Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Once a jolly swagman … didn’t have to pay to sleep under the stars
Confession. I dislike stars. Not celebs, though to be honest I’d be fine if most of those were volunteered for the Peaceful Pill, but the gazillion tiny point-lights that mess up the sky like some duchess forgot to put the diamonds away.
What’s not to like, you say? Apart from the cold wind they blow through your soul, which even I recognise as the breath of ego? In a word, mess. I’m not a tidy freak. I say this without fear of contradiction. But I don’t enjoy a messy sky. Never have. Even as a child I resented star mess.
It’s not like they’re even properly strewn. Just a lot of half-patterns that depend on sympathetic (and ideally superstitious) interpretation and even then are kind of cack-handed and you know it’s only an accidental alignment caused by pressing three dimensions into two that renders them figurative at all.
And yet I do like stars to sleep under. I like to drift off as the firelight flickers and dies upon the trees. I like to wake with the possum’s midnight snuffle and the risen moon yellow through those same branches, and to lie abed at sunrise as the cockies screech and clatter in the trees’ sun-touched tops.
I like my face cool, my toes warm and my being planar betwixt bush breeze and a resonant earth. I like billy tea in a chipped enamel mug (yes, the chip matters). It’s just a taste thing, but this is why I swag.
But quality swagging requires a sense of remoteness, of nature in the real. This is a problem. For what, actually, does it mean? My sense of the real stuff admits diesel four-wheel drives (in small numbers), halogen booklights, hybrid long-drops and single-malt whisky with its air miles stretching to Islay. But it forbids outright flushing toilets, TV of any sort but especially generator-run, recreational helicopters and high-decibel Miley Cyrus.
This is pure snobbery, and yet any affection for wilderness carries this conundrum. However lightly you tread, your mere presence turns wilderness into something else, something lesser, different in degree but not in kind from a caravan park or five star hotel.
Which is why, many argue, it behoves the true bush-lover to stay out of it. I see the irrefutable logic here but I cannot buy it, mainly because of the implied Dorothy Parkerism; nature stuffed into the gap between the taxi and the hotel lobby.
I also can’t feel good about throwing out my swag where there’s mown grass and picnic tables, like in the Capertee Valley, the second-greatest rift in the earth’s crust after the Grand Canyon, whose breathtaking scarps promise genuine wilderness but whose track’s end ambience makes you expect a municipal street-sweeper any moment.
The government’s proposal for fine-dining at Govetts Leap and tourist chalets at Dunns Swamp (one of the undiscovered wonders of the Wollemi) are similar heart-sinkers, signifying the relentless civilisation of the savage.
People are often surprised at my predilection for canvas, especially in so primitive a form, and their surprise surprised me until I understood it as a relic of lingering class presumptions. For camping, however emblazoned with jet-skis and generators, is still regarded as a blue-collar pursuit.
The middle classes, it is presumed, take south-coast holiday homes or Balinese villas for the duration, while the rich indulge in increasingly monstrous cliff-top castles and five-storey superboats, made largely of plastic and designed to keep nature safely distant.
This establishes a class gradient of proximity to nature; from the barefoot proles to the seriously synthetic silvertails. But how old-fashioned is that, given that nature is no longer something we have to fight against, but something we have to fight for? It’s a hundred years, after all, since naturism became fashionable among the European rich and more than 40 since Philip K. Dick predicted real sheep would go through the roof when electric ones became the norm.
There are signs of change. In the same spirit as the rest of us pay more for less in buying organic, guests of the heavily guarded, definitively no riff-raff Emirates’ Wolgan Valley resort, where “conservation is the new luxury,” fork out between $1500 and $5500, per person per night.
For that, they can plant trees for their hosts, calling them carbon offsets. They can bag their RM Williams and be walked – which the rest of us cannot – through a grove of Wollemi Pines.
On a clear night, the website promises, you can be “escorted” to the “heritage precinct” where “constellations such as Australia’s famous Southern Cross can be seen … with petit fours”. Over canapes you can try your hand at “the art of ‘spotlighting’, using a torch to sweep their surrounds for the glowing eyes of nocturnal creatures …”
But it’s all pretty plastic; the usual array of perfumed spas, chlorinated pools, starched linen and air-conditioned bush tucker. And it strikes me that the rich are getting a raw deal. Maybe they don’t know the rest of us can see the stars, and the possum-eyes, in our own backyards. So to help them out I’m getting a new bumper sticker printed. It reads: do it with a swagger.