Recently I was walking the south west coast of Crete, a stunning and rocky wilderness populated by goats, insects and very occasionally other walkers. By day I walked up and down the mountains along the coastal path and at night I would search beaches, ruins or caves for somewhere suitable to sleep. I was travelling alone.
At one point I faced an impassable cliff and realised that I was blocked. Then I saw a tiny staircase carved into the rock, like Gollum’s staircase into Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Every day I was seeing new landscapes, each one more beautiful than the last, and so many perfect beaches with no people on them. I don’t understand why 99% of tourists all go to the same crowded patches of sand. I get bored of sunbathing after 10 minutes.
When I got back to the Christos Taverna in the small town of Paleochora, an ideal base for a Cretan trekking break, I got online and shared my enthusiasm on Twitter. One of my online friends asked what it’s like sleeping outside and what do you need to take. I glibly told him that all that is needed is a sleeping bag, a mat and an empty rucksack, to fill up with local food and water.
But hiking and camping isn’t so simple. It has taken me a month of trial and (mostly) error to realize that I didn’t need to bring anything at all. I could have bought everything I needed in the camping shop by the bus station in Chanea, Crete’s main port, where I did in fact buy an excellent sleeping bag and mat. But, these new possessions just added to the ton of clothing I had brought (not to mention the books, shoes, electronics, souvenirs and useless tin crockery – even a small breadboard). I was lucky to find a friendly landlady in Paleochora who let me to leave my junk in her premises while I went trekking.
“But what if it rains?” another friend asked. It did rain a few times during my week of hiking and I was well prepared; I had a one-man-tent and a raincoat. But I soon realized that I had packed waterproofs mainly because I am from Scotland, where taking thick waterproofs is essential all the year round. In the Mediterranean mountains, on the other hand, summer storms are a rare and welcome break from the heat; so why not just enjoy the shower? For the second phase of my walk I dumped my waterproofs and tent, lightening my load by two kilogrammes.
But there’s more to it than this. If the south west coast of Crete is so stunning why is it not full of keen hikers from all over Europe sleeping in the ancient Greek ruins and on the empty beaches? The fact is that this type of camping takes more than just selecting the right equipment; a different kind of attitude is needed. The best way I can explain this is by describing what happened to me.
Like most people I appreciate the comforts of a hotel environment and, if given the choice, would find it almost impossible to go into the wilds. I’m not one of those people who can stay in a hotel and spend their days hiking. If I stay in a hotel I do as little as possible, maybe go for a swim, lie in the sun, eat too much and waste time on the internet.
But on the other hand I love sleeping under the stars, hearing the birds squabble nearby and feeling the wind on my face. Being by a real log fire in the pitch dark is my idea of heaven – and if you are comfortably ensconced in your warm sleeping bag, life can seem perfect. But I recognise how hard it is to get to that point where one is essentially living in nature. Even though it’s really simple – just a sleeping mat and mat are needed – years flash by when I don’t do any camping at all. The fact is that I’m too busy, family obligations take priority (and the logistics of family camping expeditions can be hideous), there aren’t too many places you can sleep out and work takes up far too much of my time. To trump it all, the comfort of the hotel and my friends’ houses are just too tempting.
Spontaneity also played a role. I didn’t go to Crete for camping, but I did go there for a month off and didn’t want to pay 20 Euros a night (600 Euro a month!) for a bed in a taverna. The camping option started out as a cheap way to live, and for a couple of weeks I was a beach bum living under a tree. Eventualy I got bored and realized that I could start exploring Crete’s south west coast where there are no roads and the mountains drop into the sea. Now I want to come back every year until I have explored the entire island, a task that may take the rest of my life.
There is something else that draws me towards this kind of activity. I don’t believe that the vast tourist industry is a healthy or sustainable entity, and I don’t want to be part of it. Tourism relies on a globalised economic system that we are starting to realize is perhaps not as stable as we once thought. One day it could all come crashing down and what will we do then? Where will we sleep? What will we eat if the fuel supply is interrupted? Where will we go? I don’t have any answers for these frightening questions but I do feel that by carrying everything I need to live on my back for a few days I am learning survival skills that may come in handy one day.
Rupert Wolfe Murray is the European Representative of Castle Craig rehab clinic (Scotland). He is based in Bucharest.