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Australia Oceania Travel Journal

From leaches to rare cockatoos – camping in Narbethong

We’re not really what you’d call campers, Ade and I.

Last time we went camping was to Eden with a group of friends. All we had was a little four-person dome tent, a blow-up mattress and two sleeping bags. Oh, and two fold-up camp chairs that were just about to fall apart. (One of them was in such a sorry state of disrepair it didn’t actually make it home.)

Luckily for us our friends had everything. Camp kitchens, sinks, lights, a gazebo, fold up food cupboards, tables and chairs…

But then coronavirus hit.

And our plans for an international adventure, aka the Middle Aged and Irresponsible Tour – MAIT – were suddenly on hold.

Time for plan B.

We bought a van. A Mitsubishi Delica all decked out and ready for adventures.

And suddenly our camping game has gone into overdrive. Truly, the Delica comes with everything, a movie screen, yep, projector, tick, soundbar, sure does, tub chairs, BBQ, oven, fridge, its own tent, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. All this AND the kitchen sink.

So mid-June, between forced lockdowns and with a Melbourne winter approaching, we set off on an exploratory adventure. Our first camping trip in the new van.

In true Di and Ade fashion we leave late. As dusk is falling, we make our way through Coldstream where an earlier car accident combined with the ensuing long weekend leave traffic crawling through the outer suburban town.

We edge our way forward, through Healesville and onto the Black Spur, where the towering trees hugging the roadside filter out the lowering sun. We hug the road too, as we wind our way through one of the most beautiful road trips in Victoria.

I’m in charge of the music, while Ade drives, but the views are such that I have to keep sticking my phone out the window to film the passing imagery, disrupting the music at least every 10 minutes and frustrating Ade.

As we pass the Black Spur Inn the Winter evening is settling in and as the sun drops a light mist is leaving a blanket over the paddocks around us. I’m trying to capture the effect, snapping photographs at every break in the trees and it’s not long until Ade pulls the van over. The photographic temptation is simply too great.

He pulls out the camera and tripod and we walk through the long grass, now damp with dew, to a clearing in the trees, a barbed wire fence stops us going too far, but close enough to capture the effect of the settling mist.

Behind us the rising full moon sits just above a tree and I’m worried that if Ade sees that, he’ll try to capture that too. All the while knowing that we still have to find the campground, find a site and set up a van we’ve never travelled in before.

Luckily, he glances at the moon but decides it’s not photo-worthy. Or maybe he just can’t be bothered crossing the road and setting up his tripod again.

We load back into the car, we’re only 20 minutes from our destination, but it takes us 25 after we miss the turnoff and have to double back.

The roads are quiet, eerie even, it’s not quite dark, but no longer light either.

We take the sharp turnoff and end up on a dirt road. The campground is just ahead, but the GPS is showing us off road now, we’re definitely not off road. We follow the bends through the trees and eventually find a sign to Andersons Mill campground.

The main camp area is packed with vans and tents. It’s a small site; a circular road with two drop toilets off to one side, and tents and vans crammed around a central information board.

We follow the road past a fenced area that looks like it was once a cattle yard and find a vacant spot, far away from the crowd, with just one other camper opposite.

It’s 6pm, we pull out the awning, unload the chairs, tables, gas bottles, BBQ, privacy tent and shower nozzle from the roof of the van.

Ade goes in search of firewood, but the branches are all too wet, there’s no way we’ll get them to spark.

Head torches on, we light the barbecue and cook steaks and pasta. A simple camp meal.

The kettle takes 45 minutes to boil to make a single cup of tea and we use the leftover water to fill my hot water bottle. I look through the bag of food we’ve bought, my backpack and our clothes bag, only to discover a great tragedy has befallen me. I’ve left the English Breakfast and artichoke teabags at home.

The only ones I’ve bought are passionfruit, a fruity tea, lovely for the middle of the day, but no good for helping me sleep (for which I swear by the artichoke teabags) or for early morning comfort (English Breakfast).

But I’ll just have to be content with the passionfruit.

It’s cold, really cold so as we wait for the kettle to boil Ade decides he’s had enough of the great outdoors and we sit on the small couch inside the van. As we sit chatting a small insect, kind of like a worm rears up on the floor of the van, it’s small and skinny and long and looks like it’s coming out from the flooring in the van.

“What’s that?” I ask Ade, who somehow always knows the name of any wildlife I point out.

“It’s a leach,” he says, and promptly finds something to flick it outside with as I screw up my face in disgust.

After 45 minutes the water finally boils and I’m happily nestled in the back of the van with my cup of tea and hot water bottle.

It’s not quite the night we imagined. We thought we’d be sitting around an open fire, watching the flames dance. Not stuck inside the van. But we did want to try the van out, and this is probably the best way to test it. We’ve made a note to remember to bring our own (dry) kindling and fire starters next time.

Ade’s coffee pot (the van came with two!) is much quicker than the kettle so his coffee is ready in minutes.

Meanwhile I can see two small pools of something on the floor of the van. As I’m contemplating whether it’s mud or blood, I look down and see a giant slug, or is it dirt, on my hand. I flick it off with a small squeal and it lands on Adrian’s shoe.

As he bends down to flick it outside, he takes a proper look at it.

“It’s a leach,” he says.

“Look at this,” I say, pointing to a red spot on my jeans on my left calf. “Where has this blood come from?”

“Looks like the leach has had its fill of you.”

I pull up my trouser leg and sure enough there’s blood still coming out of my leg. The leach had had its dinner, I hadn’t felt a thing, and when he’d had enough, he’d let go and crawled on.

I have no idea how he made his way up to my hand, where I eventually flicked him off and on to Ade’s shoe.

Our bed is cosy and almost comfortable. The seat that we had been sitting on rolls out to form a King size single bed, enough room for us both to sleep in, but only just.

It turns out the zip on my sleeping bag is damaged and I can no longer zip it up. We know it’s mine, even though we have exactly the same sleeping bags, bought them at the same time and they zip together, we know it’s mine because Ade keeps his in a space saving bag that shaves about five centimetres off the length of his rolled up sleeping bag. He’s not giving his up, but he does let me sleep on the inside of the van – so generous.

Despite the dodgy zip and the fact that it’s almost winter in Melbourne and the temperature has dipped to almost zero, I manage to stay warm in the van, but we both spend the night tossing and turning. Turns out the mattress is a little hard after a while and we have to keep turning over so we don’t get too sore on any one side.

In the morning the temperature doesn’t rise much above the overnight low. I flick the kettle on and wait the 45 minutes for it to boil while we get breakfast ready.

Ade goes for a walk to investigate the camp ground in the day light, while I sit down to read my book in one of the large tub chairs.

When he comes back, he suggests a walk so we both wander off to investigate the camp ground. A young kid rides past on a mini trail bike, his parents anxiously chasing after him.

“Brake, brake,” his mum yells, while his dad and his mates look on proudly.

We come across a sign informing us of the start of a walk to Marysville. 4.9km. So, we figure we might as well head into town.

The narrow track winds through thick brush, in the distance we can hear the unmistakeable laughter of a kookaburra and another bird, that we can’t quite place.

We round a corner, cross a fallen log, pass an ants’ nest and a wombat hole and then, overhead, we see two rare black cockatoos sitting in the tall trees. Three more fly in, we watch as they move from tree to tree making a loud distinctive cackaw sound as they fly.

Of course, Ade has brought the wrong lens with him, so we stop to appreciate the wildlife, without the pressure of photographing them, and Ade doesn’t even complain.

It takes us about two hours to walk to Marysville, we cross five roads and meander up and down hills.

In Marysville the town is busy, the coffee shop is closed so we grab a meat pie for lunch and sit outside to eat. We buy lollies and English Breakfast tea from the lolly shop and then spy another coffee shop, open this time, so stop in for a huge cup of tea and a coffee.

We get chatting to the owner, who tells us the town’s been busy over the past couple of weeks. But prior to that, it was depressingly quiet when Australia was in lockdown due to COVID.

He recommends some places for dinner but when we tell him we’re camping, and we’re where staying he goes quiet for a moment.

“That’s a long walk,” he says. “And it’s all uphill from here. If I was about to finish, I’d drive you back, but I can’t leave yet.”

It’s a lovely offer, but the whole point is for us to get out and walk, get some exercise and see the sights along the way.

We thank him and start the long trek back up the hill, stopping along the way to pick up dry bits of wood. But by the time we get back the ground is damp and Ade struggles to make a fire. He asks a family that’s stopped nearby and has a roaring fire going if he can have a Firestarter. They don’t have any. They’ve been staying in Marysville and just dropped by the campground to make a fire, but they come over and give Ade a hand, collecting dead fern fronds and loading them on to our fire pit.

When the fire eventually sparks, we sit down to watch the flames dance to the sound of the dance music that’s started from the new campers who have moved in beside us.

We spend hours watching the fire, throwing on more timber, moving around the circle away from the smoke, getting closer when we get cold, moving away as we heat up. And by nine o’clock we’re ready for bed.

That’s the thing about camping. It always feels like time moves so slowly. Everything takes so much longer than it usually does, and is so much more difficult than it would be at home. There is nothing to do but savour the experiences, embrace the slowness and enjoy being outside in the fresh air.

I realise I spend a lot of time inside, even more now during coronavirus as we’re forced to work from home and visiting people is restricted.

But this little respite has revived my spirits and given me just a taste of adventure once again.

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