A Wild Camp on Dartmoor, the musings of V after her first ever wild camping experience.
“Shall we go somewhere in the van this weekend?”
Images flit across my mind of jam packed campsites, queues for the showers, overflowing bins and the inevitable tedious, twice-as-long journey back on Sunday’s motorways.
“Let’s just go for the day”
Getting away from it all in the camper was always a tonic, an oasis of freedom and unstructured time that revived and re-charged us. Over the last few years we had settled into a refreshing routine every summer of keeping our camping gear at the back of the lounge so we were ready every Friday to set off on the next mini adventure. We would fizz with excitement at the prospect of road snacks from Gloucester Services and Matt would create a new playlist of music for the drive, never knowing where we’d end up but confident we’d hit a state of relaxation within 20 miles of setting out.
However lately, it has to be said, it has became a chore. Hard work even, definitely less relaxing. Our last impromptu weekend trip found us on a campsite with more vans than space (or fire regulations should allow), two toilets for the whole site that had not been cleaned since last summer and a morbid karaoke at the nearby pub that kept us awake into the early hours. We began to wonder if we were “going off camping for good”.
It’s true to say, we like our solitude when we’re camping. Our trips have taken us to some far flung parts of the UK and Europe. All in an endeavor to find somewhere unspoiled, uninhabited and truly wild. Maybe that’s where I got the idea, sat alone on the beach of a loch in the Cairngorms. Wishing we could get the van close enough to sleep there. Or maybe it was seeing the occasional surreptitious slug-like tent nestled in a hollow at Haytor or at the base of the rock face at Foggintor Quarry on Dartmoor. It made me wonder what it would be like to really sleep under the stars.
Whilst we both love the camper van, Matt would not disagree with my observation that he prefers the Van part. So I was surprised when he agreed to try wild camping with me.
Wild Camp Guided Expedition
We opted to join a guided expedition led by Two Blondes Walking; Fi and Lucy, who I met last year after attending their navigation skills course. They both have extensive knowledge and a deep love of the Dartmoor national park, which they are lucky enough to call home. I have fallen in love with the place too and need no excuse to visit. The high open moorland and angular rock formations feel mysterious, wild and free. I waited excitedly as winter turned to spring and eventually rolled into summer, when our night under canvas and stars would arrive.
It was with great trepidation but even greater anticipation that we walked up the steps of the Dartmoor Visitor Centre in Princetown. It was a blistering hot Saturday, perfect for our adventure. Hefting new and borrowed rucksacks on our backs that seemed far too heavy for how little they contained. Compared to what we normally pack for a night in the van, our office-rounded shoulders and too-used-to-sitting hips were already complaining at the effort. If we’d decided to try this venture alone, maybe we would’ve wimped out soon after that, but when the other members of our party turned up – Roddie who was a sprightly 60 years young and Rachel, a double amputee and Paralympic gold medalist – our aches, pains and excuses disappeared.
Fi and Lucy introduced us to the theory and practice of wild camping with a short classroom session to go over the basics. Lots of Do’s and Don’ts – mostly Don’ts as you would expect. Dartmoor is a national park after all, not a campsite and preservation of this ancient natural environment is paramount. It is a habitat for rare flora and fauna, as well as a major tourist attraction used by humans. Care and mindfulness of this is a must for every wild camper. When we set off my head was as full up with rules and advice, as my pockets were with sugary snacks.
The weather was glorious and the forecast for overnight and the next morning was also promising. Our guides decided to take us to a camping spot on high ground that would afford a magnificent view. It did not disappoint.
Picking the site for our tent, pitching it and unrolling our sleeping set-up, getting the Alpkit Brukit going for a cuppa and a well-earned ham sandwich felt similar to pitching up at any campsite but here, in the wide open space of Dartmoor it seemed, I don’t know, more real. Earthy.
We talked about a book called The Salt Path where a rural homeless couple tell their story of becoming more connected with their natural environment, describing it as becoming ‘salted’. I feel a reaction in my chest that I have never felt camping in the van before. A surge of emotion at the prospect of becoming salted myself on this special night.
The six of us, strangers a few hours ago, sat on the rocks and the mossy grass in a hollow, sheltered from the wind. The low sun lit our faces with a warm glow that seemed to come from within. We laughed freely at jokes and stories that shared nothing in common, other than a desire to be connected to nature and to one another. My heart felt full of love and joy for these people, this place, and this moment.
After eating and chatting for a while, we each moved off to explore a little, move our limbs. To get some warmth in to our bones before the sun melted into the horizon. I climbed to a flat rock on King’s Tor and stood gazing west. The wind whipping my hair as the last rays flashed against the clouds. There, I had the sudden urge to throw my arms in the air and release all the air from my lungs, it was exhilarating! I felt young and ancient, at home and of another world all at once! I was fully and fiercely alive! The stars came out to see what I was shouting about.
Unexpected Profound Joy
Nothing could have prepared me for the immense, intense joy I experienced at that moment. Fi and Lucy hinted at it in their classroom session, the sense of letting go. Pressing the reset button, putting life into perspective. I had nodded politely thinking of all the research. The experts say the outdoors is “good for your health” but the words don’t do it justice. Hell, there are no words, no language, that can convey the sheer soulful rapture that I found on that hill that night.
Time to sleep
Even in the wilderness of Dartmoor and feeling a profound connection with nature and your fellow humans; there’s no getting away from the bedtime preparations of camping. Helped along by warming hot chocolate, and after much zipping, unzipping and wriggling. Finally I found a comfy configuration of sleeping bag, mat and ground. We fall asleep, exhausted yet happy.
Reflecting on the experience just one day later, it seems fleeting and dream-like. Perhaps it wasn’t real? Matt begins to talk about how the western world has us trapped. A way of living that makes us sick and numb, disconnects us from the world. At that moment I know it was real, and I know I cannot go back.
Like having a glimpse of ‘The Matrix’, I have seen and felt the truth of my own existence. When we “go away” in the camper van, we’re really trying to get away from those things that make us feel trapped. To escape and find a different way to live, even for a night. A way of living that makes us feel joyous, free, connected and ultimately alive. For me this wild camping is it.