Australia Was Born in a Tent: A Foundation Story

By Bill Garner

Australia has always been a camping place, says Bill Garner. Our history of camping has its roots in necessity - but it’s also a way of intimately connecting to place, and nurtures many of the values we hold dear, including egalitarianism and tolerance. Even our national song, Waltzing Matilda, is about a camper.


When I started working on my book Born in a Tent (New South, October 2013), I thought I would be writing a history of holiday camping. It turned out to be a history of Australia, for the story of settlement is inescapably a story of camping. Tents spread across the continent from the time the ships of the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove carrying equipage for more than 600 tents. So dependent on camping were the newcomers, so changed by the experience of it, and so profoundly did it shape the emerging settler culture, that camping may offer us the inclusive foundation story we have long been looking for.

Australia was always a camping place: if you wanted to live on this continent you had to camp. It was what made living here different from living in Britain and other homelands. So pervasive was it that from the 1820s visitors identified camping out as the quintessential ‘Australian’ experience. It was a rite of passage, of learning ‘the Australian way’.

The subtitle of my book is ‘How Camping Makes Us Australian’; that may cause some people to wonder if I am promoting a new form of national identity, one that alarmingly smacks of the old bush mythology. So let me clarify. I am not suggesting that in order to be an Australian you must go camping. That would be absurd. Nor am I suggesting that the ‘camper’ should replace the ‘bushman’ as a national type. In a multicultural society, a national type is no longer possible or desirable. Besides, in reality campers do not fit the masculine image of the bushman. Women have always camped. Go to any campground and see. Indeed, camping does not discriminate on grounds of gender, ethnicity, or class. There is a place for everyone around the campfire.

What I am saying is that some of our most widely held values, especially egalitarianism, tolerance and the premium we place on practicability, have been nurtured by the experience of camping. And, most importantly, camping requires us to fit into and adapt to the environment rather than try to dominate it. Camping intimately connects us to place. It allows us to feel that we belong to the land without the land belonging to us. Camping is about the enjoyment of shared rather than privatised space.

And, despite surface similarities with holiday camping elsewhere in the world, camping here is different because of the part that it plays in our history. Our modern holiday camping carries the DNA of earlier colonial camping and it even reaches across the settlement divide to Aboriginal camping. There is nothing like this history in Britain, for example, where holiday camping is not part of a national story but arises as a recreational fad at very end of the nineteenth century. In Australia, even holiday camping goes back to the 1860s and has its roots in camping from necessity. And, once we begin to think about it, we can see that our personal histories of camping can connect us to these broader histories.

Camping also can have a sense of ritual and return, even of pilgrimage. These qualities, combined with its crucial role in our history, suggest the shape of a national mythology. The campfire plays an important part in our political history as well. At camps such as those on the goldfields new social ideas were tested and struggles for democracy were played out. As well as that, it was campers who built the national infrastructure of roads, rail, dams, communications, and power that connected and sustained the nation. And — highly symbolically — at Canberra, workers camped for years while they built our capital city and our federal parliament. To put it simply, without camping there would be no Australia.

Campers have our own lore, passed on from generation to generation. We are not governed by written rules and official oversight, but by voluntary shared understanding. The good order of campgrounds is a consequence of the fact that social and domestic life is almost totally exposed to public view. Campers look after themselves. Despite occasional annoyance, campgrounds are notable for their peacefulness. They are model civil societies. Indeed, they are models of an Australia where the values we declare are most consistently evident.

It was artists and writers, especially poets, who saw this and understood that the camp was a primal Australian experience and a symbol of new beginnings. Paintings of camping are among our most familiar (you can summon them up in your mind’s eye). In the nineteenth century the campfire was probably the most common image in both pictures and ballads. Henry Lawson was a serious camper and wrote about it with insight and affection. Joseph Furphy set his great novel Such is Life around a string campfires. Even our national song, Waltzing Matilda, is about a camper. Artists and writers embedded camping in our cultural consciousness.

Camping connects us to the land and all that is in it. It makes us Australian because it is deeply part of our history and allows the ritual acting out of things central to our sense of our ourselves. It speaks to where we are. The camp is where newcomers fashion themselves into something different from who they were in the lands they came from, and more like the people of the land to which they have come. It is the story of our beginnings as a people: our actual foundation story.

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