Forget cafes, pubs and restaurants. My favourite way to spend time with friends and family – and strangers, for that matter – is camping together. It means shared experiences; it means having time to talk. Properly. Or time to share silence. Relationships that grow from camping trips grow deep and true.
It’s ironic, then, that researching a camping guide can be a lonely occupation.
Out of necessity, I travel alone when I’m researching. It’s camping but not as you know it: pitching the tent at a different campground every night for months at a time, visiting up to 10 other campgrounds during the day, taking photos all along, and writing up my notes at night.
It brings me into contact with amazing people doing amazing things – but the encounters are always fleeting, because there’s no time in my research schedule marked ‘sit around the campfire and talk’.
I’m two months into my latest solo research trip for my new guidebook, Australia’s Best Camping, which will be published by Explore Australia in 2014. And I’ve gotta say, I’m well and truly ready to sit around the campfire and talk.
Which is why I was soooo happy to reach Cape Range National Park and experience Western Australia’s amazing system of camp hosts.
When I arrived at Tulki Beach campground, I knocked on the caravan of Anne and Noel, the hosts in this part of the park. Anne came down the steps and held her arms wide. ‘It’s our long-lost traveller!’ she said, and then called to her husband, ‘Noel, she’s here!’
I’d never met these people before. And they were just doing their (volunteer) job. But they’d evidently been anxious about the fate of the one person who’d booked but hadn’t yet arrived as the afternoon shadows lengthened and hour grew late. They cared.
In Western Australia, 53 of the state’s most popular government-run campgrounds have seasonal camp hosts. They’re members of the public who volunteer their time to camp onsite and manage check-ins, offer information, and liaise with park rangers when issues arise.
But in the more distant reaches of Australia – such as Cape Range National Park, 1200 kilometres north of Perth, 5130 kilometres north-west of Sydney – camp hosts also help form the glue that bonds travellers who are sharing the experience of remoteness and self-sufficiency. In remote locations, people seem to become even nicer to each other. There’s more at stake.
Fifteen minutes after Anne had greeted me so warmly, I was kneeling on the ground doing my best to bash tent pegs into the concrete-like compacted gravel and sand that forms the camping area at Tulki Beach. My mallet bounced off the aluminium and bent the pegs into pretzel shapes instead of driving them into the ground. More than once a strong gust blew my tent into the dunes and I chased after it.
Then another kindly human loomed, her form and shadow providing temporary relief from the late afternoon sun and 25-knot winds. ‘I thought you might need a cup of tea,’ she said. ‘I’m Pauline from next door.’
If I started to weep a little just then, I can’t be sure whether it was because of the sting of the sand whipping off the dunes, or the sunscreen on my eyelids.
Soon Anne and Noel, the camp hosts, shepherded all the campers in the campground towards the communal picnic tables and we gathered for the traditional sundowners. It was the time of day – the photographer’s ‘magic hour’ – when I’d normally be running around taking photos for the book, but today I joined in, and for an all-too-brief half-hour, we did the equivalent of sitting around the campfire and talking. Campfires aren’t allowed in Cape Range National Park, but you know what I mean.
The kindness of strangers was raining down on me today like a rare outback shower, and in my mind it will always be bound up with Cape Range National Park and a lovely couple of camp hosts.
The ACT, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia recruit volunteers to work as seasonal campground hosts. Queensland is trialling the system. Click on your state or territory below for more information on volunteering as a camp host.
- Australian Capital Territory
- New South Wales
- South Australia
- Western Australia
Kerryn Burgess is the author of Cool Camping Australia: East Coast, and is currently on the road researching campsites for her new book, Australia’s Best Camping, which will be published in October 2014 by Explore Australia.