Saturday, August 1, 2015

Our ability to get outdoors – let alone sleep in the wild – is increasingly threatened in the 21st century

Partly because our footpaths are disappearing at the very same time public lands are being sold off. But mostly because we have one of the most unequal landownership systems in the world. Old traditions of camping in forests and on moors have almost vanished. And that’s crazy, because no one should have to be told how much fun it is to snooze under the stars while listening to the dry rattle of a grasshopper or the hoot of a tawny owl. We all knew that from our childhoods. Only we’ve been encouraged to forget.

During the mid 1980s – between the age of 19 and 27 – I hitchhiked from London to Zurich, to Athens and Israel, to Egypt, and then back into Istanbul, to the Londra Mocamp – the largest lorry park in Europe – out into eastern Turkey and on across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. Down into south-east Asia, Timor and across Australia from the Northern Territories to Perth via Townville, Brisbane, Melbourne, New Zealand, Los Angeles, Fiji, everything in between; and back home. Then I did it all over again.

Ditches, gardens, car parks, cemeteries, doorways and bus stops provided a bed. It was a means to an end. A way to keep going. Longer, further. It never felt like hardship, and it never felt wrong.

I mostly worked or looked for jobs. In Israel, in Tel Aviv and Eilat, by day and night, in the restaurants and nightclubs, milking cows in Lahore, selling carpets in Cairo, tomato picking in Bowen, Australia. After work, I’d join fellow campers, asleep on the beaches. Strangers for a few minutes, sometimes friends for a lifetime. You learned to make acquaintances quickly. We’d get our stuff stolen occasionally. But more gear went missing when we lived in workers’ accommodation than was ever lost bivvying down in a doorway or park.

Fellow workers or the bosses on the farms, hotels and shops would ask what it was all about. The living under wet skies. I’d tell them about the cold, the fear, the rats and the police. Then how people would come to leave us food in the mornings. The workers and bosses said, ‘You’re mad,’ but they didn’t say it with any conviction. It was as if they knew what we knew. That sleeping outdoors was the ultimate escape.