Some places are better than others to find out you’re not one for camping. For me, it was at a rudimentary outpost on the first night of a five-day trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro. Climbing Africa’s tallest peak was one of the myriad clichés on the bucket list this man drew up on reaching middle age – the others included acquiring a pushbike, using the phrase ‘craft beer’ in public and, um, writing a bucket list.
I had been seconded to provide media coverage of the trek being undertaken by Canteen, a charity that helps teens battling cancer and their families. As such, all our gear had been provided by various companies whose usual clientele consisted of ruddy-faced types who counted orienteering among their hobbies and could MacGyver rudimentary instruments out of twigs, gum and wallaby spit. It went without saying, at least to me, that everyone knew you didn’t roll your sleeping bag into its tiny sausage-shaped cover come daybreak. You punched it in like James Packer greeting a lifelong pal.
Having thus delayed my colleagues – many of whom did little to disguise the concerned glances they swapped – we embarked up the trail where further embarrassments awaited.
Bear in mind this trek was middle-class adventure lite. Our heavy backpacks were carried by relentlessly cheerful porters, while we were encumbered by mere daypacks. Tents were erected before we arrived at camp and hot food awaited.
At day’s end beneath a sky of velvet sapphire, surrounded by a bunch of teenagers who were dragging their chemo-ravaged bodies to inspiring heights, it became clear that I am a staggeringly shallow traveller. While others spoke of fate’s cruelty and the simple pleasures of a hot cup of tea on a chilly African night, all I was thinking was, “I could seriously go a day spa.” As glib, vapid and vacuous as I know it is, my thoughts were less about mortality than massage.
Call me crazy, but stumbling out of both the earshot of my cohorts and my tent in the pitch black of the pre-dawn to pee against a rock didn’t make me feel more alive. The howling winds that buffeted my tent did nothing to connect me with the elemental oneness of nature and, in fact, was more akin to being caught in the lungs of an asthmatic giant. Oh, and did I mention the airborne funk that emanates from a group of climbers who hadn’t seen a shower in a week? Eau de parfum it ain’t.
I even tried to play it off against the fact I am Jewish – “after 40 years in the desert, we’re done with roughing it” – but it sounded as hollow then as it does now.
Was I that much of a sybarite that I would rather have anodyne creature comforts over an experience that was literally grounded in primeval mysticism? Apparently, yes, I would.
Long story short: we reached the summit on a sun-burnished dawn where it felt like the world was laid out before us. I would have preferred an Egyptian cotton bathrobe.
Any suspicions I was not among my people were underlined when we returned to high camp. Which one would think was the perfect locale for Donna Summer, drag queens and glitter jokes. It was not. It was so not.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t swap the experience for all the ylang-ylang and seaweed wraps in the world, but there’s no way there’s going to be a repeat on the Matterhorn or Everest.
The clothing has been donated to types who view polar fleece as a fashionista does cashmere, the sleeping bag was dispatched to Vinnies and my wife uses the padded ground sheet as a yoga mat.
I’m not saying I will never worship at the alter of the Great Outdoors again. Far from it. I just want the experience to be followed by a turndown service and perhaps a pillow menu.
And don’t get me started on the whole ‘glamping’ business. Like anything where two separate entities are mashed together – Kimye, ‘mumtrepreneur’, fusion food – both suffer as a result.
By all means, bake your campfire damper, lie on lumps in the ground until sunrise and get your ‘Kumbaya’ on. But if you’re paying the same amount for a safari-style tent with a mosquito net as you are for a room with comped wi-fi and a spa bath, the hoteliers saw you and your quinoa-powered nouveau hippie mores coming a mile off.
David Smiedt is a Sydney-based comedian and writer. He has opened for Joan Rivers, blogs about men’s grooming and is not planning his next camping trip.