I must admit that there is something primitively beautiful in the idea of camping. Primitive, because it makes you feel primeval, like a wandering Neanderthal, happy to move into the vast wilderness of the world, and happier to spend nights and days immersed in the brazen and rustic soul of the world. Exactly as it would have been thousands of years back. Except the waterproof camping tent, of course. And the cosy sleeping bag. And the packaged meals. And the barbecue and heated showers. Okay, I digress, but in no way should the experience of camping look any bit less earthly than it actually is, because at least, it gives one a line to heave out of the seas of our city life and breathe into the rawer side of nature. And in the process, rediscover that primal side to our existence that should never have been lost.
Thus enlightened, a bunch of friends and I decided to go out camping in the wild – the destination was Myall Lakes, just 250 km north of Sydney. The lakes are three in number – the Broadwater, the Boolambyte and Myall lake itself, all narrowly interconnected and sitting tantalizingly close to the Pacific waters to get mistaken as lagoons. There are quite a few rivers and streams, and the entire chunk of wetland has been declared a Ramsar site. For the uninitiated, the Ramsar convention is an international treaty signed in 1971 at the town of Ramsar, Iran for the sustainable and protected use of wetlands around the world. It is the wetland equivalent of the WWF, its poster-boys including the Okavango Delta in Botswana and the Sundarban mangroves of India and Bangladesh.
The start to our trip was a damp squib – literally. It was a dripping wet weekend in Sydney, breaking record after record for autumnal rainfall in the city. There were dire predictions of thunderstorms around New South Wales which did not provide a very promising start. I got a bit worried and tried calling the Park authorities to check if there were any wooden cabins besides the bare campgrounds. (So much for being Mr. Neanderthal!) Unfortunately, they were all occupied and looking at the ever darkening moody skies, a friend made the brilliant out-of- the- box assumption that given the crazy rains, the existing campers in the ground would have all moved to the cabins, and hence none were free! I imagined campers waking up to see themselves floating in the deluge of the rains, gave my friend a 10 on 10 for innovative thinking, but a big zero for team spirit. For they had backed out and sliced the team to a third by preferring to stay indoors instead of well, swimming about in the campground. The rest of us reminded ourselves that we had descended from the great Noah and decided to move on.
The journey then was not very encouraging. Cimmerian skies lashed us with non-stop downpours while the remaining four of us made outlandish plan Bs. If the campgrounds were flooded, we could all drive back to Sydney and claim 500 kms of absolute insanity in the rains, or we could stay in our car and spend the night ( I immediately began to check how far could my seat recline in the event we really really had to opt for that). But something strange happened soon after. As soon as we crossed the hills around the city of Newcastle, the rains stopped, the roads left bone dry. It was absolutely bizarre and we tried to wonder if it was something to do with the geography and shape of the hills. Whatever it was, it felt as if the wet windward side of the hills were singing, ‘When it rains, it pours’ while the dry leeward side was reminding, ‘Fortune favors the bold’
The rest of the car trip was brilliant. Lofty clouds were hiding the sun, and yet there was no sign of the rains, while we hugged the coastline, drove past the littoral beauty of Port Stephens, crossed its honey colored immense Saharan sand dunes and finally took a ferry to reach our destination of the campgrounds bang on the lake (We were camping at the NRMA Myall Shores Holiday Park). Dusk was fast approaching and having set up our tents, we lost no time in exploring the lake side (this was the Broadwater), walking on its small sandy beaches, and marveling at the bevy of swans calling it a day. There were a few denizen wallabies romping around the campground, while two immense jawbones of a humpback whale (that sadly beached here long ago) were also on proud display.
But the crescendo after the finicky day was the evening at a smaller lake nearby – the lake Boolambyte. We found a pier on the same and took our seats on this theatre to watch the mellow colors of the sun happily dissolving in the sunset sky while seeping into the lakes as well. It was absolute peace to just be there and watch the world pass by, with neither mandate nor desire to be the thespians at the theatre for a change. No wonder, primitive man used to be so much more at peace with the world. Sometimes, the simplicity of life can be so much better than the hierarchies in Maslow’s pyramid.
Darkness descended silently and softly upon the lake, creating a sublime resonance in all of us. We started on the pier by talking and gossiping incessantly, but as the sun went setting and the night awoke, we seemed to strangely reflect the world, all of us falling silent simultaneously, just absorbing the beautiful and bountiful world around us. Perhaps it was a moment of realization, perhaps it was the awakening of our inner instincts telling us that we were but a minute part of the larger world, not the other way round. Hence it only made sense to submit to the grandeur of the setting night without a show of defiance. No one taught or told us anything – but I think once in the bosom of nature, we had all returned to our original innocence, happy to lose our artificial shell and unite for a loving change with the winds and the wilderness.
When we returned to the camp, I felt a similar reflection in everyone else. It was not even 8 in the night, but people were happy to dine early and fall asleep, in rhythm with the world around us. Back home in Sydney, the party was just beginning, making me realize that we had artificially made ourselves nocturnal. Night fell, and the entire camp was shrouded in darkness save a few lamps flickering here and there. We had an early dinner but decided to spend some more time, each in his own solitude by the banks of the Broadwater, not even 10 metres away from our camping tents. And what moments those were! There was a fleeting wind , cool and sensual, keeping us happily awake, while clouds started rumbling in the western sky, faint traces of lightning giving a teaser trailer of the somber skies. There was no magic of the Milky Way that night, but the clouds with the cool winds brought in a sense of enigma, making up for the stars. The waves crashed incessantly, and created that soporific soothing sound of the seas, ever restless, ever moving
Far away, on the other side of the lake I could make out one lamp there, another lamp farther away flickering in the numerous campsites on the other side, reminding me that we had company all along the lake. Not strangely, in this wilderness, it gave a warm sense of reassurance. That we were not alone. My mind began wandering again – was it yet another instinct to stay social? Perhaps yes, anthropology has taught us that the main reason homo sapiens edged out their Neanderthal cousins in Europe (the only habitat of their coexistence) was that the former grew a strong social network helping each other grow, while the latter stayed isolated, shrinking in their silo-ed pockets and gradually disappeared for good. There was a moment of irony when I wondered if we were all seeking solitude in togetherness, but realized maybe it was the other way round – we were together in our solitude.
Then there was this blinking green light farther away on the lake, reminding me of the dreamy green light from Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t help recollecting the ending lines of that masterpiece : ‘Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . ‘
It only added to my intoxication that happily muddled reality with deep imagination, such was the romanticism of the stormy night. I knew then that I would happily look back into that time many a night in the future, and found a strange solace in Fitzgerald yet again…’ So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…’
Such is Life. Profound. Unexpected. And yet, always beautiful…