A couple of months ago some friends and I were out one night and we decided it'd be fun to take our families on a camping trip together. When we told the kids, they had mixed reactions. They weren't all pleased with the idea of sleeping rough, having no phone reception, or eating off a dirty plate. But we talked it up. Convinced them it'd be fun, or at the very least an adventure. And how many of those do kids have nowadays?
So last week we packed our car, filled the esky, checked the tent pegs and headed off for a camping holiday with two other families. We made great time for the first ten minutes and then hit a traffic jam on the West Gate, where we crawled at a snail pace for about two hours. Another three hours later and we pulled into the camp ground. It was late. The kids were starving. And we still had to pitch a tent in the dark.
A couple of the teenagers started dinner – sausages on a grill over the fire and giggled uproariously as the sausages rolled off the grill and onto the dirt. They weren't so happy though when they realised that was dinner, because even cleaning them with a bit of water and a tissue meant they still bit into grit with each mouthful. Sauce sandwich anyone?
We finally got to bed. Late. Very late. The koalas were out in force, which can be quite terrifying for a bunch of tween girls sleeping alone in a big tent, even with their parents only metres away. As the koalas fought, spat and made-up around us, we all struggled to get some sleep.
The next morning the nine kids were up at 6.30am because one of them was too excited and couldn't help but wake the other eight. They soon realised the only heating was the fire and when they couldn't light that, we were woken too. But there was no wood. Sending the kids on a wood hunt, they came back with a few sticks and some leaves. Barely enough to start the fire, let alone keep it alight to cook a jaffle or 14.
As the day went on the kids got dirtier, dustier and more and more feral. If food dropped on the ground they brushed it off and ate it. If they were hungry they pretty soon realised they had to scratch around and find something edible. When meal times came, no fussy eaters were accommodated and for the first time ever I saw my eight-year-old son brave a bowl of stir-fry with vegetables he didn't recognise.
Most of the kids were inexperienced campers. And some had never even made it through the night in a tent. This was their first real camping holiday and they saw it all. Wildlife. Flat mattresses. No sleeping mats. Running out of water and drinking boiled down ice. Eating jaffles so blackened with flames they tasted more like smoke than baked beans.
I make it sound grim. But it wasn't. It was joyful. Watching a bunch of kids just cave in and surrender to the wildness of camping. No wifi. No phones. No technology of any sort. And it was a beautiful thing as all fourteen of us, ranging from six to old, sat around a fire playing Chinese whispers and laughing for hours. On another night there was an impromptu disco lit by the moon and the thousands of stars.
We have this idea that kids need all sorts of modern comforts. Technology. Games. Toys. A bed. But actually they are much more resilient than we are. They roll with things as long as it's fun. They're happy not to wash, not to eat fancy meals, not to sleep in their own bedroom, if they have people around to explore with, and trees to climb, wood to find, insects to spy. It was the adults who insisted on packing the coffee pot and the fancy cheese, the sleeping mats and the extra pillows. It was the adults who snuck away up the hill to find some reception for their phones. The kids were happy just to be.
Camping is not an easy holiday. There's a lot of work to be done just to make a cup of tea, or to cook a jaffle in the fire. Nor is it particularly relaxing, because as soon as you sit down, you're up again. But it is something else. Something remarkable. It's about doing very little and being away from everything that anchors you so that you get back to the basics; back to the darkness of the sky without streetlights and houses, back to the sounds of nature without traffic to mask it, back to how good a piece of cheese can taste wedged between two stale pieces of bread. Kids get that. It's just their parents who need a little help sometimes.