Sleeping on a beach is a dose of freedom to keep the spirit of travel alive in anyone. Until they get stranded with tetanus.
Like any proud road junky I get on the bus along the southern coast of Sardinia without a guidebook and trust to my senses to steer me in the right direction. I watch the three American girls on vacation get down at the beach of Chia and keep my seat, knowing that the best things come to those who wait. The hills pass on either side, covered in small orange and green shrubs and then a barbed wire fence along one side of the road marks a military zone, at the end of which is the town of Santa Alesi, the end of the line.
Feeling none too inspired I get down and within 30 seconds two youths threaten me in an Italian which is too fast for me to understand but their body language tells the whole story. Fuck this, I’m going back to the beach that the guidebook probably recommended.
The American girls aren’t in sight when the bus takes me back and I walk past a lake with flamingos perched on pink legs, their feathers turning from white to pink as they age. Something to do with what they eat. I walk past the NO CAMPING signs and find a beautiful sandy beach with translucent water awaiting me, Mediterranean waves arriving gently on the shore. Something deep inside me relaxes after the stress of the bus journey and I’m in enough of a good mood that even the sight of a couple of hot Italian girls in bikinis – but in someone else’s arms – doesn’t bother me in the least. I’m here to be a beach bum on my own.
I pull out a knife and hack away at some bread, cheese and tomatoes, taking bites of smoked salami sausage, the smell of which would guarantee my solitude even if there was the chance of some female company. The sun is strong, even in May and I soon pass out in the heat, propped up against my rucksack. By the time I wake up, the beach is partly in shade and everyone is packing up their towels to go home.
I can’t wait for them to leave.
The last couple heads off and I dance a gleeful little jig of inheriting one of the finest beaches in the world all for my own for at least the next 12 hours. The water turns velvet blue and I pull out my guitar to sing a few songs to Neptune or whoever else might be listening. It’s too early in the summer for the water to be warm enough for swimming but I couldn’t be happier, singing old jazz ditties and walking up and down the sands like I owned the place.
A spot of meditation, a few chapters from the book I’m reading and it’s suddenly too dark to make out the print and I wonder whether my sleeping bag will keep me warm tonight. I put on two pairs of socks, trousers and shirts and my jacket, just to be sure and stretch out my yoga mat on the sand to keep the moisture at bay. I light a little candle to give me enough light to write some notes for a children’s story I have in mind and the stars take up their positions without a word.
By the time I do drift off it’s cold enough that I have to totally cover my head with my shawl and I immediately get the sense that someone could sneak up on me and smother me to death in my own sleeping bag. When I weigh the fear and paranoia that Hollywood has given me alongside the laughs and the excitement, it’s a close call.
I jump up a few times during the night with a sharp intake of breath as a mischievous arriving wave impersonates a drunken yell, and then lie back to look at the stars and realise how ignorant I am. Humanity’s most ancient map lies forgotten, nameless above me, the sacred constellations scattered in oblivion against the fabric of the night, meaningless for almost all of us in the modern world. Then again, it’s great to know there’s more to learn and I drift off back to sleep, content in the knowledge that I’m a rather small creature after all.
I awake to a chill breeze swirling in through a gap in my shawl and lifting my head I see the first blush of the Eastern sky. Fatigue calls me back to my bed but I give it the finger and climb out of my sleeping bag and up the rocks that are sure to give me a good view of the dawn. The beach is still empty and I marvel at what a rare pleasure it is to sleep on the edge of the earth. I spent a season sleeping on the beach in Goa years ago but since then I can count the occasions on the fingers of my hands.
The sun throws a toe over the horizon and clambers quickly up, a dusky yellow even at this low height and the first chinks of golden light are sent skipping over the waves, looking for all the world like fish that have come to feed on the sun’s rays. I swallow the light down as per an old Ci Kung exercise I once read and which I pretend to believe in for the fun of it.
By the time the first sun-worshippers turn up I’ve done my yoga and meditation and I’m feeling ready to take on the world. Shouldering my rucksack and guitar, I munch some nuts and dates and march back past the flamingos into the hills. I ask for some water at a Sardinian home and the old woman looks at me like I’m an alien but nods towards the garden tap. While I fill my bottles the neighbours come to peer at the long-haired foreigner who marches around alone with his home on his back. As they wave me goodbye I’m happy to have given them their first gossip of the morning.
A few hills later and I see they’re busy constructing more houses in the valley and as I’m in no mood for the sound of cranes and machinery, I take what looks to be a path alongside a fence of another slope. It takes me up and up until there’s no way forwards with impenetrable shrubbery ahead but someone has already thought of this and provided a shaky ladder on each side of the 10ft high fence. It’s an acrobatic act with 15 kilos on my back but I’m over and on my way easily enough. The trail soon stops at another fence however and while there’s another ladder there it seems to lead nowhere at all by the look of the dense bushes on the other side.
There’s no way I’m going back so I descend the hill, hoping to rejoin with the main path of the valley, a few hundred metres below. I skid down for five minutes before a menacing barbed wire fence blocks my way and I’m forced to rethink. I can see the farmer’s house and a field of grapevines back a ways to my left but I don’t really feel like explaining what I’m doing here and I just want to avoid human contact altogether for now. My instincts are confirmed by the bark of a distant dog – how many dogs have barked at me in my life? Why do farmers have to make nature so complicated by nurturing such needlessly aggressive, paranoid creatures and by planting barbed wire fences all over the place?
It’s hot and I can feel my nose turning red but I realise my arms are stinging more from the scratches of the bushes as I try to find an alternative way down. The undergrowth gets so thick that I have to use my guitar to push the shrubs aside and lever myself down one step at a time. It gets so that I’m no longer stepping on the ground but on springy branches and I feel like I’ve enrolled myself in a bizarre rural circus.
I get within inches of the field I’m aiming for that will take me back down to the path and I see it’s blocked by as nasty a barbed wire fence as any I’ve seen today. One top layer and three spiny lines at testicle-height confirm that these farmers are sadistic as well as paranoid. I’m done with fighting my way through bushes though so I pitch my rucksack and guitar over and try to squeeze a tentative leg through but I can’t reach the ground and so come back. As the sun sends sweat running down my forehead I realise I’ve made a tactical mistake as my water is in the rucksack and now unreachable.
I check for 50 metres in each direction but the fence gets worse if anything with an extra layer of shiny barbs laid on to complement their rusty companions and I wonder why the farmer was so anxious to fence off this bit of land. No other creature would be dumb enough to try the path I’ve just walked, surely.
Now if I hack my way through half a kilometre of bushes up to the farmhouse I’m going to have to explain myself and that I left my bags on the other side of the fence halfway down the meadow. The mother of invention stirs me into action and I spend a good 20 minutes pulling muscles in my stomach by moving gigantic rocks around. My idea is to make a launch pad from which I can gracefully skip the barrier and land on the other side for a perfect ten. But by the time I’ve raised the platform about a foot the fence still looks ominously tall. I try a practice jump but the rocks beneath my feet start to wobble and I chicken out.
I’m about to despair but then I notice that one of the middle sections of the fence is only attached by a crude wire knot which I waste no time in untying. Now it takes me two minutes to get through as I disentangle loose locks of hair but I’m home free and it’s an easy walk down to the main path. A few hundred yards up the hill I find a meadow of flowers to make lunch and snooze in and life is once more good.
The village at the end of the trail is as dead as can be and once again I notice that the most prominent feature in any Sardinian town is the funeral parlour as the young have all disappeared to study or work in mainland Italy. I’m not looking for action though and all I can think of is another pleasant night on my beach.
A farmer gives me a lift down and I find an even more beautiful beach than the night before, if possible and I lay down my sleeping things as the sky over the hills tosses up a few pink strands of the sunset. A walk up and down the dunes leading up to the beach and I couldn’t feel better. The last people have left the beach and darkness is falling rapidly when I notice that a spot on my lip is hurting a little. Probably the heat. I take my Chinese medicine and brush my teeth and then realise I’ve lost feeling in part of my mouth.
Alarmed, I spit out the toothpaste and apply a finger and discover my bottom lip has swelled up to the size of a small coin in the course of 5 minutes. The barbed wire fence. Tetanus. Otherwise known as lock-jaw. I grab my torch and shine it at my hands and, sure enough, there are a couple of minor cuts. Fuck.
Now, I don’t know the precise symptoms of tetanus or what lock-jaw actually is but my imagination certainly has enough to to be going on with. Tom lost the ability to talk in a bizarre walking accident in Sardinia, I believe, but you know, his writing really improved as a result.
There’s no one left on the beach and the nearest road is 15 minutes walk away. But if I wait maybe my hand or leg will start swelling up so that I can’t walk or maybe I’ll just fall unconscious. On the other hand, even if I do go and bang on the door of a tourist’s lodge in panic, I’ll feel a bit foolish calling out an ambulance for a swollen lip.
I remember a friend who got a tiny cut on his leg in a festival in Israel from carrying wood. His thigh swelled up and he spent a week on the antibiotic drip in hospital as the doctors tried to work out which exotic strain of bacteria he was under attack from.
Fuck this, I just want to spend the night on my beach.
I leave my things all packed so I can make a run for it if need be and concentrate on white, bright light filling my body with healing, healing rays. For about three seconds anyway and I start to feel vaguely ridiculous.
It occurs to me that I might as well wait inside my sleeping bag for things to get worse rather than shiver in the cold. A while after that I decide that my immune system is probably much stronger when I’m asleep anyhow.
I awake in the morning, a light blue sky extinguishing the stars one by one and my body is tense and stiff in my sleeping bag, more from fear than cold. My hand rushes to my mouth – the swelling is gone and I celebrate with the last of my dates and bread in the morning sun.
The odd bout of hysteria is a small price to pay for freedom.