I’ve only ever spent two nights under canvas. After the first I promised myself there would never be a second. I broke that promise, but there were good reasons for that, as you’ll find out at the end. You have to stay with me here.
The first night I slept in a tent, I was in the Army Cadets at school. You may remember some of my other exploits from How to do something unpleasant with a sheep http://wp.me/p2C8Zz-rU It was December, the end of school term, and the idea was we’d get dropped in the middle of nowhere on the Pennines, camp, do some night manoeuvres, and then hike back the next day, a distance of some 12 miles or so. It may seem foolhardy to plan such a thing in December, but generally the bad weather round there doesn’t really hit its stride till the start of the new year.
The weather gods decided to play a little joke, and afer an hour or so in the back of an unheated, canvas tilt 3 ton truck, we got dumped out in a disused quarry in the middle of a heavy snowstorm. We got the tents up, and in direct disobedience of orders, got inside and lit the stoves to try to warm up. It was bleeding freezing. Carbon monoxide poisoning would have been, if not the healthy option, at least a blessed relief.
At one point I went to visit one of my mates in another tent, to discover him pouring a mug of tea into his boots.
‘I might as well have warm wet feet as cold wet feet,’ he explained.
The two of us were despatched to check the perimeter of the camp. It had stopped snowing, but the freezing clouds had descended. If a polar bear had turned up I wouldn’t have been that surprised. We trudged on, and experienced a whiteout. If you’ve never experienced one of these, then don’t. You genuinely cannot see where the snow-covered ground ends, and the clouds begin. This is utterly disorientating, and not at all good when you know there’s a quarry somewhere you can fall into. All we could do was try and follow our tracks back, and that wasn’t easy. There was insurrection in the ranks; we were not doing night manoeuvres in this. Bugger that for a game of soldiers.
Just as it was getting dark, our CO turned up in his nice warm car. He agreed we should stay put till morning, then off he went with a cheery wave and a faint aroma of fags and Scotch. He was one of our PE teachers in civvy street.
As soon as it got dark, we hit the tents, ate half cooked bacon and lukewarm beans, and climbed into our sleeping bags. It was so cold that we were reduced to playing spoons to keep warm. Adolescent boys spooning for warmth. Not something you read about every day, is it? We didn’t care.
The tents, or at least mine and my buddy’s, didn’t have a fixed groundsheet. During the night, the groundsheet rucked up, and the residual warmth from the tent melted the snow we’d not been able to clear. This then soaked my sleeping bag at the bottom. When I woke in the morning, the outermost of my three pairs of socks had frozen into my sleeping bag.
We struck camp as soon as there was enough light to see. It had snowed again during the night, and then the snow had frozen hard into ice that we couldn’t shift, so we had to pack the tents as they were. They weighed about 20 lb a piece. With the carrier, various bits of equipment, sleeping bag, yada yada yada, I had about 30 lb to carry. I was about 5’5”, and weighed under 120 lbs. My mates had to hoist my load onto my back, and dropped it, thus partly prolapsing a cervical disc that troubled me until 2001. Then I slipped on the ice, ending up on my back as helpless as a tortoise till they picked me up again
We set off on the 12 mile slog home over the Pennines. In the snow. With over a quarter of my own bodyweight on my back. I was pretty fit at the time, despite my small stature, but it did tax me somewhat.
So that’s why I said ‘Never again.’
The second night was on a safari in Kenya. I say we spent the night in a tent, but it was more of a collapsible condo. It was the size of our first flat, had two four poster beds, its own shower and lavatory, and a little veranda where the room boy served us breakfast the next morning. We overlooked a river with a hippo wallow directly opposite. Watching hippos do their thing and keeping a weather eye on cruising crocodiles while we were eating breakfast as the sun rose over the African plains was a magical experience. Oh, and when we climbed into bed the previous night, having gorged ourselves on roast impala, we discovered hot water bottles. Bliss. I could have done with one of those the first time I went camping. Did I tell you that first night later transpired to be the coldest of the year? No? Well it was.