I’ve slept with six snoring reindeer herders: Susan de Muth in bed with Christina Dodwell
SUSAN DE MUTH
Christina Dodwell, 43, has been travelling for the past 20 years. She writes books and makes radio programmes about her voyages. She is based in London, but is now somewhere in Madagascar.
WHEN I start dreaming that I’m riding an elephant through the Milky Way, I know my subconscious is kicking me back into action: it’s time to pack a rucksack and flick through my atlas, trying not to have any preconceptions about where to go.
Travel is a wonderful emptiness just waiting to be filled, and I love not knowing what will happen next. I never know where I’m going to sleep at night: the art of travelling is being able to sleep anywhere, at any time, and to stay that way. Improvisation is all – any fool can be uncomfortable.
I often camp out but never use a tent. It’s too conspicuous to loiterers and the curious. But most of all, I don’t want to be cut off from the night. I put my sleeping bag on piles of dried grass, on top of springy bushes, on the ‘hot rocks’ after my fire dies down – whatever I can find – and sleep with the sky above me. In lion country, I suspend my hammock between two trees, and wake with a ripe mango or avocado within arm’s reach for breakfast.
Night is very much for sleeping because, when I’m travelling, I get so tired – but every so often there is a spectacular exception.
Once I was on horseback in South Africa, and the moonlight was so incredibly bright that I just kept riding over these silver hills, through a landscape transformed into a black-and-white negative. And how could I merely sleep in the desert when, lying on top of a sand dune, I could see the galaxies moving and count shooting stars?
When I embarked on my first journey – it lasted three years – I still had my childhood fear of the dark. Then one night by the Congo river, my camp was attacked by bandits. As I waded through pitch-black, crocodile-
infested waters to save my canoe from their clutches, I suddenly realised I wasn’t scared any more. There simply wasn’t time.
I refined my ‘tested exits from tight corners’ in Iran. If you deal with uninvited nocturnal visitors calmly, they’ll often give up any dastardly intentions and say: ‘Would you like to visit our village in the morning?’ Sometimes they’re just curious and wake you to have a look at you.
Nevertheless, in my experience all the worst things do happen at night. In Kenya, I was sitting by my camp fire when I was bitten by a spider. Within half an hour I was completely paralysed. Involuntary muscular spasms shot the poison up and down my spine – it was mind-blowingly painful.
I thought I might die and that this night would never end. When dawn finally came, it was extraordinarily beautiful . . . and it brought redemption in the form of some tribesmen who watched over me for the next 10 days until I could move again.
I love solitude, with nothing to remind me of humanness for days on end, associating only with the weather and the earth. I often indulge this antisocial streak, yet have also enjoyed the enormous hospitality of people around the world.
Last year in Kamchatka (east of Siberia) I joined up with a group of reindeer herders for a month. It was minus 40C and I was glad to sleep in a tent, huddled up with six men, listening to six varying snores.
Unwelcome sexual advances have been rare. People in the developing countries tend to accord me the privileges and respect due to a male because I am doing what their women cannot do. It was out of consideration rather than lechery that some young men in Papua New Guinea once politely said to me: ‘We hear you’re alone and travelling a long way. Would you like some sex?’ I asked them for directions instead, and no one was offended.
I finally got married three years ago – to an Englishman. It’s hard for Stephen when I travel, but he knew I wasn’t going to sit in the kitchen studying new recipes. Of course, I miss him when I’m away – especially at night – but I wouldn’t want to take him with me. I need to rely on my own inner resources, otherwise it’s a completely different experience.
I feel at home wherever I am in the world – security has nothing to do with walls and houses, it is inside you. But I do love opening my own front door when I return, and knowing that I’ve got a bed to sleep in . . . though I’m still not quite used to always finding someone in it.
Christina Dodwell’s latest book, ‘Beyond Siberia’, is available in paperback from Sceptre, price pounds 6.99.