I have a habit of continuing cycling until the last moment possible, as the sky is getting darker and the pink of the sunset is disappearing and the cars lights are coming on and I know that I’m still on the road, still pedalling, and I need to find somewhere to sleep. I cooked and ate dinner on a beach back in the last town but just a few more kilometres and I’ll find somewhere… But now it’s almost dark. I find a petrol station and they warn me not to drink the water from the tap but seeing as I’ve been drinking the tap water halfway across Turkey and it’s a big country then it’s probably too late for me. I pull down a lane behind the petrol station and past huge empty holiday homes, then down a dirt track and end up on the beach. Some guys are having a fire over to my right but far enough away that they can’t see me properly, and then they leave and I have the beach to myself. It’s a warm evening and I pitch my tent, sit in the dark and watch the stars come out, and as I look at the boats out on the Black Sea and think about the ridiculousness of being here, now, on this tiny beach alone so far from home, and I cycled here… how is that possible? I start laughing. I look up at the stars, and at the fishing boats. Eventually I go to sleep.
Things always seem to come right at the last moment. Even when I don’t think they will, and it’s sunset and I’m not in the right place and I’m scared, it always seems to be ok somehow. Wild camping is the thing about my trip I get the most satisfaction out of, more than the thousands of kilometres pedalled. It’s also the most fear-inducing, and the reason others are scared for me. I think that’s why I like it so much, because it focuses my mind intensely on a practical matter. It’s a primal instinct: find safe shelter. I heard some advice that when you are scared, tell yourself instead that it’s exciting. And so I have had some very exciting moments while wild camping. The time when a car pulled up on a beach I was camped on and started firing a gun into the dark was one of these moments. I watched from my darkened tent but they were firing at the sea and not towards me so I went back to listening to Desert Island Discs in my sleeping bag. But I am also convinced that it is not dangerous, as fear and danger are different. We experience a fear response over many things that are not dangerous in any way: public speaking, spiders, lead climbing. Wild camping fear is I think one of those fears. There is no dangerous stimulus but you still experience a fear response. What I like is the practical effort of convincing yourself not to be scared.
Here I have developed a FAQ for wild camping for those who may be interested.
Is it legal?
Generally speaking I don’t care if it is legal or not, but it is worth knowing what the law is in each country to determine where you camp. Turkey is a paradise for wild campers. I pedalled along the Black Sea, camping for the most part on empty beaches, or beside cafes or in picnic areas. Wild camping is not only legal but positively encouraged, unlike in some countries where it is technically legal, but only really tolerated if you are far out of sight. I’ve arrived places at sundown and someone comes over and asks if I want to camp and would I like some tea. In Croatia, however, it is illegal and you are likely to be moved on. In Croatia I asked to camp on people’s property or once behind some corn in a field on Pag island. I was moved on by the police once in Greece. For me, the law is low down on my list of concerns, but there is a useful guide to the law on wild camping in Europe here.
How do you find a place to camp?
I can think of two broad strategies on wild camping. First, ask someone if there is a place where you can camp, and if you are in Turkey this will most likely end up with being invited to someone’s house and being given food and tea. Second, locate somewhere on the map that looks promising (woods, river, beach), stake it out for while as the sun sets to get a feeling that it is a good, quiet place where you are unlikely to be disturbed, then set up your tent as it is getting dark. I usually opt for the second. I try not to think of what this says about my personality that I prefer creeping around in the dark than asking people for help. The last time I did ask someone if I could camp near his land I ended up fleeing after sunset because the man I thought was fairly safe looking and tending to his vegetable patch ended up being the best part through a bottle of raki, touching me more than I was comfortable with, pointing at my things and laughing and then sitting with me and staring at me intently. In the end I had my dinner and made a polite exit then ended up sleeping on a patch of grass at the end of a high street in the next town. Since then I have approached no one at sunset, and made sure no one saw where I was camping. I was lucky with my choices of camp in Georgia: by a peaceful river near farmland, and in the forest up in the hills.
Isn’t it dangerous?
No. Camping alone in the wild, or even in towns, is probably the least dangerous part of travelling in this way. The most dangerous part is cycling on a highway. I read this post about being a woman hitchhiking alone and I wish I had read it before I left England, because it perfectly describes the questions you will receive as a womanalone* on the road. In earlier posts I wrote that this constant questioning of why I was alone started to get me down in the Balkans. This is because I was so happy to be alone on the road – maps, a bicycle and an open road, this was my dream come true! And to be alone was part of that dream, and also part of the privilege that comes with my background. Many women in the world can’t get a moment’s peace to themselves for all the chores, the children, the responsibilities. I felt so lucky to be alone. So when I was constantly questioned and warned about being womanalone, I started to get irritated. Why were people so down on my choices? As this post describes, it can be a bit tiring to have to explain your choice to be alone through a fog of implicit judgement about what women should do and not do.
Here is my last word on this question: it is not more or less dangerous being a woman, or being alone, or being both together, than being either a man or in a pair or group of whatever gender. While I know this to be true, I also know another seemingly contradictory truth: a woman travelling alone in many countries will experience daily sexual harassment. That harassment may be irritating, depressing, saddening, and a whole range of other things, but I don’t believe it makes the world more dangerous for me. It has made me cry, it has made me angry, it has made me upset. Those reactions are for me to deal with in my way. But providing I exercise a normal degree of caution, make sure no one has seen where I’m camping, I’m much more safe in my tent after dark than I have been all day.
Which raises another question, how do I deal with the harassment? This has occupied my thoughts a lot since Albania, where I had a nasty scare. In my idle moments I try to think of ways to repel unwanted advances. Would you like to have sex with me? Or ‘how much?’ would be answered with ‘my mouth smells of petrol,’ ‘I am covered in sand,’ or ‘I came back from the mountain with only half a human soul.’ As I ponder which of these is least untruthful I do as always and continue pedalling up the road.
I have mulled over writing about the harassment on this blog but tended to avoid it. It’s interesting to think about why this is. I read this post on this excellent blog about hitchhiking solo that my friend put me onto, and it captured for me why I don’t want to write about it. Because as a woman, particularly as a lone woman traveller, your complaints about harassment will lead back to a questioning of your choices. ‘Well, you shouldn’t travel in Turkey alone,’ or ‘well, you did know it would be dangerous’ and so on and so on. This might sound overly simplistic but my view on this is that harassment is not the fault of women but the fault of 1) patriarchy and 2) the man (I am open to the idea that women can harass or be sexually violent but I’ve never experienced it) doing the harassing.
Or I worry I sound like I’m moaning or complaining when in reality my life is a long easy holiday. True. It is. However, I can and will still complain about the patriarchy though, even though I know that the harassment I experience as a privileged traveller is the tip of the iceberg for the repression of women in general. Within two days of travelling in Turkey this time around I’d seen women being beaten by men on two separate occasions. It reminds me that the most dangerous place to be for many women is in your own home. You are much more likely to be attacked by someone you know or are in a relationship with than a random stranger on a beach at night while on a cycle trip. While in some moments I’ve wished I had a gun in my pocket like Dervla did, I know also that I don’t need weapons.
In the end, the question is not whether the world is safe or not, or whether people are by nature good or not. The world is too complicated for bland binary choices like this. Terence McKenna, one who went to the wilderness and brought back essential truths, said of our species: “that’s what we are now, semi-human. We’re capable of enormous acts of kindness and appalling acts of brutality.” The latter are usually institutionalised and made legitimate through huge structures of power (like the army, police, bureaucracy, patriarchy, racism). If fortune grants you a bicycle and the legs to ride it, you can usually cycle away from these, and towards nature. And as Mr McKenna also said, “nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up.” As I arrive into Mestia, the small mountain town that will be my home while I wait for my friend to come and visit, I think about what I want from life next: a bicycle and an open road? Or just an open road? As usual it’s a mental trap. There’s never only two choices.
* I use the term womanalone to distinguish between being rendered a vulnerable object in the eyes of others on the one hand, and being a person, of the female variety, and also alone, on the other.