The first night wild camping was not exactly conducive to a good night’s rest, despite my tiredness. First, I’d decided to try sleeping the opposite way round in my tent. Given that I’ve had the tent for around 8 years and slept in it dozens of times, and always been quite satisfied with sleeping with my head in the narrow end and my feet in the wide end, for some unknown reason I decided that it would be better to try it the other way round. The fact that it was not a success was partly because I wasn’t used to sleeping with my head sandwiched next to my pack, but also because I hadn’t realised how much of a slope there was on the ground, which meant I was facing downhill. However, even after reversing sleeping direction in the middle of the night (easier said than done in a “coffin” tent), I was still kept awake by the fact that my feet and legs were aching, and then by the fact that I needed to pee and it was pouring with rain. This brings me to one disadvantage of the almost 24-hour daylight in the Arctic – normally you can happily go for a pee in the dark outside your tent, but when it’s broad daylight in the middle of the night, this is a slightly more risky strategy. Still, too bad really as I didn’t fancy wandering far in the middle of the night in the pouring rain! Luckily no one was about, although apparently some reindeer wandered very close to our camp later that night. I did hear noises but never thought to look out of the tent, thinking it was just my imagination. I wish I had, as I could have got some fantastic pictures, as our photojournalist team member Mark managed to do. After the first night, I decided to use my Nalgene bottle for peeing at night, which, although tricky in a confined space when half asleep, meant at least I didn’t have to get out of the tent. I also kept an ear out for reindeer, but sadly never saw any.
So anyway, on to Day 2. This time I managed to work the Piezo lighter and get my stove going unaided for my breakfast, and also finally got the knack of unscrewing the pot of boiling water from the base, both of which had been problematic the previous night. Just as well really, because it was raining so hard there was no way I was getting out of my tent to light the stove and have breakfast! This also made me very glad I’d brought my own tent, as it has a large porch which is easy to cook in while still lying in bed, without risking setting fire to the tent. One of our team was too scared to light her stove inside her tent, having a smaller porch, and consequently went breakfast and coffee-less most mornings due to the rain. Good thing we weren’t in the Arctic in winter, or on a climbing trip, or she’d have been in real trouble! I was also very glad that I’d finally made the decision to bring the heavier thermal mug with a lid, as it meant that every morning I could make extra coffee and carry it hot with me to drink during the day without having to stop and get the stove out.
Luckily, the rain stopped just as it was time to start packing up and leaving. To be fair, I actually waited till the rain stopped, unlike some, but I knew I could break camp very fast since I was well organised, and I was ready to go at the designated hour of 10am. I still really have no idea why the plan was to leave so late, since most of us had been awake for some time, and we had another very long day ahead, but in the words of Tennyson: “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” I refrain from asking if someone had blundered. It turned out that we didn’t die, so maybe not.
Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. We didn’t march into the Valley of Death, however, but some rather scenic surroundings, and despite my lack of sleep, I felt on good form. Today for the first time we saw snow on the mountains, and the terrain became more interesting, with a number of rather bouncy suspension bridges, which some of us enjoyed more than others.
I was the first of our group to arrive at the next checkpoint, Singi, which was bitterly cold, and unfortunately had nowhere to shelter from the wind except behind a few small rocks. I was, however, saved having to get my stove out, as a German man who was sharing my rock had just finished his lunch and had spare boiling water which he donated to me. Since it was already 2pm, I was very hungry, and it also meant I didn’t have to take my gloves off, so I was doubly grateful! The others arrived about 20 minutes later and we had a decent rest and availed ourselves of the (smelly but clean) long drop loos before continuing on. How could the loos be smelly but clean at the same time, you may ask? The answer is simple – they were always spotless, mainly thanks to the array of old men (there may also have been women, but I never saw any) who continually cleaned them and refilled the paper and sanitiser, but the nature of the long drop (a big hole in the ground, covered by a seat) meant that the smell of ammonia was overpowering. It also didn’t help that people kept closing the lid, which only made it worse as no air ever got in. 2000 people passing through in only a few days creates quite a lot of volume, as you can imagine!
The second half of the day was fairly uneventful, other than the fact that my blood sugar level crashed shortly before we reached the next checkpoint at Salka around 7pm, and despite a fistful of jelly beans and a chocolate bar, refused to come up. I pushed on to the checkpoint where a couple of the others had already arrived and had fortunately also just visited the shop, so were able to hand me chocolate and Jammy Dodgers, which soon sorted me out. I have to say that the Jammy Dodgers were much better than the English ones (so they should be, at around £5 a packet!). I visited the shop, which was almost pitch black, and since the writing on everything was in Swedish, I had almost no chance of figuring out what anything was. I managed to acquire some Jammy Dodgers and nuts, however, and (eventually) a cup of coffee. The coffee should have been straightforward, since I’d paid for it at the till, and then just had to ask the nice man sitting outside the shop to pour it for me. However, he had decided for some unknown reason that he was going on strike, and told me there was no more coffee. After telling him I’d already paid for it, he very reluctantly went inside again and retrieved the big thermos and proceeded to pour me a cup, muttering what I presumed to be Swedish swear words at me. I was too tired to care, but such was my need for coffee that I might have hit him over the head with my Jammy Dodgers if he hadn’t delivered! Since we were still waiting for some of the team who were struggling, and it was already late, we decided to cook dinner while waiting for the others, which meant that when they staggered in looking a bit the worse for wear, we had tea and hot water for food all ready for them. Tonight’s delicacy for me was the slightly scary-sounding “kebab stew”, which tasted a lot better than it sounded, with more Jammy Dodgers to follow.
I think we’d planned to go on a little further at this point to find a better campsite, but since there were a few dissenters who didn’t have the energy, we went for a compromise and found a spot just across the river beyond the checkpoint. A couple of people decided that crossing the river (slightly precariously) was all too much, and camped with the masses below the checkpoint, but it was definitely worth the few extra yards to have a more peaceful spot to ourselves, and away from the midges. Climbing up onto the plateau, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset just as we went to bed, and I realised again how happy I was to be in this magical place.