In Tents and Purposes

18 February 2016 Ricky French

In Tents and Purposes

COULD THE HISTORY of Australia be written from under the canvas? It can certainly be read from there, and it was, one lazy chapter at a time, on the last day of one lazy year. My slightly unhinged quest to find Australia’s perfect campground had brought us to the adamantly unpronounceable town of Adaminaby, high in the sometimes Snowy Mountains. Beneath the benign wind-rippled exterior, these Bogan lands present serious peace-sapping risks to the unwary camper. In New Zealand, the only other country in which I can authoritatively testify, camping has but one ever-present scourge: the weather. Over here there are two: trail bikes and motorboats. You might notice their common denominator: both can fuck right off. The only incessant drone that should be heard at a campground is the crunch of pushbike tyres on gravel, and the comforting hiss of the gas cooker.

I tried to find a Darwinian explanation for the popularity of the combustion engine among Australia’s campers in my chosen holiday reading, Bill Garner’s Born in a Tent – How Camping Makes Us Australian.

I felt slightly hokey reading such an offering while camping, and truth be told, I didn’t make it past chapter eight before the urge to doze hit. The silence of Adaminaby was as golden as the grass. We were the only campers, which was possibly why our host Lars was so suspicious of us. Eccentricities abound in campgrounds, and check-in had resembled a scene from an alpine version of Fawlty Towers. Lars hovered over his wife as she took our details with a well-practised smile. Yes, she said, there was a camp kitchen; no, Lars said, we couldn’t use it for too long.

“We have, er, lots of regulars, they use it, we sit, we have drink.” He didn’t want to sound too unfriendly though, so he added, “You can use it, just not too long, yes?”

I thought Lars might be up for a bit of sarcasm so I remarked that Adaminaby looked quite the party town this New Year’s Eve. He examined me with a furrowed brow and speckled Scandinavian eyes and said, “You may party…until 9pm.” Where could we party? “There’s a lovely playground,” said his wife, brightly. I looked over her shoulder to the beautifully shabby slide and rusted tractor out the window. “Lovely,” I said, “do we need to book?” At which point I was firmly led back outside by the now familiar tug on my elbow from my perpetually embarrassed other half – an increasingly regular occurrence whenever I engage in high-risk behaviour such as conversing with other people. The party of three defied orders and partied until well past 9pm. The anarchy included games of monopoly, sparklers, a walk through town. Perfect.

We woke to news that 36 people had been crushed to death in China and a man in Perth had pelted police cars with roof tiles. There was local madness afoot in Adaminaby as Lars followed me into the toilet block to observe me flushing the chain correctly and turning the hot tap off all the way. Satisfied that my morning ablutions conformed to procedure, Lars declared he was off for a lie down. A dog barked, then stopped. A magpie family pecked at the ground and in the distance came the welcome sound of pushbike tyres on gravel.

Born in a Tent talks of workers on the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme camping out, following in the peg holes of the First Fleet, our first (white) campers. Henry Lawson believed Australia’s past was linked to its present by a “line of camps”. Campers have always seen themselves as pioneers. Immigrants felt part of a new land if they lived completely on it: dirt, grass, animals, wind, rain, sun, all around and inescapable. As a civilisation we have come far. From Sydney Cove to this here patch of grass in Adaminaby; silent, anonymous, unpronounceable and unforgettable. A happy line of camps stretching into 2015.

by Ricky French (@frenchricky)

This article is part of a collection of Ricky's outdoor adventures, which we're sharing as part of the countdown to our 20th Birthday. Click here for the next instalment.

This article first appeared in Ed#476 of The Big Issue.