A few Fridays ago I found myself in Nightcliff Woolies standing next to an empty shopping trolley, save for a bunch of forlorn-looking bananas, while I listened to my first group camping trip of the season fall apart.
My trusty ex-housemate Lynda was beside me on her phone, patiently listening to dropout number five who, after umming and ahhing for twenty minutes had finally admitted she’d come down with the flu and really couldn’t make it. Dropouts one, two, three and four had pulled out over the course of the afternoon citing a sore foot (“Possibly a redback spider bite”), a sore pet dog’s foot (“Most probably a redback spider bite”), a sniffle (“Totes definitely the Black Death mate, and also a redback spider bite”) and a sudden lack of enthusiasm (“I just can’t be stuffed, ay”).
Regarding our sad, browning bananas and obsolete shopping list, we reluctantly pulled the plug. But on the upside, it did leave the entire weekend free to reminisce about some of the more memorable camping mishaps I’ve been part of, if not directly responsible for.
It seemed a sound investment at the time. (VIC, 1991-97)
Growing up in Victoria, my family camped a lot. That is until my mum, frozen with terror in the passenger seat of a 4WD in imminent danger of slipping backwards down a clay track and possibly tumbling into the rain-soaked ravine below, point blank refused to do it anymore.
We’d known for ages she wasn’t really a fan, as every previous trip included a new item Dad had acquired to add a modicum of comfort to the ruggedness (i.e. frikking freezingness) of the Victorian bush.
The first was an immense army surplus tent. It was a behemoth of heavy, dull canvas and spindly poles that took the better part of an afternoon to put together. To be fair, once erected it was a veritable fortress, utterly impenetrable to anything except mosquitoes, mice, possums and stifling humidity. Not long after the tent came one of those portable showers you fill with creek water and hang from a tree. These are fine in the Top End, but in early Southern ‘spring’ can induce hypothermia in eleven seconds flat.
The silliest acquisition by far, however, was the Toilet Seat. Yep, an actual portable toilet seat. It came with a little A-frame (like the legs of a camp stool) that, after the hole was dug you clipped the seat to, sat down and did your business.
It was wonderful in theory, but in practise (as I discovered to my absolute mortification and disgust) a total disaster. Taking it on its maiden voyage and, ready for a bit of loo paper, I leaned forward gingerly to grab the roll which was perched just beyond reach on a convenient rock.
Deprived of the even weight distribution of my buttocks, one side of the frame unclipped itself and the whole contraption collapsed into the hole I had so recently filled, leaving me spluttering in indignation and arse deep in my own… But that’s enough of that.
Mother Nature hates you. (Meredith, 2008-14)
I’d hate to say I was permanently scarred by the Toilet Seat episode, but the first crack I had at camping as an adult was a good ten or fifteen years later at Golden Plains Music Festival, just over an hour west of Melbourne at the Nolan family farm.
I went annually for seven years before coming North, and loved every trip. The Golden Plains downside though was the weather; it was often unpredictable, and occasionally downright malevolent. Held the second weekend of March every year, it was either a) stinking hot and windy, b) stinking hot and pouring or c) freezing cold and pouring and windy as hell. My final jaunt included 41ºC daytime temps that dropped to 11ºC overnight and gusts so fierce two people had to maintain camp at all times lest the tents be blown into a neighbouring sheep paddock.
Never trust a campervan. (Top End, 2014)
Six months before I made my love affair with the Territory permanent, I came up with a gang of eight for a mate’s 40th birthday weekend in Humpty Doo*, followed by a week adventuring in a trio of hired campervans. They were cumbersome to drive, awkward to park, stuffy to sleep in and the internal fridges never really got going.
This was all bearable until we pulled into a random campground off the Stuart Highway. Crawling along at 10km an hour, there was an almighty bang as the back wheel exploded, blowing ragged bits of rubber, steel thread and rim all over the reception area. Upon closer inspection we found we’d rolled over a very small rock on a tyre that was a good 12 years past its expiry date. Just 20 minutes earlier we’d been barreling along at 115km an hour (the top speed of a 4-man Britz) trying to take advantage of the drag of the road train in front of us.
Pack light when walking. (Walker’s Creek, 2015)
Walker’s Creek is the perfect place for 2WD owners looking for a night in a borrowed tent and a nice cup of tea afterwards. You dump your car, consult the chalkboard for a free site, and (appropriately) walk your gear in.
Clark and I arrived laden with hastily assembled supplies (we’d only decided to go that morning) and selected the second most distant site, Camp 7. Not quite appreciating how far this was with way too much gear, we set off.
I carried a backpack full of insufficient water, some loose towels, a couple of unwieldy camp chairs and one of those stupid self-erecting tents that packs flat in a massive disc and that snagged on every tree branch and jutting rock we passed.
Meanwhile, Clark was falling further and further behind, struggling under the weight of everything else we (I) had decided to bring. I didn’t really appreciate how much she had taken on (or how little faith she had in the physical strength of yours truly) until I dumped my load and went back to see how she was fairing. Out of sympathy I tried to shoulder her pack and immediately tipped over, pinned by its weight to the rock behind me. Gasping for air as she gently lifted the pack off my throat, I asked what on earth she had in there. Metal two-burner cooking stove, small gas bottle, back up gas bottle, full set of saucepans, a dozen beers, a First Aid Kit the size of Christmas and a very nice Margaret River Shiraz.
The little green tent that couldn’t. (Walker’s Creek, 2015)
But back to the stupid tent. I borrowed it from one of the boys who handed it over with a malicious grin and said ‘If you end up leaving it out there, I really don’t mind… in fact it’s probably for the best’.
Getting it out of the packaging was no trouble. Its self-erection process recalled the first milisecond of the Big Bang, flinging itself outwards and rushing apart to fill every available space not already occupied by trees, rocks, bodies of water or people. Getting it back in again was a different story. Imagine trying to stuff a queen sized doona into a pencil case. After much cursing, shouting, weeping and whacking it against tree trunks, I touched some magic sweet spot and the whole thing suddenly folded in on itself like a collapsing star and retreated into the bag. And to think I very nearly left it out there.
How to feed an army. (Gunlom Falls, 2016)
The trick to buying a weekend’s worth of food for 14 people, Lynda explained to me in a stage whisper at the supermarket deli counter, armed with a shopping list two weeks long and a budget a fair bit less than that, was to separate everything into two parts and hide the second lot where no one would suspect their existence.
Two kilos of ham became two lots of one kilo. One kilo of salami became two bags of 500 grams. 48 tonnes of bacon stayed 48 tonnes of bacon but required an extra Esky. The customers queuing behind huffed, stomped and glared as each purchase was carefully divided and individually wrapped. Lynda’s genius, however, became apparent during breakfast the first morning at Gunlom Falls.
‘Is that seriously all the bacon there is?’ asked absolutely everyone.
‘Of course it is, how could you possibly eat any more?’ Lynda scolded everyone but mostly Sexy George. ‘There’s plenty of fruit right here if you’re still hungry’. Sexy George opted for the double pack of Arnott’s Assorted Creams while everyone else nibbled toast and grumbled.
The next day, as everyone moaned that we had nothing good left for breakfast except cereal, vegemite sandwiches, bananas and Cheese Supreme Doritos, Lynda lifted the lid of the secret Esky, (which she had told everyone contained nothing but lettuce leaves, tomatoes and spare bottles of soda water) revealing the other 50% of our meat and egg rations. We feasted like kings. Like I said, genius.
Sound vehicle, sound mind. (Jim Jim Falls, 2016)
The same trip also took in Jim Jim, so all up there was a lot of driving on corrugated roads. For this you really want a decent vehicle. 4WD one was relatively sound, but pulling a massive open trailer (the sort you move house with) with everyone’s gear in it. The trailer itself was old and ancient and seemed to be held together with cable ties.
4WD two was a compact little number, not unlike a Rav 4, which had a small deficiency that prevented the engine from starting without being pushed from behind.
4WD three brought up the rear (making sure number two didn’t break down or that the trailer didn’t start dropping tents, swags or pieces of itself) and seemed decent enough until the engine overheated, forcing the driver to pull over and tug frayed bits of machinery from under the bonnet while looking for more cable ties.
A little while later we DID shed a bit of the trailer, and 4WD three had to backtrack 5km to go and pick it up. (It was the flip out tray that holds the contents of the trailer in place, so kind of essential.)
The easy way out. (Humpty Doo, 2014-17)
If you prefer your bacon crispy and your toilet seats secure, I highly recommend forming a friendship with people who live rurally* (which in an NT context means within 45mins of the city but with enough midges to make you regret not bringing a can of Bushmans). This allows you to pitch a tent / park a van on their luscious property and live entirely outdoors for three or four days, while enjoying the benefits of slow-cooked pig on the spit, joints of lamb and roast of beef from the BBQ, and a never-ending supply of beer, ice and warm showers.
*With particular thanks to the always hospitable Reid Family of Humpty Doo.