“Trust your instincts” is one of the most clichéd pieces of advice you’re given before embarking on a trip like this. It’s also one of the most accurate: if a road feels weird don’t go down it; if an offer of hospitality feels suspicious don’t take it; if a wild campsite feels unsafe it’s probably got a snake in it. Which was why I felt so troubled, standing alone atop a forested hill in Park Hartenstein in south Holland in the twilight. I knew I was safely hidden from houses and the road. The grassy glade I’d pushed my bike into was ringed by trees and overlooked the Rhine. No one, I reckoned, would come walking this far into the park after dark. So what felt so wrong?
Wild camping lore says you shouldn’t put your tent up before nightfall, but I wanted to loft out my sleeping bag and eat the asparagus I’d pretentiously bungeed to my back rack earlier in the day, so I squashed my instincts and set about unpacking. My tent was up and staked down when a pair of headlights suddenly illuminated the fast-darkening wood, coming fast towards me. A man on a quad bike, with a small child on the back. I waved my bunch of asparagus as a gesture of peace and asked “do you own this land?”, as if the Baron of Hartenstein and his heir might usually ride around on a quad bike surveying their lands by night.
They came to a stop next to me. “Where are you from?” “London,” I explained, over-gesturing to make up for my complete lack of knowledge of Dutch. “I’m from Birmingham.” I lowered my asparagus. “Oh, great. Do you think I’m ok to camp here? I don’t think it’s allowed but it’s getting really late…” “You’ll be fine. You’ve picked a good spot.” He hesitated. “You might get some strange looks from dog walkers, but everyone is really friendly. Have you got enough supplies?” I raised the asparagus. “Ok. Well, have a good night.” The bike roared off into the gloom and, placated by the blessing of a man from Birmingham, I went back to hacking at the asparagus with a Scout knife that had probably hoped to acheive much more in its career.
I looked up when I saw – rather, sensed – two men striding quickly towards me out of the darkness. I snapped the Scout knife shut and – unconscioulsy, reflexively – held it in the palm of my hand. They came to a stop beside my tent and, after an angry pause, asked for ID. I wondered if a passport would be alright and, as I dug it out of my handlebar bag and handed it over, the first man produced a thin plastic card and held it up into the beam of my headtorch.
“I’m a special officer from the Dutch police,” he said.
My reckless disregard of everything I knew about wild camping had probably sprung from my overwhelming success the night before. I’d ridden away from my pole camping haven, along the Lek towards Germany, into a headwind of such force that every new gust found me shouting “WOULD YOU PLEASE SHUT UP” at the empty road. I made painfully slow progress: the 42km ride, through pretty farming villages and along the exposed flood wall and past mighty sluice gates, took me all day.
Eventually I arrived at the spot I’d scoped out the morning before, the riverside of a wood-fringed meadow that ran alongside the road. I’d had to figure my way through two gates to get there – I was, without a doubt, trespassing – which was challenge enough, given that up to that point the only gates I was really familiar with were the kind you usually tap an Oyster card onto.
But it was worth it. I put my tent up in a hollow created by two, low hanging hawthorns and threw myself down in the meadow. All I could hear was the noise of the Lek lapping hungrily at the shore every time a boat went past, and snatches of chatter from cyclists on the trail behind me. I slept in until about 11am, amazed to have been able to wild camp my way out of the sleep debt I’d been carrying since London and its goodbye parties. The next morning the muscles in my back – forced to adapt to sitting up straight from years bent over a computer keyboard – were spasming gently in annoyance, so I took the ride slowly, pottering around the beautiful Medieval town of Wijk bij Duurstede until its museum opened.
Leaving by the world’s only drive through windmill, I meandered through forests – still against the wind – towards Arnhem, and the national park where I found myself squaring off against the Dutch police.
Back in the forest I had frozen. “Ah,” I said. My brain, which was still 85% preoccupied with whether or not I could use my bungee net to steam asparagus, proffered nothing except my usual fallback of explaining I was a travel writer and perhaps they would like a positive review in the English press of their excellent forest patrol skills. Instead, I said: “Am I not supposed to be here?” “No.” The officer put his ID away. “If we find you, we fine you 140 Euro. You have to go somewhere else.” Well, I didn’t have 140 Euro anyway, so I folded my arms. “Where else? It’s almost dark.”
He seemed taken aback. “There’s a campsite near here. Oosterbeeck.” “Is it open?” “I think so,” he looked worried. “I will check on my phone.” I began, forlornly, to wrap my asparagus back up, cheered slightly by the fact that a problem shared is a problem halved and I was definitely now his problem. “It is open! Here, 2.5km away,” he showed me on Google Maps. Outmanouvered, I started to pack away my tent and, as I did so, the officer descended into a sort of grim melancholy. “It is not safe, it is not allowed to camp here, but now I am the bad man,” he said, sadly to himself, as he and his companion walked away down the trail. I finished strapping everything onto the bike and turned on my lights, which wavered enthusiastically in the dim light, then rode sleepily downhill towards the banks of the river. I rolled into the campsite as darkness finally stretched completely out over the flood plains and fields, reassembled my mangled tent between a campervan and a picnic bench and rolled inside. After two nights of peace the music and noise and voices rolling out of the campervans and tents around me kept me awake, as I stared at the ceiling and wondered if, after all that, I’d remembered to pick up the asparagus.