Scrabbling through loose coils of rope at the right end of our bivouac ledge we discovered a black scorpion, sinister looking, its tail curled round it’s needle point sting. At the left we found inch-long bullet ants – the world’s most venomous ant where a single sting is said to be like being shot. Given the ‘interesting’ variety of bedfellows the choice of a place to lay your head simply had to be driven by other things – space, flatness and the nightmare possibility of rolling off the ledge to hang abruptly from rope and harness hundreds of meters above the rain-forest canopy in a sleeping bag. Fighting to regain your perch like some panic stricken chicken rather than bursting free like a butterfly is not conducive to a return to slumber.
This particular expedition into the wild lands of Venezuela led me to think of a series of places we as adventurers find chances to rest and just occasionally grab forty winks.
My body certainly needs sleep to heal the damage of the day whether it means lying down in a hole dug into an icy drift on the edge of a storm-blown icecap or a ‘bed’ slung from some enormous precipice in the form of a porta-ledge or indeed on an invertebrate infested terrace. Given enough physical and mental stress in a full day’s adventuring we simply must grow accustomed to grabbing forty winks where we can – although never while on polar-bear watch. The duty to remain vigilant against one of the world’s top predators is paramount. The art of sleep in these far-flung corners lies in learning to find small comfort where memory foam is just that – something that has to be dragged through wishful thinking from the depths of a distant world of coiled springs and central heating.
Towards the end of bear watch, having stamped round the cluster of tents standing resolute in the Arctic blizzards, it’s hard not to look forward to bed. My secret weapon, to compliment my oversized down sleeping bag, is a 2mm layer of closed-foam, extending way beyond shoulder width and body length. In addition to a sleeping mat and lightweight expedition thermarest it is the ideal combo. I learnt the hard way having spent weeks camping on ice with a single layer between my body and the bone-cracking cold. With a 3 layer system you just have it covered with no cold spots or dampness and if the air-sprung bit of your cold weather bed develops a puncture then no real problem. Being solely reliant on an uber thick pump action mattress is like putting all your chicken eggs in one basket. Finally, for the full effect just cosy up to a one litre Nalgene bottle of hot water.
Rain-forest camping is altogether different. Here a ‘bottom-entry’ hammock with a built in mozzy net, internal storage and a generous tarpaulin fly-sheet to protect against the hammering downpours is de rigeur. Bottom entry works to avoid that comedic twirling action where you launch yourself into the hammock only to have the momentum spin you off the other side onto the leaf litter. Parking boots upside down on sticks and placing a ‘door-mat’, either your rucksack or a small rectangle of foam, underneath adds the finishing touch.
When it comes to getting up after an airy, comfortable night’s sleep listening to the sounds of the jungle simply split the Velcro slot, poke legs through hole, inspect mat and your boots for critters and head out for another sweaty day of exploration.
Finally, for a tropical bivouac beneath the wing of a crashed aeroplane I sought shelter in a hooped pop-up mozzy tent. For additional protection a lightweight tarp chucked over and pegged into position adds confidence just in case jet-wash style evening rainstorms gush between the spars. Others might like to hang their hammocks in the remains of the fuselage.
Being expedition fit is about many things. Maintaining energy, strength and balance are big parts of an even bigger tool-box necessary to maintain the momentum of a trip’s objective. Sleep is a vital component and with the possibility of a month’s worth of deprivation in all areas of ‘life’ I always aim for comfort although some might argue albeit with a minimal approach. In the words of Paul Young (for those who are old enough to remember) ‘Where ever I lay my hat that’s my home’ maybe there’s an element of truth in them but maybe where ever I put my water-bottle, that’s my pillow.