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When you think of camping, what do you think of? Hike-in ultralight minimalism? Car-side tent sleeping with a few nice luxuries like a proper pillow and duvet? A gigantic RV with awnings and extensions built up as a canvas version of a suburban house? Weirdly, all this and more falls under the catch-all term ‘camping’.

But they’re chalk and cheese, and, let’s say, also capybaras and creosote. I mean: they’re totally different.

Before I started this whole campervan conversion adventure I was a hike-in camper. So on a Friday afternoon I’d carefully weight-balance, into a lightweight backpack, the following big three items: tent, sleep system (mattress and sleeping bag), and stove/cook setup. Add some dehydrated food and some water purification tablets (so you pick up and purify water from eg a river and don’t have to carry it all in) and you’re good to go. One set of clothes for hiking and one for sleeping. Minimalist extras like a tiny headtorch, a basic first aid kit, a cut-off map section (because even the edges of a map are extra weight that you don’t need), and a PLB. A novel on kindle and the desire to get away from it all.

I camped this way for years, ‘wild’ camping, aka ‘dispersed’. That is: not in a campground but just by a river or in the mountains or behind a beach. I dug catholes, sat on fallen logs, and mostly cooked couscous on my little jetboil. Occasionally (like on the overland track and the capes track, both in Tas) you have to stay at a formal campsite but even these are minimalist, hike-in affairs.

Latterly, with my sore heels and also a more general desire to sleep more comfortably I switched out the tent/mattress for a hammock and quilt/bug net/rain tarp setup, which is about a kilo heavier and about 10,000 times more comfortable. But my pack’s base weight was still around 10kg and I still camped wild.

That’s one way of conceptualising ‘camping’. And I love it.

But luxurious it was not. Indeed, arguably, the main activity was actually hiking, and camping was just what I did to make that happen, although for me the camping was always a very big part of the fun. Camping and hiking: I lived for them. Maybe a third of the time I went with others but mostly I went alone. It was my church, my mosque; it was my quiet, calm headspace; it was my jam.

Now, I KNEW when I set out that campervan ‘camping’ would be rather different. Indeed, my gateway to hiking camping, years before, had been car camping, so I’d seen a fair few organised, car-based campgrounds. They’re never as spectacular as wild nature and they’re always less calm than a walk-in site. But there are dunnies, and sometimes even showers. There’s often water and shade. And they’re easy: they’re signposted, they’re on maps, and you don’t need to scramble to get to them and suss them out exhaustively (eg for snake holes or sheer drops off cliffs). They’re easy.

So when I came to campervan camping I was like: ‘mmm, at best I’ll find a site at a national park trailhead that’s wild in some way, even though it’s drive in. And at worst it’ll be a holiday park with a pool and a gazillion kids that’s like suburbia under canvas (and I will leave, ugh). Between these extremes will be a quiet, calm, grey-nomad site where people ‘camp’ out of absurdly enormous rigs but where there’s still a bit of nature too.

And that’s exactly the contrast I found in the last three campgrounds I’ve been to. Three? Let me explain.

On the first night I camped in Wallangat NP and it was reasonably wild, a national park trailhead. Basic, long-drop dunnies, and zero noise (apart from rain, cicadas, and frogs, which are noises that belong in forests). My setup was minimalist:

Then, yesterday, I drove up the coast. I have a camping guidebook (which I now know is fairly useless…) that listed another campsite in another national park: Bundjalung. They recommended Woody Head campground, and so I put that name into the map of my now-working-again phone and set off.

Holy fuck. There, on the coast, was a scar of human excess masquerading as ‘camping’. There were kids on bikes everywhere, because all the roads are paved. There was loud, conflicting music blasting from every other site, which were crammed together and spilling into one another, as the people had bought, and brought, so much STUFF. (Camping as affluenza, what the actual fuck?) There were generators running, car doors slamming, engines idling, and people sitting by campfires “ONLY in the supplied iron grates” (because lots of rules; plenty of imperatives; signs IN ALL CAPS). Everyone was clearly suffering false consciousness, thinking they were enjoying themselves. It wasn’t Treblinka, but it was grim.

I took a quick loop around, got an eyeful, and high tailed it out of there. Here’s a haiku I wrote about Woody Head campground:

No no no no no;

No no no no no no no;

No no no no no.

But it was 8pm, so I couldn’t go all that far away; plus, I’d already driven a lot of hours and I was tired. So I looked at Google Maps, followed some street signs, and ended up on Goodwood Island, down by the Clarence River, only about 5km further off the highway. Here, I found a much calmer, much quieter caravan park catering to grey nomads and fisherfolks. It’s still a far cry from nature, but the stars last night, a very clear night, were spectacular.

Someone was playing Janis Joplin pretty much on loop – but I like Janis, so no worries, and it was off by ten. (‘Oh lord, won’t you buy me, a Mercedes Benz?’ I hear ya, sister.) Someone’s alarm clock has been beeping, off and on, for about 15 hours, away off in the distance (but I can hear it and it’s not exactly the sound of silence, grrr). There are wonderfully true-blue Aussie folks around, having a yarn, and a lot of saying hello to the neighbours. It’s nice. Everyone has a dog, and they’re the neighbour-meeting ambassadors; I’ve patted wiry heads and sleek heads, scratched behind pointy ears and floppy ears. There are warm showers and shade trees and picnic tables. It’s pretty calm.

Everyone is called Brad and Wayne and George, and I know this because everyone is super friendly. (George is only 59 and just back from Dubai, and Brad was a concreting guy so he works fast and doesn’t stop when he installs solar, which is what he mostly does nowadays. And Wayne has only one tooth left on his bottom jaw. These facts I have gleaned.)

The wives are just wives, nameless and without stories, and they stay under the awnings and do whatever they do. Or that’s how it seems from the men’s accounts, although Brad tells me I’d be surprised how many women are out there going it alone in little campers like mine. (This comes apropos of nothing, though I guess it’s clear that I’m a woman alone and that this merits comment.)

There’s a fantastic self-deprecating humour, in which stories start with ‘I’m such a dumb bastard’ (and it’s all men telling the stories but it’s a fishing spot so I guess that’s why?) I can see myself getting into this grey nomad thing.

But it still looks and sounds like suburbia. Nice, friendly suburbia, but suburbia nonetheless. And I’m not sure how I feel about that as ‘camping’ just yet. Mmm.

And so. I’m heading another hour up the coast today, aiming for Ballina, which is where they’re doing the poptop this week while I hang out at a guesthouse in Byron Bay. There’s no wild camping in/near a big town like Ballina, so I’ll see what else I can turn up. It’s certainly very nice to have a little yarn, pat a doggy or two, then move on.

But after next week, when I’m not so pushed for time, I’ll take the inland backroads and find me some Mother Nature and some wild camping in a national park. Because for me, that’s still what ‘camping’ means.

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