Inside Story

In praise of ingenuity and tenacity

A new book shows how much Australia owes to canvas, writes Peter Spearritt

Peter Spearritt 5 December 2013 1168 words

Egalitarian Australia: free camping on the foreshore at Apollo Bay, Victoria, in 1982. Bill Garner

Born in a Tent: How Camping Makes Us Australian
By Bill Garner | NewSouth Books | $39.99

RIGHT now, hundreds of thousands of Australians are planning their Christmas holidays and beginning to head for coastal camping grounds. Most will have a motor vehicle with them, and some – especially those with caravans – will have every possible accoutrement, including internet television. Whether they are driving a BMW or a beaten-up Falcon, they will have chosen a holiday mode as close to the earth as it’s possible to get, rather than the high-rise cocoon that some, but not all, of them could afford. The more adventurous are heading for national parks, some quite remote, and planning overnight or longer treks. By January at least a quarter of a million of us will be under canvas.

Born in a Tent is an evocatively written social and landscape history of tent life as it’s been lived, out of necessity or by choice, since the time of the earliest European colony. And it does go back that far: as Bill Garner explains, when the first fleet arrived in January 1788 the eleven ships carried over 600 tents for convicts, marines and officials. Officers had marquees, marines had relatively spacious field tents and convicts were packed six to a tent.

In Garner’s words, every Australian colony “began as a campground.” Although the tents often got damp in Sydney’s torrential rain, most of the colony was still under canvas when the second fleet arrived in 1790. The colonists might have referred in derogatory terms to the native dwellings they found – usually a single piece of bark, around eleven feet in length and four or five in breadth – but these gunyahs where less subject to decay than the settlers’ tents. Not surprisingly, Governor Arthur Phillip moved promptly to have his own abode erected in stone, but tents continued to dot the Sydney landscape for years.

Tents provided an instant form of accommodation for many a new settlement, and were particularly suited to coping with not only a rapid growth in population but also a rapidly moving population. Nowhere was this more evident than on the goldfields of Victoria and New South Wales in the 1850s, Queensland in the 1860s and 1870s, and Western Australia in the 1890s. Tents provided accommodation on the goldfields themselves, and also at staging points. In Melbourne, large camping grounds formed around St Kilda Road and Moonee Ponds in the early 1850s, and by 1852 the authorities were levying camping charges at the extraordinarily high fee of five shillings per week. These days, inflation-adjusted, you can stay in most well-equipped camping grounds for less than that.

Gold-seekers were already paying a compulsory fee “to Dig and Search for Gold.” Garner argues that this was also a way of managing the camping grounds: the December 1851 regulations included “tent keepers” among those who would be subject to licensing. Illegal “grog tents” were destroyed by the authorities, which caused much resentment. With people and dogs wandering hither and yon, liberties could be taken in these tent cities. If you were near a noisy camp you could, of course, move your tent, and people often did, as they still do today. (If you ever find yourself camping next door to a group of schoolies, move promptly.)

Through his work as a playwright and actor, Garner has pursued a life-long interest in Australian egalitarianism. “Camping was the social condition that made a high degree of self-reliance and communal self-management necessary on the goldfields,” he writes. “This diminished both the need for, and respect for, government.” He points out that communal outdoor life enabled “the rapid spread and amplification of demands” after discussions around tens of thousands of campfires, and he applies this argument to the lead-up to the Eureka Stockade.

Whether in the early convict settlements, the goldfields or the unemployed camps of the 1930s, living in a tent was more a matter of necessity than choice. Some of the unemployed camps were in what were otherwise holiday settings, including Coolangatta and Lakes Entrance, and Garner makes the point that camping can sometimes have a holiday atmosphere even at a grim time.

Not that the holiday mood necessarily extended to local residents. In Cairns in 1932 a hundred unemployed campers resisted being moved from a local park, and were attacked by a mob of 500 townspeople led by the local mayor. “Blacks camps” sprang up on the fringes of many country towns, and resentment or concern about camps is still palpable in many communities, including Alice Springs.

Garner heads offshore in his discussion of army camps, and the book includes an extraordinary image of the Australian Army camp in Egypt in 1915 – a vast landscape of tents photographed from a nearby pyramid. These were regimented camps, nothing like the unruly tent cities of the goldrush era. Garner himself chose to spend some holidays at army cadet camps, which he enjoyed. I hated the one year I spent in the cadets, but at least it didn’t put me off camping altogether. The only experience of camping that many children had in the 1950s and 1960s, especially if they came from very poor families, would have been in the scouts or the guides. And that is still true today.

Born in a Tent takes us from the tents of the first fleet and the Eureka uprising to artists’ camps and bushland settings. It is a hymn of praise to ingenuity and tenacity, from surveyors and railway fettlers to the just plain adventurous. It is a personal book, and aspects of Garner’s own biography surface from time to time, but always in an informative rather than self-indulgent way. In this new century young people are more likely to experience camping at a music festival than in a grotty showground. If you tell them that it was still common in the 1950s to simply pitch your tent near the side of the road, they find it hard to believe.

The best coastal campsites in Australia are still to be found on crown land in public camping grounds and national parks. But Garner’s tents are dotted right across the Australian landscape. Every capital city has large camping and caravan grounds within twenty kilometres of the city centre. Almost every country town has a camping ground, and in some smaller settlements you can camp without payment in the back paddock of the hotel, using their facilities, assuming you buy a beer or two. Music festivals from Lorne to Byron Bay revolve around tent cities, as do doof parties, best avoided if you fear hearing loss. Tents spring up in many a suburban coastal backyard over Easter and Christmas holidays.

This book is a joy to read. It provides glimpses of many different Australian experiences, across time and landscape. It should be compulsory reading for those middle-class Australians who have retreated from the camping ground to luxury holiday apartments that often look out over camping grounds. As they gaze towards the ocean, they might remember that the campers will at least be able to move their tents when the sea level rises. •