The traditional family camping trip: bonding experience or blinding headache? Does it build character or breed contempt? Dorian Mode heads to the Snowy Mountains to find out.

“Unfortunately we’re full. But you could try camping down the road at the human hovel.”
I stared at the phone. “Sorry, did you say the human hovel?”
“Yes.”
“You’re suggesting I camp at the human hovel.”
Correct.”
“Is it popular?”
“Very,” she sighed.
“The human hovel?”
“Yes.” She was becoming annoyed.
“Is it busy at the moment?”
“No.”
Surprise, I thought. “So, you’d recommend the human hovel?”
“I’m sure you’d find it suitable.” 

Now, this conversation took place before I discovered that Messrs Hume (as in highway) and Hovell (as in Wyong) were the first non-Indigenous, white, long-beardy explorers to discover the Tumut Valley at the foot of the Snowy Mountains – and that the “Hume and Hovell” was indeed a charming campsite just down the road. Note to the owners: you might want to change that to the Hovel and Hume. Could boost visitor numbers. Just a thought.

A-CAMPING WE WILL GO
I was broke. I needed a break. When you write books for a living you need to periodically flee your computer in the manner of 1960s East Berliners going over the wall and bolting due west with sausages and cabbages concealed about their persons. My old man suggested camping. “You used to love it as a kid,” he said.

This was true. But since ditching my GI-Joe and Malvern Star I’ve since discovered a little thing called a macchiato. Also room service. “Besides,” Dad continued over the phone from the deckchair beside his luxury swimming pool, “those kids are soft. Make ’em shit in a hole for week. It’s character building.”

I was desperate. But with few options I was prepared to give it a go. I discovered a camping chain called Boots. They have a range of home-brand camping essentials you might want to take a look at. And, like most camping stores, they have checklists for dropkicks like yours truly for the purposes of racking up the credit card and purchasing crucial items from their fine store. Item#123: inflatable bookshelf. Item#243: collapsible shoetree. You get the picture.

Anyway, they set me straight on the basics. It seemed all I needed was the gas bottle from the portable BBQ and several scout-troop style attachments. To encourage us, Dad ordered up a $100 tent over the internet. The campsite was only seven bucks a night per person, so it was hard not to go. Trying to persuade the princess to join us was another matter.

“Come on,” I said to my wife. “You’ll love camping.”

“I’m not going to Tumut while you chase trout with your fly rod all day.”

“They have loads of interesting places to visit.”

“Name one.”

I frantically thumbed brochures. “The broom factory, look. You’d like that.”

This initiated an hour-long conversation about the future of our marriage. Okay, so the broom factory was a bad call. But they’ve been making straw brooms in Tumut for nearly a century. She does a lot of sweeping. I thought she’d find it interesting.

DEFINE “INTERESTING”
So it was just the boys and me. I had my youngest prepare a checklist on his computer, just to involve him in the process. You don’t need a checklist for a hotel, so, to quote my father, it was character building (a phrase I’ll use ubiquitously throughout this article). A checklist is also helpful in stopping the first-time camper from waking up at three in the morning screaming, “CAN OPENER!”

You don’t realise how small your car is until you go camping. I now understand why there are so many bloated 4WDs on our roads. We made some tough decisions. Some things had to stay. Did we need the desk lamps? We jettisoned all nonessential items. In the end we discovered if the kids sat on the deckchairs, nursed the eskies and held the fly rods between their teeth we could just about squeeze it all in. Seeing through the rear-view mirror was tricky. (Tip: Roof racks are a camper’s friend.)

I placed my eldest in charge of navigation. For anyone not living under a rock, whereis.com.au is a fabbo website. You print out maps, work out travelling times, quickest routes, it’s a snack. When we arrived at the campsite I wasn’t disappointed. The lush groves of jewel-green elms were spectacular, pitched against the thirsty landscape of Tumut in drought. Elm Grove is about 20min from Tumut, plonked on a gorgeous meandering river called the Goobarragandra, which is how I speak after ten beers. However, my heart sank as we passed the trout farm: closed due to heat. Bad sign. Trout are a cold-climate fish. They die in warm water. Indeed, we saw floaters in the river along the way.

Pitching the tent proved interesting. I was hopeless. Fortuitously, a kindly ranger named Joel with twinkling, country eyes dropped by. Turned out he also managed Elm Grove with his lovely wife. Taking pity on me he showed me how to hitch the tent ropes. “Now, have you got that?” he asked. “Absolutely,” I lied, wondering if I’d set the video to tape Lost. My boys were fighting over whose turn it was to man the foot-pump on my inflatable mattress and it was one of those Dad moments where I was trying to listen to what the guy was saying, scowling at my boys to stop fighting like seagulls and concentrating on a task that would have no bearing on my life post-camping.

Joel quickly ascertained my teenage son was the brains of the outfit and showed him how to do it in case I missed it. Which was just as well, as I did. As he pulled away waving from his 4WD, I feigned tying ropes until he was out of sight, then ordered my son to do it while I checked on the beer by opening one and sculling it.

Frustrated by my VB-marinated lethargy, my 14-year-old took charge and told me where to stand and what to do with the rest of the tent. Take this. Hold that corner. Move one step sideways. Put your beer down and tie that. In the end I flopped into a deckchair with a packet of Kettle chips and watched him set the whole thing up on his own. Compared to my bohemian effort his tent looked like a camping showroom. God knows what my dreamy youngest and I would’ve done without him.

SLEEPING, FISHING and PANNING FOR GOLD
The toilets were interesting. The “long drop” I believe it’s called in the parlance of the bush. When Dante penned his famous Inferno, clearly he’d never been compelled to peer into said long drop through a peppershaker of blowflies – which we did now, one by one, before tacitly deciding to avoid Number Twos for the entire trip. Photos of the holiday show us with a permanent grimace. The bush shower wasn’t much chop either, but the river was so warm we swam for showering. Good for bathing; bad for trout.

I wasn’t really prepared for refrigeration, so with some heavy river stones I secured the esky in a nook of the river. As a kid I recalled my father ingeniously doing this with his six-pack one camping trip.

The mini-stove fitting that attached to the gas bottle was great. So too was the gas lantern, but tricky if you needed light to eat. Tip: buy spare mantles as they seem to last as long as tree ferns at Chernobyl. I also suggest a stainless steel chimney; our glass one cracked overnight, and for backup we had a cheap fluoro lantern that stopped working as soon as it got dark. But worse to come was my inflatable mattress I bought from Boots for $10. It had a slow leak. By 3am I was sleeping on stones. Clearly the $10 mattress was a false economy. Bonus Tip: buy the rubber-coated one for $50 and enjoy your trip by actually sleeping through the night.

By morning I crawled out of the tent like a 70-year-old in need of a hip replacement. Bacon and eggs cheered me up. No wife banging on about cholesterol. Unfortunately, the coffee bags were a dud. I can’t function without coffee, even with sleep, so I was sluggish.

After our coronary-on-a-tin-plate we headed for the picturesque Tumut River in search of that most noble of fishies, the princely trout. Fishing is a cheap holiday if you can con your kids into it. As my eldest and I lobbed flies at reluctant trout all day, my youngest stalked exotic insects along the bank. We all had fun.

“On my fourth cast I nailed a plump rainbow. But not before hooking my youngest in the cheek the previous cast.”

Later I popped into Woolies for more bacon and possibly a suckling pig before finding a cheapo aluminium Vittoria coffee-maker ideal for camping. Saved! Like country music, aluminium is supposed to be bad for you but every now and then it should be fine (aluminium, that is). It even came with a vacuum-packed portion of Vittoria coffee, which nicely offset the semi-inflated mattress.

The Goob, as locals call it, is an old gold mining settlement. A rusting gold press sits beside the river. The following morning I gave my youngest a metal plate and made him pan for gold. He found some, too! Later an elderly Kiwi woman visited us with her collective noun of grazing cows. She enquired as to when we were leaving so she could give them a feed. My son showed her the gold.

“Pyrites,” she said.

“This far inland, me hearty?” I said in my best Johnny Depp impersonation. She looked at me like I had an udder growing out of my forehead. “Fools gold,” she said. How apt. We later fished the warm Tumut river without success.

Back at the Goob, on the evening rise, trout made their stately sunset hurdle for lazy insects. My son suggested I switch to a caddis pattern as my youngest was snatching them in the air. On my fourth cast I nailed a plump rainbow. But not before hooking my youngest in the cheek the previous cast. As it was only an inch or two from his eye it took the joy out of catching my trout. I gently released the fish and returned to the tent to make dinner, feeling sick at the thought of what could have been with my stray back cast.

We returned to find the esky floating down river on its happy way to Melbourne. My eldest swam it back to us Johnny Weissmuller-style. The sausages looked green. They’d been in the sun all day. So of course I cooked them.

At 2am my youngest woke up vomiting. The river fridge was fine when the river was actually cold. He threw up in the tent all night and in the car all the way home. We were all relieved to finally see my lovely wife – who’d forgiven me over what we now refer to as The Broom Factory Incident – and the comforts of home. (Back to muesli and free-flowing arteries.)

Would I go camping again? Absolutely. Despite the arguing, puking and twisted bowels, Dad was right – it was indeed character building. And a great bonding session. To be honest, I’d rather go camping than stay in a five-star resort. (Did I just write that? Am I crazy? Must be the sausages.)

Okay, I’d choose the five-star option. But we’ve gone camping since, with no fights, no pukes and, yes, we all enjoyed the long drop. In fact, I’m so keen on camping I’m about to become one of those city people affectionately known as “a prick in a 4WD”.

Life doesn’t have to be in tents. But it can be.


DETAILS // Camping in Tumut
Where //
Tumut is around 420km southwest of Sydney and 180km dues west of Canberra via the Hume Hwy. Access is mainly via Gundagai, so be sure to stop at the Dog on the Tuckerbox.
Best time to go // Fly fishing season is in full swing during the spring months, but it can get very cold this close to the Snowy Mountains. Summer and autumn are stunning.
Elm Grove Sanctuary // Private campsite on Goobarragandra River Rd, (02) 6947 5766.
Hume and Hovell Campsite // This is a campsite around 23km from Tumut on Goobarragandra Rd at the Thomas Boyd Trackhead, part of the 440km Hume and Hovell Walking Track. $5 p/person p/night.
Tumut Broom Factory // Grows the highest-grade broom millet in NSW. Harvest is in February. Free entry, open 9am-4pm Mon-Fri, closed public holidays. 30 Adelong Road, Tumut, (02) 6947 2804.
Tumut Region Visitor Centre // Old Butter Factory, Adelong Rd, (02) 6947 7025.

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