Family Camping Trips: next time, it will be different

camping with kids Lunch Lady Magazine opinion piece

The space underneath my house is fitted out like a low-rent nuclear shelter or an Anaconda store a few months into the zombie apocalypse.

There's a six-man canvas tent, a two-man ‘pop-up’ tent and an ensuite tent. They're snuggled up to a chemical toilet and assorted inflatable mattresses. A butane stove rusts alongside a fold-up table and a wind-up LCD light. Fishing rods lean against my canoe, supporting each other in their redundancy. It’s all there, a coiled spring of stuff. It's ready and waiting for the annual Burke family one-day camping trip!

I love camping.

I thought I did, anyway. I’m just waiting for it to happen the way I want it to. I didn’t camp as a kid in Ireland and my Australian family seems to be fully urbanised. When I suggest a camping trip to my wife, she mutters something about her dodgy lower back before either changing the subject or disappearing for a few hours. Apparently sleeping in a confined space with a sweaty Irishman and two impressively flatulent young boys does not appeal to her.

For me, camping is a bit like my belief that one summer I will get a suntan, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Each year when my skin grows back, the illusion always returns. I dream of crisp summer evenings around a campfire, eating something meaty on a stick. Telling stories to my happy children, and planning the next day’s fishing or bushwalk. I look forward to an uninterrupted night’s rest, lulled to sleep by the gentle breathing of my children and the peaceful rhythm of nature.

The reality is hours packing, hours driving, hours unpacking and hours putting up the tent.

Christ, I hate putting up my tent. It never gets easy. No matter how many times I put it up, my mind seems to block out the entire traumatic memory before the next time I put it up. I never learn the ‘trick’, the knack of putting it up. Or if I do, I forget it immediately afterwards. It’s groundhog day every time. The heat, the initial attempts to calmly follow the instructions, the slow then rapid descent into Basil Fawlty–style madness. Inevitably I become a sweaty, cursing, breakdancing Tasmanian devil encased in green canvas. The kids look on bemused, asking for poppers.

Once our shelter is erected, the kids run inside and set about knocking it down again. While this vandalism is taking place I inflate our mattresses, which involves using a pump that plugs into the 12-volt outlets in the car. This pump creates a sound that resembles a banshee who’s stood on a piece of Lego. Having blown up our bedding and scared the bejesus out of every single living thing within a 10-kilometre radius in the process, we are ready to … well … what?

What next?

All I want to do is sit down, have a drink and stare shell-shocked into the mosquito-sodden twilight. It is unfortunate that, despite the fact it’s still a sweltering thirty degrees as the sun goes down, the kids want me to light a fire and cook some sausages. Earlier that day, when the world was young, I promised them I’d do this—so no fire and no buttered bread is not an option. 

I brought firelighters, so lighting the fire is not a problem. And I brought firewood, so fuel is not a problem either. What is a problem is that I decided that, rather than take the packaging of whatever new piece of camping equipment I bought for this trip home with me, I should instead burn it in the fire. The thick black smoke that results palls across the campground like a huge visible fart. But unlike a fart, it can easily be traced back to me by the other coughing campers who stare menacingly through their watering eyes.

Bedtime, camping style.

After burning some snags and incinerating a few marshmallows it’s time for bed. But not before what resembles a huge rat ventures onto our camp site. The creature, which is around the size of a large cat, is not afraid of us and has obviously made a career of scrounging around for campers’ food. My youngest boy is not impressed, grabbing a stick and screaming, “Hey, rat! I think you better stop coming around here or you will be sorry.” Meanwhile, my eldest tugs at my arms and says, “Dad, I’m scared. Can I get inside the tent?” I’m scared too—of my youngest boy. He is now running after the rat with his stick, despite the fact that it’s roughly the same size as he is.

It wasn't a rat.

Internet research will later reveal that the ‘rat’ is a perfectly harmless brown bandicoot, but I gather up my own ‘wildlife’ anyway and we retreat to our tent. I warn the kids not to leave the mesh door open. “If you need to go for a pee, do not leave it open,” I warn them sagely with the authority of hard-won experience.

I wake to the whine of mosquitoes around my head and immediately set about squashing the evil fuckers. They groggily enter their happy blood comas on the roof of our tent. By the time the sun finally rises, I have entered a sleep-deprived, mosquito-bitten, itchy psychosis. It’s time to go home.

When I eventually get back on the road, I tell myself that next time I’ll do it differently. Next time it will be better because I do love camping. I’m just waiting for it to happen the way I want it to.


Written by Edmund Burke for Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 8.

Photograph by Kate Berry for Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 3.

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