so. His neighbour gifted quite a legacy and sparked an adventure just when it was needed most.
I am probably too old to join ‘the youth’ who will be camping out tonight, but I am young in camping years so will try to think of a mini adventure befitting my age. If I decide not to camp out in the living room, I may pop out to get some marshmallows and ask FM to crank up the BBQ. I may whittle some skewers with my new Swiss Army knife in preparation for an evening of bottled beer and s’mores. If I can rustle up some fireflies, I can imagine a Kenyan orchard with the best of companions and some wicked camp fire stories.
As the new allowances on meeting outside beckon, it is reassuring to hear that Ikea have been thinking about our post-Lockdown wardrobe. I feel that Max may be spitting feathers when he hears that after a year of being subjected to the wet and cold, Ikea finally decide to launch the Faltmal – a ‘wearable pillow’ that folds out into a quilt. Their marketing blurb reads, ‘Whether enjoying a celebratory evening with friends or swapping the traditional summer holiday for a camping staycation, the Faltmal quilt will help wearers stay cosy and warm once the sun goes down’.
Ikea, can you get a Faltmal to Max quickly, or do we need to crowd fund?