The Art of Darkness - Part 1, Months One and Two: THE TERROR

In order to live indefinitely without a job I need to not-pay to sleep, most of the time. In practice, that means getting used to stealth camping more often than not. So, from early September onwards I have been doing it with necessarily increasing frequency. Remember also that virtually no campsites stay open beyond September/October even in very ‘touristic’ places like Corsica. Part 1 in this series of posts is about my terror during the first two months, Part 2 is about the glory, and Part 3 is about November in Sardinia and Sicily, where stealth camping has had to start to become my way of life. I’m going to write in the present tense, for tension!

5 Sept 2015, west coast of France. My very first solo attempt at stealth camping. I leave it ‘til dusk (which of course is quite late at this time of year) then choose a good spot on a path to sand dunes and a beach. I cook and go off to sleep quite easily. In the middle of the night I hear a heavy boot almost next to my head. The footsteps continue a few paces, turn back towards the tent and then stop. I stay awake for at least two hours but there is no further sound. Even in the morning part of me still believes I’m going to find someone out there, but of course I don’t. It must have been a nightmare, but it was a fucking vivid one and not a great start to my stealth camping career!

11 Sept, inland Basque country. At this early stage I think I feel safer near human habitation. Someone hesitatingly suggests a town park, but when I get there I feel I’d be too exposed. I head into an industrial estate and find a tiny patch of lawn outside an engineering company’s reception. I eat lentils cold out of the tin because I don’t want to risk drawing attention to myself by opening my flaps and cooking. It rains heavily on one side of the tent at precisely 10pm and 6am, for five minutes each time. Someone drives up in a car three times during the night (presumably a security guard) but – mercifully – does not get out of the car. I sleep not a wink.

18 Sept, eastern Portugal. I think of camping next to a supermarket once it closes but end up feeling pleased to find a sort of park on the edge of town that I don’t reckon anyone will visit once it’s dark. It turns out to be the local teenagers' Friday night dogging spot of choice, and the kids – probably a bit freaked out by my presence – shriek and chuck stuff (I think fir-cones) at the tent. I’m not particularly terrified and am on the verge of going out to face them politely when they lose interest and get on with what they came there for.

1 Oct, the middle of Portugal. At this stage I have noticed I still feel safer near human habitation, even though my rationale is questionable (I reason that the proximity of majority good-guys will protect me from any bad-guys). I mistime my arrival in a large town and, under cover of darkness, stealthily pitch my tent round the side of a church in the very centre of the town. It doesn’t feel like a good spot at all and someone – I assume – spots me and calls the police. The Portuguese police are a bit stern but courteous and say (in English) they will tell the other patrols to check on me during the night. In spite of this the comings and goings in the town keep me anxiously alert all night. Car doors opening and closing close by are a particular trigger.

25 Oct, Ajaccio (main city in Corsica). Again I misjudge and mistime my arrival at the only campsite in Ajaccio, which I’m hoping will still be open but isn’t. There’s actually a woman there but she won’t let me stay, telling me to go to a motel. This stretch of coast is all gated properties and posh resorts. In desperation I misguidedly ask at a resort reception if I can camp within their compound. I receive a lecture from the male receptionist who tells me I should have called the tourist office and ‘it’s not good’ for a woman to be travelling ‘like this’. I camp on a tiny beach under a restaurant that’s closed up for winter, and it’s fine but I don’t sleep well.

I spend the next day fantasising about writing him an open letter saying ‘do you imagine Dervla Murphy called the tourist office before she cycled across Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1963?’ I tell myself the conversation said more about him than it did about me, though it wasn’t my finest hour.