Camping: The classic Australian experience

By Liz Ginis 5 April 2010
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Treasured memories of family camping trips keep thousands of Australians making an annual pilgrimage.

GIVE ME SUN. Give me sand. Give me surf. Give me watermelon pips, white bread sandwiches and silver long toms strung from hand-held fishing lines. Give me balmy summer nights under a canvas canopy. Give me mosquito coils, guy ropes, sleeping bags and the distant sound of someone snoring. Give me all of this and I’ll give you 1001 golden childhood memories pegged out in camping grounds nationwide.

Australia is a country of campers. Throughout the human occupation of our wide brown land we’ve headed to beach-side campsites in droves.

“Camping is essential to the Australian experience,” says University of Melbourne PhD student Bill Garner, who’s been studying this phenomenon for 10 years and camping at Johanna Beach along the Great Ocean Road for many more. “Camping connects you directly to the earth and the sky, the vegetation, the animals and especially the birds. The strength of the wind, the power of the waves…they overwhelm you. You understand the scale of things and your own place.”

According to Bill, it’s the notion of this ancient way of life connected to nature and the elements – and the links that are forged between people living in such a way – that continues to resonate for modern campers. “Europeans may have brought tents to Australia but they did not bring camping,” he says. “Aboriginal people are great campers. The middens along the coast tell us how they moved from one good spot to another, visiting the same sites year after year. And the camper’s eye notes what well-chosen sites they are: near the beach but out of the wind; near a creek but sheltered behind the dunes.

“Europeans, when they came to [east-coast] Australia, adopted the Aboriginal term, ‘gunyah’, which means ‘temporary shelter’ or ‘one-sided bark tent’. It was commonly used by settlers, then by explorers and on the goldfields well into the early part of the 20th century. In fact it goes right back to Captain Arthur Phillip and Botany Bay, our first official campground.”

This was, Bill acknowledges, camping by necessity. Camping by choice, for fun, took another 100 years. From Federation, families have packed wagons high with holiday “essentials”. Dining tables and chairs, wardrobes, beds and more – all the creature comforts relocated surfside.

According to Bill, the arrival of the car ushered in the period of the auto-tent, which developed into an annual migration of a large part of the population from the suburbs to the seaside. “By the 1950s, camping was the chosen form of holiday-making for most Australians,” he says. “Campers took over; tents were strung like canvas pearls along all the most desirable foreshores of the east coast.”

about friendship cemented under a canvas ceiling. For most of our first two decades, my mate Tracey Wilkinson and I lived separate lives, in separate places, six hours drive apart. Yet she was my one-and-only bridesmaid, the first person to meet my newly minted daughters, and the best mate I turn to when life serves up stinkers.

Aussie model Joi McIntyre hits the beach
December 1950 (Photo: ACP Digital Library)

We were four when our two families first set up camp side by side in the sleepy seaside nook of North Haven, 290 km north of Sydney. From then, during every childhood summer we shared three gilded weeks that were looked forward to all year long, and reminisced about until it swung around again. It was carefree and, in my mind’s eye, beautifully, brightly lit – mornings spent splashing in Pacific Ocean blue; blood-red beetroot sandwiches devoured beneath a communal dining tarp; afternoons bursting at the seams with fishing and beach cricket, tinnie rides and boogie boards – splendid, splendid family fun.

And yet for some years now, family camping – this quintessential Australian experience – has endured a sustained attack. “We have been driven back from the beach side of the road,” says Bill Garner. “Campers are being pushed away from the coast for the same reasons as were Aboriginals. We are in the way of progress. We mess up the view. Quite simply, we have found ourselves in the way of profit.”

But Judy Austin, of the Gold Coast City Council’s Heritage and Culture team, says that in Australia’s most rapidly developing neck of the woods, camping is here to stay. “Burleigh Heads is one of the area’s original tourist and camping sites and we know how important it is to people; it’s of significance and council is fully retaining it.”

That said, today’s site – a diminutive grass island floating forlornly in a sea of buildings – differs dramatically from the unregulated space that housed hundreds of tents in the early 20th century and, by summer 1936, accommodated 20,000 people in a mass of canvas that extended to north Burleigh.

Today, with the rising cost of living and people looking to reconnect with a more wholesome lifestyle (think organic food, the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions), camping is enjoying a resurgence. Across Australia, “tourist parks” are developing facilities to cater specifically to campers. Jennifer and Scott Neall, who manage the Toowoon Bay Holiday Park on the NSW Central Coast, say Wyong City Council is investing more than $4.68 million across its four parks, installing communal camp kitchens complete with barbecues, fridges, hot water, urns, microwaves… “It’ll open up the options for people who don’t own all the gear but still want to pitch a tent for the night,” Jennifer says.

IN CAMPING GROUNDS everyone is always on view. It’s a popular pastime to wander along the lines looking into other people’s camps and acknowledge particularly elegant or ingenious set-ups. The only fences here are the web of guy ropes dripping with beach towels. Camping is a communal activity, where conversations are struck up over site barbecues.

“It’s a great leveller,” says 74-year-old Nancy Hill, who began her affair with camping 60 years ago, and now lives in a permanent cabin on the site she staked out at Toowoon Bay all those years ago. “I remember riding down from Lithgow in the back of my sister’s truck. We stayed for the full six weeks of the summer holidays. This street used to be known as ‘Lithgow Street’; there were so many of us here, and from all walks of life.”

Nancy represented Australia in basketball at the 1958 Cardiff Commonwealth Games. Her husband Barry, nearly 2 m tall and himself a 1956 Melbourne Olympics basketballer, camped in Lithgow Street as a child too. “Mum and Dad slept in the back of our old Dodge ute and my sister Betty, my grandmother, my Auntie Shirley and I were all in the tent,” Barry says. “It gets fairly rugged here when the wind comes up, and I remember hearing Mum in the middle of the night worrying Dad about it, and he said, ‘They’re alright love; the tent’s tied to the ute.’ I went to sleep pretty much straight after that.”

Tracey and I, too, have memories aplenty like these: gale-force winds, stinging rain, and our folks digging trenches to save us from floating away. And we wouldn’t change it for quids. Which is why, 32 years on and alongside brothers, sisters and parents, we still hammer in pegs and whisper conspiratorially as our children dig in the sand, ride the foam, and fall, saltwater-exhausted, into shared sleeping bags at nightfall. North Haven retains the magic of a much-loved fairytale. As Tracey says: “Camping here…it’s like coming home.”

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 92 (Oct – Dec 2008)