I have just come back from an energising Easter camping trip to Coolendel, on the banks of the Shoalhaven River, a couple of hours south of Sydney. Coolendel is a beautiful place, hidden away at the end of a long and deeply potholed dirt track. There are no allocated camping sites – you just choose a spot under the trees and set up. In the evenings, wombats, wallabies and possums come to visit and (strangely) there is a resident flock of peacocks. It’s an idyllic setting, where you can experience the Australian bush and the many moods of the Shoalhaven River.
I was tired and stressed at the start of the trip but the experience of ‘being in nature’ allowed me to relax and recharge. It never ceases to amaze me how the rhythms of nature begin to work on you after a day or two of camping. You stop worrying about what time it is and take your cues from the light. You rise early and go to bed early. You choose your activities based on the weather. You let time slip away as you watch flames dance in the campfire.
I’m conscious, of course, that we are always ‘in nature’ and that any separation between humans and nature is both artificial and delusional. Humans are nature, though clearly a distinct expression of nature. Yet there is no denying that there is a qualitatively different experience of nature when you are camping. The things that insulate you from nature’s rhythms are stripped away and you are left more exposed. But there are lessons to be learnt in that exposure.
Our little family of four was part of a group of nine families that have become connected through the experience of camping. Between us, we brought sixteen children, aged between eight and zero! A lot of the kids are now veterans of many camping trips.
Watching the kids exploring the natural world made me reflect on my own formative experiences in nature and how important they were in shaping the person I have become and the career path I have chosen. I grew up in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, in a house that sat on the edge of undisturbed bushland. I spent countless hours exploring that bushland and I have no doubt that those early experiences fuelled my passion for nature and my desire to create sustainable futures.
While all of the kids brought toys with them, they spent more of their time creating their own toys from sticks, rocks and the landscape. They built stone dams in the river and learnt about the way that water flows. They helped build fires. My son Euan even braved a ‘mud slide’ down the side of a hill.
I feel that there is something vitally important about giving my children these experiences in the natural world. These experiences build their knowledge of the natural world, their understanding of complex natural systems, and their confidence interacting with these systems.
Just as importantly though, they experience the formation and negotiation of new temporary cultures during each camping trip. The community that forms on a camping trip is different every time and as we have got to know each other better we have become more familiar with our different skills and more willing to trust each other in looking after the children. Our kids will find themselves in many different groups during their lives and maybe these experiences will build their confidence in negotiating diverse situations.
I hope that these experiences are formative for my children, just as they were for me. But in the end, we camp because it’s loads of fun! I’ve laughed a lot over the last few days and so have my children – what more could you ask?