I ‘do’ camping but I don’t ‘do’ the relaxed clothing that seems to come with the territory. Tracksuits, shorts and fleeces just make me look
fat(ter). Yes, I’m the kind of girl that goes camping in high heels. You are probably thinking that I’d be much better off in a hotel, and you would probably be right, but it is a financial thing – a three figure monthly income doesn’t quite stretch to a bed on legs and a mini-bar.
It was for this very reason that I found myself ‘sleeping under the stars’ last August. My son and I had been invited to a family reunion at friend’s villa north of Malaga and I needed to find an affordable way of getting there. The plane was too expensive, the train was too complicated and after a particularly bad experience in a coach toilet as a teenager (I had food poisoning, it was coming out both ends and the toilet wouldn’t flush), I swore I would never get on a coach again: not even as a pensioner, and most definitely not as the mother of a 5-yr-old wriggly boy. Driving was my only option. In an old banger like mine, Toulouse to Malaga would take 3 days and I would have to stay in campsites on the way. Hurrah!
I didn’t want to drive. In fact, the thought of doing a 16 hr journey on my own with a small child filled me with dread. I was in a nasty car accident when I was 11 and it has left its scars, both physical and mental. Driving to Spain was my idea of hell, but I was determined not to let it beat me – this was going to be some heavy-duty therapy of the ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ kind.
The thought of having to camp was equally as pleasurable. As a child camping entailed gagging on warm UHT milk, throwing-up powdered orange juice, listening to my entire family pee in a bucket in the middle of the night and being bitten alive by mosquitoes – one year I got blood poisoning from just 1 bite. As a teenager it wasn’t much better. My greatest ‘tent moment’ was at the Reading festival. It was the year when it was particularly muddy and the toilets, which where a good 10 minutes from my tent, were overflowing and not worth the walk. I had drunk a bottle of cider and was busting for a wee. Out of desperation and in a lot of pain, I came up with my own portable toilet – a plastic bag from the supermarket…genius! It was about mid-flow that I began to feel a warm sensation on the back of my legs. The plastic bag had holes in it (the little ones to stop babies from suffocating that I had forgotten to check for) and my pee was spurting out in four different directions all over the tent. When my boyfriend returned several hours later and asked why his sleeping bag was ‘a bit damp,’ I said it was some cider (which does smell a bit like pee) I had spilt earlier – well, it is not something you can confess to at the time or in a blog either, probably!
When our day of departure (my day of reckoning) finally came, it was with deep joy that I entered my car. In true ‘Girl Guide’ style (they kicked me out for sticking my badges on with rubber glue, when I thought it showed initiative) I was fully prepared for the journey ahead. In the passenger seat lay my ‘anti-get-lost’ device – every motorway exit I needed to take, on 12 sheets of A4 paper courtesy of those thoughtful people at ‘Michelin Route Planner.’ In the boot was a flimsy, pop-up tent (perfect for the lazy camper like me) I had bought for 35 Euros from the local ‘budget’ supermarket and in the back – drowning in sweets, games, colouring pens and pillows – was my son, excited about going camping for the first time in his little life.
We hit the first campsite in Huesca bang on schedule at 5 pm. I could have kissed the ground on arrival. I had managed to drive for 6 hours without getting lost or being involved in a pile-up – it is amazing what you can achieve when you put you mind to it! It was a nice enough place, just on the outskirts of town, but it was practically empty. We had our choice of pitches, so I chose one next to the toilets – no peeing in buckets, or bags, for me! The tent went up in a flash, I filled it with the sponge from my Ikea chairs (they make great mattresses) and within 30 minutes of arriving we were languishing by the pool. After a wonderful 3 course meal (with wine and not a drop of powdered orange juice in sight) we went to bed and slept like babies.
The following morning saw me wrestling with the tent. I twisted it this way and that, then wedged it between my knees while I tried to get hold of the cover, and just when I thought I had it licked, it would spring back up again and whack me in the face. After 10 minutes I admitted defeat, stuffed it behind the passenger seat, covered it with bags and slammed the door as fast as I could – hoping it wouldn’t explode in my son’s face. With the tent finally under control, we left for Santa Elena. This leg of the journey was a real slog. It was only 7 hours on the road but it felt like twenty. Not being able to share the driving was tough and I was really starting to tire. When we arrived at the second campsite all I wanted to do was dive into the swimming pool, have a good meal then fall onto my little bit of sponge. This time it wasn’t going to be quite so easy!
For a start, this campsite was nothing like the one we had stayed in the night before. It was busy and most of the people had permanent pitches, with fridges, comfy chairs and satellite television. These were ‘serious’ campers who no doubt laughed at part-timers like me. I was given a small parcel of land between 4 of the largest tents I have ever seen and as soon as I stepped out of the car I could feel myself being watched. I was wearing a floaty, black skirt that came just above the knee, a pretty, white shirt and a pair of sexy, 2 inch mules from LK Bennett (flat shoes do nothing for my legs in a short skirt.) They were wearing t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops – the appropriate camping attire! My tent exploded as soon as I opened the side door, so I had to carry it fully erect to the middle of my pitch. As I placed it on the ground I realised how ridiculous it looked in comparison to the surrounding tents: like something you might let a child play in, or a dog sleep in. What had been a lovely little tent last night now felt like a Wendy house – great! I still cringe today at what happened next. There was a slight wind so I decided that I had better use the pegs to secure the tent this time (the mattress had been enough to keep it in place the night before.) As I removed them from the bag I heard someone across the way chuckle and someone else mutter ‘you won’t be able to get those in the ground.’ He probably had a point, as they did look a bit spindly, but I smiled politely and carried on regardless. As I bent over to put the first peg in I could see a small gathering of about 6 of men – who had come out of their tents, beer in hand, to watch the show – tilting their heads in unison as they tried to get an eyeful of my knickers, which were clearly on display! Trying to preserve what little dignity I had left, I quickly readjusted my position to one where my legs were bent and my knees were very firmly together. Leaning awkwardly to the right I began to tap away, praying the peg would go in. The ground was like cement and it bent on the first hit – shit! There was a small jeer from the sidelines and with flushed cheeks, I scurried round to the other side of the tent where I was far less visible and tried again. This time the peg bent right over – double shit! This was public humiliation of the worst kind. I knew exactly what they were thinking: ‘what is this silly, little, city girl with unsuitable footwear, skimpy, French knickers and a toy tent doing on a campsite?’ Or worse still: ‘maybe she has kidnapped her child and is on the run from her partner and the police ?’ I couldn’t have looked more out of place if I had tried.
Whatever they thought, they were gentlemen enough not to let me struggle on my own for too long. On seeing the sorry state of my pegs, one of the men took pity on me and decided to come to my rescue. Brandishing a king size mallet and some of the biggest rusty nails I have ever seen, he ran around my tent sliding them into the ground with about the same amount of effort it takes to put candles on cake. When he had finished, without uttering a word, he walked back to his tent, took a swig of beer and gave me the smuggest of grins – bastard! I said a few ‘grazias,’ grabbed my ‘stolen’ child and hid in the bar until I could slip back to my tent unnoticed under the dead of night! The following day I decided to reinforce my ‘mum on the run’ image and left at the crack of dawn. As I slid onto the motorway, only 3 hours away from the comfort a ‘real’ bed, I swore that for the return trip I would invest in some bigger pegs, and some even bigger knickers!