The Art of Darkness - Part 3, Month Three (November in Sardinia and Sicily)

I arrived in Sardinia on 2 November and in Sicily on 14 November. In both cases I knew there would be no campsites open. It’s no longer a case of alternating stealthing with campsiting; I now have to stealth camp almost every night. And what’s more, it’s dark at 5pm. I hadn’t anticipated the impact of this on my days. To coin a phrase, can I learn to see winter as ‘a feature, not a bug’? Can I take the advice I give to other scuba divers and see long dark winter evenings inside my tent as some kind of an opportunity?

Sardinia went quite well. It’s very sparsely populated and I camped on beaches several times, which – though not officially allowed – can feel less nerve-wracking than being on someone’s land. So long as nobody sees me. In fact, during two weeks in Sardinia I washed myself, my pants and my pots almost entirely in sea water, which was just about bearable.

Sardinia night 1, deserted beach. Some women walk close to where I’ve pitched my tent in the dunes but do not see me. I realise how much gender is a factor in my fears. I wish this were not so. I sleep OK.

Night 2, I ask if I can camp outside a (closed) youth hostel. Once it’s dark at 5pm I do something I haven’t done before: I leave the tent and walk along a dark road to the nearest town for a drink, which is fun.

Night 3, The Internet says a campsite in Alghero is open all year, but when I get there at dusk one of the permanent residents calls someone and I’m told I cannot stay. I’m furious, pitch up anyway on the periphery of the site, and use their grotty but perfectly functioning freshwater shower and laundry basins! I even hang my clothes on someone’s washing line, which nobody notices even though most of my clothes are yellow. Later, I can hear the permanent residents in the on-site bar. Bastards.

Night 4/5/6, I discover a very basic but charming beach-side campsite that is open and costs 5 Euros a night, which I then find hard to leave! The psychology of this is interesting as I’m alone there after 5pm and theoretically a sitting target, yet feel safer because I have license to be there. I Skype with Emily, who tells me (again) that in months and months of solo stealthing she’s never had any problems.

Night 7, I find an olive grove that has evidently just been harvested. This gives me confidence no one will come there early in the morning, and I sleep well.

Night 8, I camp on the dunes at the back of a long, deserted beach. But, I’m aware a couple of men saw me dragging my 40 kilo bike across the sand, and when another drives his motorbike along the beach at dusk I imagine he’s checking out my location in order to come back later with his mates. I don’t sleep very well. See how it’s all in my head?

Night 9, I spot a place selling vegetables and advertising rooms and campervan parking. I ask if I can pitch my tent but the man asks for 20 Euros so I frown and leave. As darkness falls I panic and choose a spot where I’m not visible but there’s a lot of traffic and other noise, and for some reason I sleep particularly badly.

Sicily, night 1. After spending a night in a hostel dorm in Palermo it’s time to give stealthing in Sicily a go. I’ve heard the island is sparsely populated like Sardinia, but I’m inland and in practice I find almost every inch of Sicily is cultivated and/or fenced off and/or very steep, so finding suitable spots is actually quite difficult. But, this first night I roll down to a pretty lake just outside a town. Two men walk by and see me so I decide to ask them ‘campeggio, OK?’ and one replies ‘eez OK’ without stopping. Then, oh no, two fisherman walk by. The smaller of the two addresses me; I don’t understand but from his tone I guess at ‘I’m carrying the worms in my bucket’ or ‘Daddy caught a fish’. He’s about four and they’re wearing matching wellies. Basically, it’s Ben and Luc. Later, two youths zoom round and round on dirt bikes but don’t seem remotely interested in me. After dark the sound of a rather good church choir rings out across the tranquil lake. And finally, as I’m cooking my supper three sets of eyes keep catching the light from my head torch. I try calling to them, but evidently these cats are shy and not particularly interested in lentils. There’s a surprising amount of noise during the night (birds flapping, frogs croaking, huge fishing a-leaping and cats fighting), but I sleep well.

Night 2, Durex lake. I’ve targeted another lake, but this time I cannot reach any flat lakeside. I camp in a tiny, ugly spot that’s evidently either popular with doggers or (more likely, this being Sicily) people have dumped the contents of their bathroom bins there; the ground beneath my tent is littered with condom wrappers and there’s the remains of a dead sheep. I’m near a hydroelectric dam, and twice during the early evening a sinister alarm like an air-raid warning wails out across the valley. But, there’s no one around and I sleep OK.

Night 3 is horrendous. My friend Lee says she sometimes waits and chooses her spot under cover of darkness. I didn’t set out to try this approach but after a couple of abortive attempts at unsuitable spots I’m still riding in the pitch dark, dogs are barking at me and everywhere is fenced off. I feel the panic rising to its highest level yet. Miraculously, I find a tiny chapel and a hole in a fence into the olive grove behind it. There’s a house, but it seems to be closed up. I sleep OK, but panic again in the morning at dawn when I realise someone is ploughing the olive grove. I achieve a personal best time for packing up and departing, before treating myself to two pistachio cream croissants and a cappuccino. To calm my nerves, you understand, and because I didn’t have time to make my usual watery porridge. I feel very low all day, and find myself wondering (not for the first time) why exactly I'm doing this to myself...

Night 4 couldn’t be more different. I’m determined to find a spot well before dark and see a handmade sign for some kind of ‘forest road’. It’s a 4x4 track but the bike and I slither down it and up it because a ‘forest’ is exactly what we’re after. The small forest nestles within a bowl of hills and right in the middle is a hill with a watchtower. It’s deserted so I sit up there to make my supper (as the sun sets) and my breakfast (as it rises), cosy in my new down jacket. I have a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape, which provides the perfect vantage point to – quite literally – get some perspective on my fear of the dark. I know no other human being is within a mile or more of me in any direction, because I can see total darkness all around. So there is nothing to fear. ‘Good noticing’, as my Glaswegian mindfulness teacher would say.

[The next morning I misguidedly attempt to follow a series of indistinct, steep and rutted farm tracks in the direction I need to go, instead of retracing my steps along the so-called forest road. At one point I have to remove my shoes and wade shin deep through a stream where the bike gets stuck in deep clay. I’m huffing and puffing up a ludicrously steep track when a tiny elderly man with no teeth appears with an empty carrier bag and a table knife. He helps me push my bike further up the hill to where a large group of men have gathered with their cars. I haven’t the faintest idea what they are all doing there, but when my tiny friend tells them ‘she’s English and she’s got no water’ (true, but only for the last hour since I had my morning tea!) out come several bottles of mineral water, someone gives me a tin of fagioli beans with tuna and two Handy-Andies (paper tissues), someone else tries to give me his packed lunch, and they all insist I have a rest in a deck-chair they just happen to have with them. I play up to their apparent belief that I’ve been trying to find my way out of the tiny wood for days and they’ve rescued me from near-certain death, then Tiny and Andy lead me solemnly to an asphalt road in their car. After receiving some kisses on each cheek from Tiny (for which I am obliged to bend down) I give them each my card as a token of gratitude… and the next day find I have a Facebook friend request from Andy!]

After four nights of stealthing I’m badly in need of a shower. I decide to spend two nights at a B&B, which I ultimately regret as the water is either scalding or freezing and I’m colder in the room than I would be in my tent. The breakfast is amazing but 30 Euros a night feels like terrible value. Still, at least it’s a chance to charge everything up! Then, it’s back to the road…

Night 5, another lake. In the morning I notice I’m excited by the prospect of another lake at the end of this day, and I notice how relaxed I am setting up camp when I reach it. I’m not even phased when two youths briefly turn up on mopeds at dusk. At 05:50am, just before dawn, I awake to hear two or three men approaching with a torch, shouting loudly to one another. I’m immediately wide awake. It's Sunday, they don’t sound drunk and I reason they are probably going fishing. I’m almost tempted to ‘SHH’ them. They continue along the track, to be joined by others as it gets light. I notice how much less frightened I am than I would have been two months ago.

Night 6, and I’m typing this in some kind of forest reserve overlooking Mount Etna. I had to lift my bike through a gap beside the locked gate. So I’m probably trespassing. But, even when I came face to face with four men of various ages in official-looking uniforms with rifles and dogs, I noticed I was not particularly scared. I just said hello and tried to look purposeful.

Night 7, and I need to get as close to the city of Catania as possible because Jen is arriving in the morning. I may have learned to feel safe(ish) in the middle of nowhere, but the thought of stealthing near a city still terrifies me. To my amazement I find a swamp between the motorway and the airport where I’m completely confident mosquitoes and leeches are the only dangers, and - with earplugs in - have one of my best sleeps yet!

So, as my November in Sardinia and Sicily draws towards its close and I start to contemplate December in southern Italy, the Peloponnese and Israel (!), what have I learned?

  1. As a kid I used to ‘go trespassing’ with my Dad. Stealthing evokes similar emotions: the thrill of beating the system, the joy of ‘hiding in plain sight’ in cool places, and the terror of being found.
  2. I’m scared of an angry confrontation with a land-owner. Spots like lakes and woods are vastly preferable over private land, but I definitely need to learn the Art of Asking (in several languages!) as a fall-back plan. A delightful Basque couple I met the other day inspired me with their tales of doing this.
  3. In spots where people might conceivably come after dark such as lakes and beaches I’m getting slowly better at relaxing, but it’s infinitely preferable to know I haven’t been and can’t be seen.
  4. I’m particularly scared of being targeted by a group of drunk baddies. I have some strategies for avoiding this happening, but none for if it does.
  5. Being totally alone ‘in the middle of nowhere’ (like tonight) still feels quite bizarre, but in such a situation I notice that I now feel the most relaxed of all. Just like Claire said.
  6. This may seem counter-intuitive, but by shutting out sounds that might make me paranoid, earplugs help me sleep.
  7. I mostly enjoy my evening and morning routines. I think the (back-lit) Kindle I’ve ordered will help me make more of the long winter evenings, though being physically comfortable in a tiny tent for 15 hours out of every 24 is an issue. In the mornings I could definitely get on the road more quickly, to give myself more hours of daylight. Often though, when it starts to get light is just when I really feel like sleeping!

Reading this series of posts, what do you notice? Does it sound to you like I’m making some progress with my fears? What else can I try?