I’ve done lots of mad things on my travels, from having a dinner party on Mount Everest to living off piranhas in the jungles of Guyana – I feel this is another surreal moment to add to the list: camping in a stranger’s garden during a global pandemic.
A little guilt sets in as my friend Marjolein and I push our tent pegs into the couple’s pristine, carpet-like lawn so we use only four to reduce the damage.
There is still daylight, thankfully, with a beautiful sunset cascading over a rustic stone garden wall. The fragrance of lilies and lavender wafts over, carried by a gentle if slightly nippy breeze.
“Are you guys OK there?” the homeowner asks as he comes out to lock up for the night with an inquisitive spaniel in tow. His wife also comes out to join him in her dressing gown, checking what the two backpackers are up to in her back garden. We tell them we’re very well and thank them again for their hospitality.
We still can’t get over our luck.
The man tells us to close the side gate behind us if we venture out, so the dog doesn’t escape, but other than that we’re free to “treat the garden as our own”.
Of course, unlike formal campsites, there are no bathroom facilities – without imposing on our hosts further – so before bed, I head out to find somewhere to use the toilet and brush my teeth. Luckily, I find a restaurant still open next to the local football stadium. The hostess says it’s fine to use the facilities but I get some funny looks from diners as I enter the swish establishment in my muddy hiking shoes and down jacket.
We hadn’t planned on camping in a stranger’s garden, but such is life – and travel plans – in the pandemic era.
We’d gone away on a girls’ camping trip for the weekend – rollerblading through Liechtenstein and hiking in Austria – while the borders were still open. Earlier in the day, we’d visited Germany’s Black Forest to see the autumnal leaves shimmer like traffic light-coloured confetti.
But on our way back home to Utrecht in the Netherlands, we hit a snag in the rural municipality of Reilingen, where we’d planned to stay over at one of the numerous campgrounds signposted on the map.
Tired from our journey and ready to bed down for the night, we arrived at our top pick – located by a lake – only to be told by the man at the front desk (through a mask and Perspex screen) that the camping season was over and only motorhomes were allowed.
He informed us that the other campsites in the area had also closed and advised us to find a hotel. But most of these, too, were closed due to Covid, and the one place I found that was still open was well out of our modest price range.
Feeling disheartened, we left the campsite. Not long afterwards, I had my slightly mad but possibly brilliant idea: we could camp in someone’s garden! We parked our car on a quiet street and plucked up the courage to call on a modern-looking house. I spied a large, unkempt garden, just perfect for pitching up in.
As we sidled up to the house, a man walked into the garden and we accosted him through a thick metal gate. “I know this is very random,” I started my sales pitch, before briefly explaining our predicament. “We just wondered if we might be able to camp in your garden and leave early in the morning?”
He looked at us suspiciously and said he had to go and ask his wife. Ten minutes later, the answer wasn’t good. “My wife doesn’t feel comfortable.” Fair enough.
But time was ticking on and we were feeling increasingly desperate. I looked over to one house only to see the curtains being quickly drawn, as if to ward us off. That’s when I spotted a place on the corner of the street, with egg yolk-coloured lights in the window giving off an inviting glow. I rang the bell, a little dog barked, and our saviour greeted us. Just like the first man, he went to check with his wife, but came back with a chuckle and a “yes”.
Marjolein and I were completely overjoyed by this act of kindness, especially during a pandemic that has taught us to be suspicious of our fellow human beings. And it wasn’t the only example of kindness we encountered that weekend.
When we were in Austria, we arrived at a campsite close to the Liechtenstein border. A man came to meet us to give us the keys to the toilet block, which turned out to be a full-on scout hut with a lounge, showers and electric heaters. As we were the only guests, our generous host said we could sleep in there for the night instead for just €10. Bargain!
While hiking the next day, we were running short on time to reach a mountain hut for the night. Lo and behold, two women let us hitchhike part of the journey in the back of their van.
That’s what I’ve always loved about travel: the unexpected twists and turns a trip can take you on, and the human connections you make along the way. It’s important to stay safe and keep your wits about you – but when I’ve needed help, I’ve always been overwhelmed by the response.
We slept very well on the flat lawn, with a good dose of compassion warming us through until a rainy morning wake-up call. I wish I’d taken the address of the couple who let us stay; but if they’re reading this now, just know that small act of kindness had a big impact on two desperate travellers.