Since I was a small child I have adored camping - and the more basic the better. I loved nothing more than being tucked up warm in a sleeping bag while breathing in the clean fresh air and listening to birds singing – the scratchy sounds of beetles and other insects crawling around under the makeshift groundsheet. When I built a 'Red Indian camp' in the garden, aged 4, I wanted to move into it. I made myself a table using scrap wood and a toolkit my parents had bought me for Christmas. They were worried. And yet this tent, made of an old blanket, two brooms for poles and some string for guylines, was not the most uncomfortable camp I have spent the night in - not by a long way.
We went camping often during the time I lived in England as a child. One place we camped a few times at weekends was a well established formal site by the River Thames in Chertsey, to the west of London. One summer my parents decided my brother and I liked the place so much we would go there for a whole summer. We were in between houses so it was a doubly convenient as my father could get to work from there. We had a big frame tent, a canoe and we fished every day. It should have been a delightful summer, except that it rained. It rained hard and not for just a day.
It rained for weeks. The site had poorly drained ground and a tide of water washed into our tent on a daily and nightly basis. In the mornings we had to collect shoes, pots and pans etc from all around where they had washed away. One day while my mother was out washing and drying everything at a laundrette, my brother and I watched a very worldly-wise man with a trowel dig a small trench around his tent for water to drain into. It clearly worked well so we borrowed one of the gardener's shovels and dug a trench around our tent. We were pleased with our efforts. When my mother got back she was horrified. The trench was two feet deep. But it worked. The following week we had to move to a rented house. The police had come when a mobile home was washed into the River Thames with people in it and floated away downstream. Luckily the people managed to get out and swim to the shore but the police closed the site down afterwards. It was a miserable experience and I don't think we ever went back.
Number 4 - Shanklin, Isle of Wight - The last of the great English romantics
Looking for somewhere quirky to take my wife for Valentines Day, I read about a restaurant on the
Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. To add a bit of adventure I took her in my VW camper-van. We arrived straight to the restaurant. The food was good but it was in a bit of a slummy place. Arriving at a nearby campsite in darkness we found the place with a few mobile homes but no lights on. The sign at the gate said 'Campsite Open' however, so we drove in and found a spare pitch (there were many). Backing down a slope onto the grassy pitch we immediately sunk up to the axles in soft mud. My heart sank. This would require a tractor to pull us out. There was no answer at the house. Trying to be philosophical we went to bed and slept. In the morning we saw the full horror of our situation. I phoned the AA but there were no breakdown services available on the island. Knocking on caravan doors we realised this was a place where homeless people holed-up at minimal rent for the winter. The site owner came once a week. Nobody had a car except one guy with a Reliant Robin 3-wheeler pick-up (you literally could pick it up). He very kindly tried to pull us out using a makeshift rope from junk. My wife went to the toilet block for a shower. It was derelict. The homeless people washed under
an old hosepipe. The site began to fill with the smell of cheap fried sausages. Once people had eaten they came to help. Many were semi-disabled. It was a mud bath. The little 3-wheel plastic car's wheel spun as it tried to pull the VW out. The smell of burning rubber did not go well with the sausages. Finally after about 2hrs of gargantuan effort, someone 'salvaged' some carpet from a large mobile home and we got some grip. We tried for hours. Eventually by 'flooring' the accelerator the VW managed to slide haphazardly onto some gravel and in a shower of flying mud we reached the path. Handing over all the cash I had to the poverty-stricken team of disabled and clinically obese helpers, we just carried on driving - 6hrs all the way home to Kent, hungry and caked in mud. I'm not one for buying chocolates and flowers. I like to treat my wife to something a bit special.
Number 3 - Katerini
It was March. Hitchhiking in Yugoslavia on my way to Greece with a girlfriend, we were picked up
by a Greek truck-driver who told us we really must visit the beautiful holiday resort of Katerini on the east coast where he and his family regularly spent their holidays. Greece is full of stunningly beautiful places but this guy really enthused about this place so a few weeks later we decided to make a detour on our way from Montenegro to Thessaloniki. We arrived in Katerini by train late at night. All the hotels and B&Bs seemed closed down for the winter period. We looked for someone to ask about where to camp but there were absolutely no people. Walking along the beach we finally decided to pitch our tent in a bit of a cove where we might not be seen from the town. We climbed down a slope and pitched on a flat area. Not having a torch we felt about in the dark and found somewhere level with no rocks. Tired and rather disappointed by the lack of a welcoming resort that we had imagined as a beachside paradise, we got into bed and slept a heavy sleep. Poking our heads out of the tent in the morning we gazed open-mouthed at the site before us. A burned out shack, emaciated wild dogs, all manner of rubbish strewn about a disgusting smell and swarms of flies. Climbing out we found, worse still, that we were camped in the mouth of an untreated sewage outlet. The evidence of this was all around us. Striking camp and heading quickly back to the station, we found one or two sorry looking people. "Yes" they told us, this was a lovely resort before they built the meat rendering plant. It seemed the water pollution and the smell of the plant had driven away the tourists. We spent the whole day and half that night waiting at the deserted station for a promised train before we finally managed to get out of the place.
Cycling along the Danube in Romania on our way from Ireland to Japan, my son and I found ourselves in the riverside military town of Orsova. We had become separated and had not found each other until 11:30pm at night. Everywhere was closed up so we looked for a place to pitch out tent. Unfortunately everywhere seemed either concreted over or flooded with water. Heading on the road out of town we found a derelict children's play park in a lay-by. The ground seemed unsuitable to pitch a tent as it was knee-deep in broken bottles, cans, take-away cartons, old pushchairs and sacks of household waste. Dog tired we decided to sleep on a pair of broken benches. We lay there amongst the rubbish looking at the stars, but we got no sleep. The lay-by, it seems, was used by what I believe are now termed 'doggers'. Every ten minutes a new car would arrive and people would get out and talk. Doors banged, then the springs of the car would begin to squeak. Finally it got light and the full horror of our campsite became apparent. It would have been unsurprising to find a dead body or two amongst the detritus. We packed up quickly and left.
The derelict playpark was vile but the view of the Danube in the morning almost made up for it
Number 1 - Camp-Platz Petronell Carnuntum, Austria
I have never lost my love of sleeping outdoors. In fact I prefer most things outdoors. Most of all I enjoy wild camping. Wild camping allows few of the comforts of modern settled life we find in houses and hotels. However, in my experience it is surprising how organised campsites with full facilities can be far more uncomfortable. It was in Austria that I encountered my worst camping site. Petronell Carnuntum is a small historic town on the Danube and within a nature reserve. My son Sam and I stopped a night there on our way cycling to Japan. It was a lovely hot sunny day and the site looked idyllic as we rode in. Pitch anywhere you like, the manager told us, then come and pay in the bar – we have nice cold beer and good food. The site had pleasant lawns and decent shower blocks too. It seemed quite a few others had recently arrived and were happily putting up tents. People smiled at us and a few young people came over to chat to Sam. We had the feeling this was going to be a nice place to stop. After putting up the tent we took our leave from our fellow campers and headed over to the bar to pay.
"Let's have a beer now, shall we Sam, then we can have a shower later and go out to eat?"
As we sat at the window drinking our beer, the evening sun going down, the scene outside began to change. The new arrivals had begun heading to the washrooms for showers and after a few minutes, tensions began to develop. Shrieks could be heard as people began swatting mosquitos as they were bitten. One by one freshly showered campers emerged in swimming trunks and shorts from the washrooms and began running towards their tents, vaulting over anything in their path and screeching to their partners to hold open the tent door for them. The mosquito population, quickly alert to their tactics, grouped into a swarm and attacked en-mass. Mass hysteria seemed to fill the site. It was like a battlefield with half naked people running for their lives to barricade themselves in the shelter of their tents. The assault came when a group of around six showerers who had been hiding in the washrooms decided to make a run for it together. These poor souls had covered themselves as best they could, even winding towels around their heads and faces. They sprinted like a crazy heard of stampeding buffalo, tripping over guylines and knocking over flowerpots as they were bitten half to death by the swarm. They paid a high price for this poor strategy.
The site managers - an elderly couple retired here from Vienna – watched with us from the bar, unmoved but miserable. Clearly this was nothing new to them. They had been unaware of the mosquito problem when they bought the lease, they told us. The local authority would not allow insecticide to be used in the reserve - strictly verboten! - so the mosquito larvae could not be sprayed on the surrounding ponds. People only stayed one night, they told us.
"Jah, it is all looking so lovely when they are arriving, but then when the evening is coming they discover the true horror of this place."
In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc.
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores. A new book entitled 'People I've Met On The Road' will be published soon.