I am far from an experienced camper. To be honest, my tour through the heartland of OZ was the first ever real camping experience for me but because of this I feel that I can share my findings with other likewise inexperienced travellers so as to prepare them for what is involved. So here’s what you need to know about camping in the outback.
In Australia, the swag is the way to go. A swag is a more robust sleeping bag into which you put your actual sleeping bag. Sure, on some tours and inbetween there will be hostel beds (whether they are much softer or cleaner is a different matter altogether) as well as tin shed bungalows, but the real way to spend the night is in a sleeping bag. Now, it doesn’t have to be a swag every night, sometimes there are tent or safari huts, but a sleeping bag will be your essential Aussie experience. Just make sure to check the night temperatures before buying one. They need to fit the season.
Speaking of sleeping bags, the less is more clothingwise. I know it doesn’t seem to make sense, but if you want to be warm, wear less. The bags are designed to give back your body warmth, but it won’t work if you trap it in your clothes.
This deserves its own category since it should be your constant companion. The sun is not your friend and you will easily dehydrate. Drink about a litre every hour that you are walking. I really mean it, you will need water even if you are not thirsty yet. A hat can only protect you so much from a heat stroke but dehydration through constant sweating and hiking trips should not be a problem if you carry your 1.5 to 2 litre water bottle with you at all times. There are water stations at every toilet as well as signs reminding you to drink near the big attractions so you will have no excuse not to fill up.
Other items on your essential list should include sun lotion (seriously, put it on, always!) and insect repellent. One thing that is not essential is to bring good clothes with you or even lightly coloured ones. The red sand will conquer them and the stains don’t wash out. I’ve tried and failed. In one of our camps they even sold dirt shirts. Maybe I should do that as well and throw some old dirty socks in the mix? Would anyone be interested in buying that?
Another important item is a working torchlight. Out there in the wild you will need a light to find your way over leaves and branches, making sure not to step on a resting blackadder and over to the toilets at the other end of the camp. Sure, the lights from the moon and stars are insanely bright but you might camp in a forest and should be prepared for darkness. Also, wallabies like to creep up and this way you can see their reflecting eyes coming towards you. Might be a bit scary, though.
That said, even if you flash a torchlight at some creepy crawlers they might be utterly unimpressed and your still need to make the effort of moving around them. I saw spiders playing dead and wallabies trying to enter a staring contest with me. Speaking of Wallabies. Do not underestimate them. They might look cute and cuddly, but will raid or even eat through your bags to get to food. Put everything away safely and don’t be alarmed when they come running towards you and seeking through leaves next to your very ear. They actually can be scary but are harmless.
Other guests will include mozzies as the Aussies like to call mosquitos, a constant source of blowflies, lizards and grasshoppers. If you camp near a source of water in the Northern Territory there might also be crocodiles but they are too lazy and hopefully well fed to bother walking all the way up to where you sleep.
Another important thing to realize before deciding on camping is hygiene. It might be obvious, but there are no water pipes and soap dispensers in the bush. If there is a toilet at all, it will be a self composting one, which is basically a loo that goes to a hole in the ground with lots of bacteria turning its content into fertilizer. But that’s about it. Toilet paper and nothing more. Sometimes there is water to wash your hands, sometimes there isn’t. Carry a hand sanitizer with you is all I’m saying. Edit: Please use the sanitizer especially if you’re preparing food since it could lead to unwanted bacteria and infections, plus it is gross otherwise.
Theoretically you could also pour the water you’ve brought with you over your hands but that would be pretty wasteful since it is meant to be drunk and you certainly need it in the desert (and it’s not sanitizing). The fill up tank in the tour guide’s van (or hopefully in your own if you drive yourself) should be used exclusively for drinking. Water is valuable out here. You could decide on carrying a container with untreated water with you if you really feel like you need it. Believe me, I can relate to your poking your nose. I used to be a germophobe. The outback toughens you up.
If you carry food with you, you should be aware that the outback is quite greedy and its temperatures will quickly reduce your edibles to shrunken or no longer edible bits. Therefore, you’re best option is to carry an esky with you and make sure that the temperatures are correct. Don’t ever leave your food out, it takes only a while of leaving it out in the sun too long and boom, your food goes bad and you might contract food poisoning (I speak from experience). Think twice before you leave that cream and joghurt outside.
Dawn is your wakeup call when camping in the outback and dusk your lullaby. Do it like in the old days before electricity became a commonplace thing: organise your day with the sun. You see much more getting up before the first bird song and being out and about. Trust me, I am a night owl and had trouble coping but at lunch time I had already been on my feet for 9 hours and had seen so many great things, it is well worth it. Plus, you can sleep on the bus or car, unless you’re driving, of course.
Another obvious one are price tags. Anything that needs to be brought up to the outback is costly. Think double the price in supermarkets and liquor shops – especially the ones in small towns and – as always – at petrol stations and in roadhouses. Ice cream to go stays relatively cheap, which is handy since that is one kind of food you don’t want to be bringing with you in the heat. So, for instance, if you head out to Ayers Rock from Alice Springs, pack your groceries in a cooler bag.
You are in the outback so do not expect lots of landscape changes. The longer you drive – and you will certainly drive long distances – the more this relatively similar and intensely flat landscape does change but not radically. There might be less tress, more bushlands and ultimately just sand and a couple of grass patches but it can be a dreary ride. So make sure to stop every now and then to rest yourself if you get to weary. You might even spot a rare thorny devil or snake slithering away under a shady rock. Just don’t try to touch anything. You never know what it would do in Australia.
Thus, even boring rides play a big part in the magic of a road trip at the other end of the world. In such a big country driving for hours on end without seeing more than just a handful of cars can be refreshing and this tranquillity should be embraced. If that makes you feel unsafe, you can always notify the authorities about your travel plans, but if you stay on the roads and keep your tank full, there is no problem.
If you demand luxury and comfort from a trip of camping in the outback, you are doing it wrong. Sure, you can choose to stay at a luxury resort at Ayers Rock with exquisite dining facilities and spa. But at one point you have to put on your hiking boots and go out there. You will get sand into your hair and sticky sunscreen on your skin. You will sweat like a pig in the baking sun. And you will have to go for hours without a toilet. (And you will have to learn to be comfortable doing your business in nature.) At the same time you mustn’t forget to remember the basics: drink enough, walk a lot and don’t complain.
Also, please be not one of those tourists that walk along Ayers Rock without glancing up, those who trample on its environment and do not appreciate the honour of being on such sacred Aboriginal grounds. Be considerate and be grateful.
Another big factor is common sense. Do not do anything stupid or reckless; the outback is relentless and can kill you in a second. For instance, do not take jumping pictures on a hanging cliff, do not climb beyond fences or walk without watching your step. It could be slithery rocks or slithering snakes that bring you down. But ultimately, your eyes and brains should be fully functional and veered to where you are walking and what you are doing. It’s that simple.
I hope I haven’t scared you off. I was a bit reluctant and sceptical as to how a trip to the outback would be seeing that I always hated the idea of camping. Adding to that Australia has plenty of dangerous animals. And the heat and vastness also poses dangers. You wouldn’t want your car to break down in the middle of nowhere. But in the end, my outback trips were my highlight to my travels around Down Under. I would always visit again and again. See if the outback doesn’t make you fall head over heels. I dare you!