Try out safari-style ‘air-camping’ in Sussex for your staycation this year


WITH domestic holidays looking good for this summer, why not elevate your tent experience with a spot of Italian-style “air camping”?

From my lofty perch in my rented roof tent — attached to the top of my Mazda Bongo and complete with access ladder — I sweep my binoculars over the plain before me in search of the great migration.

Roof-tent camping is about to take off after lockdown

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Roof-tent camping is about to take off after lockdown

No, not the wildebeest and zebra of Tanzania’s Serengeti game reserve but the common or garden sheep that migrate in their thousands across the South Downs each spring.

Now that lockdown restrictions have been relaxed and we’re allowed to camp overnight — but only if there are private toilet and washing facilities — in my desperate need to escape, I had suggested roof-tent camping to the family.

“Camping? In April? You must be mad,” scoffed two of my three children, barely looking up from the latest Netflix epic. 

Thankfully, Lola, my more adventurous offspring, and Miss Babs the dog, both agreed to come and try the roof tent lark with me.

Old world charming Gribble Inn is a seven-minute walk from the camping field

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Old world charming Gribble Inn is a seven-minute walk from the camping field

Roof tents look set to be campers’ must-have in this summer of lockdown easing. First patented in Italy in 1958, they have since become go-to kit for adventurous campers from Germany to the wilds of Africa, especially popular on self-drive safari scene. 

And you don’t need a fancy, top-of-the range off-road vehicle — the sturdy tents can be fitted to almost any car from a Porsche 911 to my 17-year-old Bongo. 

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We’ve chosen a Jimba Jimba tent, a spacious two-person design by Australian brand Sheepie which opens up like a pram canopy and has a built-in mattress and a collapsible ladder.

We’ve hired it from Rooftent Utopia, a family-run company which sells roof tents from their base in Tangmere, near Chichester. “We’ve seen a massive rise in enquiries for roof tents over the last six months,” says Simon Towler, who also renovates motorhomes and caravans from his workshop in Tangmere, which now has a campsite attached. 

The sturdy tents can be fitted to almost any car

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The sturdy tents can be fitted to almost any car

Simon sells and hires out several types of roof tent. Some have hard shells which pop open like a concertina, while others fold out on to stilts to make a cabin double the size of the car, which can sleep up to five.

Once our tent is installed on the roof bars of the Bongo, I drive out to the camping field and park up overlooking the Downs. 

It can take hours, and much swearing, to erect a conventional tent, but with the pull of a release tape, the roof tent opens in seconds. 

FRISBEE AND CAMPFIRES

All that’s left for me to do is crack open a beer and prevent Miss Babs from chasing bunnies.

It’s a perfect spring day in West Sussex — blue skies and glorious sunshine — and now the pub gardens are open it’s ideal for camping.

A lifelong fan, I’ve spent many a halcyon weekend sleeping in a field with a bunch of friends, hustling frisbee tournaments and drinking warm beer around the campfire. 

And after many a month under house arrest during the pandemic, I’m looking forward to having my own private hideyhole, even if I do have to share it with my teenager Lola and the dog. 

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 “It’s like a treehouse,” says Lola, as she climbs the ladder for her first peek inside our home for the night. 

And a seven-minute walk from the camping field is the Gribble Inn, a pub and microbrewery set in a beautiful 16th-century thatched cottage. With it now open for al-fresco dining and drinks, I enjoy my first pint of the year along with some excellent haddock and chips. 

Wandering happily back to camp, we spend the rest of the evening toasting marshmallows on the campfire, gazing at the stars which dust the South Downs.

As bed beckons, we climb the ladder to our camp in the clouds, hunker down and doze off to the hoots of owls — and the snore of a happy dog. 

In the morning, I momentarily forget that we’re seven feet off the ground and squeal as I navigate the ladder down to terra firma. 

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But after cooking up some camp coffee, I climb back up to my perch, a.k.a. the penthouse suite of the camping world — and wait once more for the wildlife to pass by.

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