The Art of Darkness – ‘The Prequel’

I’m afraid of the dark. Or perhaps, more specifically, I'm afraid of who my mind imagines the dark might conceal. That wasn’t too difficult to write, because I know many of you probably share my fear.

In 2011 I did my first big solo bike tour, totalling four months and 16 countries. Then – because I had a job to go back to (and, staggeringly, was actually being paid a third of my salary to bugger off for a while!) - I did not need to ‘stealth camp’, though I did ‘campsite camp’ as often as possible. That trip was all about facing some other, much more complex and private terrors, relating to relationships and sex. I cycled from London to Lesbos. I didn’t blog about that process, partly because it was such a personal journey and others were implicated, partly because therapy was so helpful, and partly because I’m lazy. I wish I had written more about it at the time, if only for myself. Anyway, here I am writing about the process of overcoming my fear of the dark, and – you know what? – this time it feels helpful to disclose. Thanks for reading.

I’m an experienced scuba diver; I’ve spent about 250 hours under water. For a long time I found ‘night-diving’ heart-poundingly terrifying. Nowadays I find myself counselling other divers to remember the rationalisation that eventually worked for me: there isn’t anything down there that wasn’t there this afternoon (sure, sharks and moray eels and octopuses hunt at night, but they’re not hunting humans and you’re very lucky if you see one in action!). It is easy to get disoriented and you do need to be extra careful technically, but treat it as an opportunity to focus your visual attention on just the small area in the beam of your torch, the colours, the textures, the small critters, the things you don’t pay attention to when you can see all around you. One of my favourite things to do nowadays when night-diving is to have everyone turn OFF their torches, to hang in the water and simply be mindful of the fact ‘it’s dark and we’re under the sea’. It’s very cool and it’s surprising how much you can see (just as if you walked across a field at night you would not bump into a tree or another person).

On dry land, I’m currently in the midst of trying to reach a similar point in my relationship with (solo) ‘stealth camping’. I use this term because it’s not always feasible to ‘wild camp’; in many places almost all land does actually belong to someone, or you’re not supposed to camp there (because reasons).

Prior to this year I had the following wild and stealth camping experience:

  1. In 1994 (aged 18 and masquerading as a TEFL teacher) I went camping in a gorge in West Sumatra with some local undergraduates. During the night a chap I knew and liked was ‘possessed by forest spirits’, and the other chaps dealt with the situation by reading the Koran. We others were advised to stay in our tents. Now I’m a pretty sceptical person, but Teja wasn’t a drama queen and I trusted his interpretation of his experience that night.
  2. In 2010 in Northern Ireland Zoe and I were told we could camp on a village green. Some folks plainly set out to scare us, first sitting in their car with the headlights trained on our tent, then throwing our still-hot disposable barbecue against the side of our tent before running off.
  3. At around a similar time we did a short tour in Northern Spain, where one night we camped well away from the road in a cloud-enveloped national park (which is officially forbidden). I was terrified. During the night a car came down the track we’d used and someone got out. In retrospect it was probably someone leaving food for their cattle but… in the middle of the night?? At another point Zoe (who’d put earplugs in to drown out the sound of the huge bells on the hundreds of horned cattle) turned over and asked ‘why are you awake?’ to which I replied, wide-eyed, ‘a cow has just LICKED the tent (I’d seen its huge tongue); what if they stampede?’
  4. I’ve seen The Blair Witch Project, and it scared the crap out of me.