Monday, 21 January 2013


   Being as it’s the summer holiday season when people like to get away, and we recently spent a few nights at Toora in Gippland, let me say a bit about camping.  It will possibly sound pedantic, and present what is undoubtedly an outmoded point of view.

   My views on camping are coloured by my earliest experiences.  The first encounter with a tent that I recall was on a trip with my parents and brothers to Normanville, south of Adelaide.  The tent was khaki canvas, of the Army type, almost a cube in shape but with a pyramid hip roof, held up with internal wooden poles and external guy ropes.  It had no floor and no zips - the vertical corners and door flaps were fastened with ties.  We may have been in a camping ground, but if so, were on the periphery away from everybody, just back from the beach with a high sandhill behind.  It was very peaceful, at the height of the Christmas holidays.

   Another adventure I recall was when John, Peter and I rode our bikes from Glengowrie to Brown Hill Creek in the Adelaide foothills and camped overnight.  The only "camping" equipment we carried (as I recall it) were a torch and a couple of waterproof army ponchos.  The latter had buttoned collars and somehow two of them could be buttoned together to make a rudimentary tent assisted by a couple of saplings and string.  The ridge was about a metre from the ground, with just enough room for two men to crawl under and stay dry.  There were no other people around; we chose a paddock near the creek to spend the night and were woken by huge cows blowing clouds of vapour and shuffling around the "tent" which only came up to their knees!

   A element essential to camping which is present in these early experiences is connection to the ground.  Perhaps not literally, as in feeling the rocks beneath a hip when trying to sleep, but at least the ability to remember later what the ground was like.  I can still recall that at Normanville the tent floor was coarse grass which produced a cloud of sand flies when disturbed.  Although we stayed in a caravan park at Toora recently, and slept on camp stretchers rather than the ground, I can easily recall the topography of the land where we banged in tent pegs, and the bare ground in the vestibule of the tent.  It seems to me that driving a motorhome from one park to the next without much to differentiate the sites, is not "camping", and stepping up onto the same patch of lino in a van at different sites takes away much of the awareness of the locality.

   Another essential element is the contrast between normal life at home and camping.  My early experiences had no "mod cons" - in fact, no electrical appliances.  The unique experience of camping is spoiled even with a radio.  Nothing would be more mundane than to be listening to the same old "breakfast" radio or talkback radio at a campsite.  Everyone is different of course, and few nowadays have had formative camping experiences like in the 1950s when radios suitable for a campsite were rare!  Live music around a campfire was  more likely the preferred entertainment.  In the 1960s many caravan parks during the summer provided just such evening entertainment.  Nowadays, every caravan seems to have a TV set and the poor sods in the tent next door have to listen as well.  Not to mention campers who need to leave the car doors open so everyone can hear music from the door speakers.

   A worthwhile experience afforded by camping is to enjoy the night sky and the noises of the bush.  Night vision is almost impossible to develop at other times.  Even with no moon, on a clear night it is possible to walk quietly in the bush and enjoy the serenity, or sit around the camp and watch the stars.  A kerosene lamp is ample light for any activity except perhaps prolonged reading which might be left until daylight hours.  This can all be completely spoiled by neighbouring campers equipped with everything that opens and shuts available from the camping chain store, including gas powered mantle lamps (which hiss loudly) or fluorescent lights without shades, illuminating a much larger area than required.  Try walking a hundred metres back to a campsite directly towards one of these lights - you'll trip over everything!

   There is much to be said for camping without a car, as in our trip to Brown Hill Creek, because equipment is necessarily limited, enhancing the contrast with normal life.  The only time I have combined hiking with camping, all gear in a backpack, was during a ten-day walk in the Flinders Ranges with a group of friends.  We didn't see any vehicle for ten days.  We had no tents and slept on the ground, usually a sandy creekbed.  The most sophisticated equipment would have been a torch.  We carried all our food and water, as well as musical instruments and reading material!  The best camping is in national parks or other public land where camping is not restricted to conventional camping areas.  Perhaps there are not many such places left, except in remote areas like we experienced in the Northern Territory.  Another advantage of northern climes is that it's often possible to predict successfully that it won't rain, making tents unnecessary and sleeping under the stars possible.

   Something I've noticed in recent years is that even remote campsites are being equipped with "ablution blocks".  Nothing wrong with a good pit dunny to save having to dig a hole, but I'm perplexed that people feel the need to have a shower when camping.  It's common now to see a huge big expensive rig drive into a campsite, the owners fiddle with chocks and blocks and drain buckets for a while, and then head off to the showers with towel draped on one shoulder, this being a priority after setting up "camp".  On the Flinders hiking trip, when we carried our drinking and cooking water, it would have been laughable to use much for washing.  It used to be that one of the pleasures of camping was not to shower but to become increasingly grotty and smelling of smoke from the campfire, and then have the much-anticipated privilege of a shower after arriving home.  Again, there is the contrast between camp life and home life. 

   In 2005, on the way from Alice Springs to Brisbane,  I drove south from Camooweal to the Caves NP on the Georgina River.  The road in was rough, with deep mud ruts and washaways, not really suitable for the Honda, but I was pleased to make the effort and really expected to see no-one else at the destination, being so remote.  However, the camp area by the river was occupied by four or five other groups, all with 4-wheel drives and off-road campervans except for one motorhome.  Mine was the only sedan and only tent (which I didn't need to erect).  There was at least one generator operating and there could have been more blending in.  Most vans had satellite TV dishes.  There was music playing and a couple of dogs barking at different times.  One van had an external electric light that burned all night to light the van steps.  In short, this was a beautiful, remote part of Australia spoiled by inappropriate "camping" of people who wanted to bring the city with them.

   Over time camping has been transformed.  A typical caravan park used to have as many unpowered tent sites as it did van sites with power.  Now many of the tent sites have been replaced with on-site vans, most with "en-suite" toilet and shower facilities that avoid the need to use the communal ones.  Most caravans now include toilet and shower for the same reason, as well as TV, air conditioning, and most electrical appliances that are used at home, including internet access devices.  The latest trends are to carry a generator in the van so that these appliances can be used always and anywhere, and to have a laundry on board to keep clothes clean.  Heaven forbid that travellers might go to a laundromat and meet people!  However, now I'm confusing touring with camping.  We used to have camping clothes that were only cleaned after the event.

   I suppose the point I try to make here is that the way to get the most out of camping is to make it contrast as much as possible with normal life at home.  This will vary for different people, times and localities.  For me it means roughing it in a remote location away from other "campers", so that a week away seems like a month, "mod cons" are left at home so they can be savoured all the more upon return, and unique memories are burnt into the brain, never to be forgotten.

   This has not turned out at all as I expected.  Maybe some revision at a later date.  Did I mention that on the Toora trip my e-reader was not left at home? Must be getting old and perverse.


  1. I'm with you. You make many good points, but the one that I think sums it up is that it makes a week holiday feel like a month! I think some people secretly (others not so secretly) dislike holidays. There is a lot of pressure these days to take them though, possibly responsible for the increasing number of homes away from home?
    Anyway, you have some nice camping memories (me too, thanks for those!).

    1. Thanks, Helm.
      Reading again six months later, I think the point I most wanted to make is that camping needs to contrast as much as possible with normal daily life, and that's become harder except in very remote places.