The Godfather: Peter Corris on camping
Reading Bill Garner’s excellent history of camping in Australia, Born in a Tent (positively reviewed in the NRB), prompted me to think about his theory that camping has shaped the Australian consciousness, and my own scanty experience of the activity.
My parents were not campers. Although they made fairly frequent trips from Stawell in the Wimmera (where my older sister and I were born) to Melbourne, they did not camp along the way. I remember a ‘bushie’ touch to the journeys – a water bag being cooled by being strapped to the front of the car (and the taste of the water). Perhaps they strung up a tarpaulin for shade during stops. They almost certainly improvised shelter in this way when they spent a day at Lake Lonsdale, but I remember no campfires or billy tea. Tea came in a thermos. The outdoors was not for them.
Nevertheless, like Garner, whose father was a camper and took him out when young, I had a sense that the idea of living outside in a tent or temporary shelter was a good thing. This may have come mostly from my reading of Ion Idriess and Arthur Upfield, but possibly it came also from seeing the gypsies who camped annually in the waste ground around Stony Creek, not far from where we lived in Yarraville.
This sense was indulged only rarely when I was permitted to sleep a night in a tent in a friend’s back yard. Lemonade and biscuits rather than billy tea and chops; the exercise was strictly supervised.
As an adult I’ve only had three experiences of camping out. One, discussed in a previous column, was in 1969 to western New South Wales.
The second was late in 1970 when my then partner and a male friend made a trip from Canberra, where we were all employed by the ANU, to Perth. My partner was born in Western Australia and the idea must have been to visit relatives and see where she’d grown up.
She didn’t drive and I shared the driving with our friend. My recollection is that the road across the Nullarbor was unsealed the whole way, but investigation has told me that there were quite long sealed sections. It didn’t feel like it and the Audi 1500 I had was inappropriate to the rutted corrugated road.
We had jerry cans of fuel and water and a tarpaulin; there were no motels at that time and we slept out at night on the Nullarbor. The days were hot, the nights were cold and we were dew-soaked in the mornings. Should have had a tent. We weren’t used to camping out but we enjoyed the simplicity of it – the small, cautious fire, kerosene lanterns, sleeping bags.
One stop, at a place called Ivy Tanks, was memorable. It had an unsanitary café, abuzz with flies and serving food of suspect provenance. I had shoulder-length hair at the time which had become tangled and, as we were leaving, I pulled out a comb.
‘Don’t comb your hair in the café, mate,’ the none-too-clean proprietor said.
It gave us a laugh for the next 100 kilometres of corrugations.
The return trip was trying because our friend had stayed in Perth and I had to do all the driving myself. I was so tired at the end of the day I hardly remember the nights on the plain. I do remember getting a puncture and finding that the spare was uninflated. It was long before the advent of mobile phones; the road was empty in both directions, there was no habitation in sight and the treeless plain stretched away to the horizon. Within an hour a worker at a station some miles inland from the road came along in a ute. He took the wheel to the station, inflated it and we were on our way.
‘Youse could wait all day and into tomorrow for someone to come along here,’ he said.
My last experience of camping was altogether more comfortable and endorses Garner’s claim that it enables a person to experience the environment in a particular way. With publisher John Kerr I went to Fraser Island in a party organised by John Sinclair, the passionate environmentalist who had saved the island from the sand miners in the days of the benighted Bjelke-Peterson government.
The party toured the island, which Sinclair knew intimately from his boyhood, and camped at night in a number of different camping grounds. Kerr and I put up the tent provided, arranged protection from mozzies and scraped shallow trenches around the tent in case it rained.
Sinclair and his wife prepared the food and we ate at benches with a fire for cooking and making tea and coffee. The meals were washed down with slugs of cask wine. My purpose was to co-write Sinclair’s autobiography, which appeared as Fighting for Fraser Island in 1992 with John Kerr as publisher.
The only downside to the experience was that Kerr snored. Otherwise I doubt that the beaches, freshwater lakes and streams, rainforest and wildlife of Fraser Island could have been better experienced. Garner is right – to camp was to be somewhere in a special way, to be free of the everyday constraints and cares, alert to the reality of the place and appreciative of it.
Although never seriously a part of it, I’m convinced that Garner was also right in claiming that camping provides a bonding, collectivist, improvising ethos to Australians that has sustained them through hard times and enhanced their holidays.
And it persists. Recently Heath, my seven-year-old grandson, went camping with his stepfather. They selected one of the few camping places where fires are still permitted and camped in a tent as Europeans have done here since the landing at Port Jackson.
When I asked Heath the worst thing about the experience, he said, ‘The cold in the morning.’
‘And what was the best?’
‘The campfire at night,’ he said, ‘and the sausages.’