Benjamin Allmon’s work has most recently appeared in The Writers Bloc, The Writer Magazine, Punchnel’s Magazine and Aurealis. When not writing he makes up songs that involve pigs so that his two-year-old son can make oinking noises.
This non-fiction piece appears in Issue Ten of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and buy a copy today.
Photography by Laura Helle.
It is 1969, and Kari Helle is twenty-four. He buys the most expensive tent Oulu, Finland, has to offer: the Tena Pallas Vaeltajien Teltta—The Roamer’s Tent. It is the only one with a separate fly, and at 10 lbs is unbelievably light. Excited, Kari goes camping with it in the Arctic winter (as you do).
The tent survived—not just that experience, but also repeated efforts by his wife to ‘relocate’ it as the years conspired with mould and rust to carry it over that mystical barrier from utilitarian item to sentimental artefact.
Almost half a century later, Kari’s photographer daughter Laura hands it to me, thereby fulfilling her end of our peculiar bargain: sourcing a forty-five year old tent as a means of comparing how things have changed in camping since.
My end of the bargain is to sleep in it tonight, ’69-style.
“Good luck,” she says, in a tone indicating she thinks I’ll need it. I scowl at her; she is entirely too happy about all this.
“So, is it easy to set up?” I ask, looking dubiously at the canvas sack she’s handed me, hearing the rattle of pegs and poles from within.
“Mmphmmph,” she mumbles, but I am only half-listening. I peer inside, but the light is fading; all I can make out is the dull gleam of a tent peg that looks like it once did hard time as a shoehorn.
“It’s not going to collapse on me in the middle of the night or anything, is it?”
“Almost certainly not,” Laura replies, struggling for a tone of reassurance and not quite making it.
“Anything else I should know?”
“Only that I’m pretty sure I was conceived in it.”
Good. Because the double entendre of “’69” wasn’t enough. My eyelid twitches once, twice. “I’ll see you at dawn,” she says, giving me a solicitous pat, as though it may be for the last time.
I set off with the Pallas hoisted under one arm, rattling like Marley’s Ghost … or perhaps the Ghost of Camping Past …
We are staying on her aunt’s 150-acre property north-east of Killarney in a place called The Head, in Queensland’s Southern Downs. The Head is so named because it harbours the headwaters, not just of the Condamine River, but also by extension the Murray-Darling catchment. The rain that falls here has a long journey ahead of it, longer than any other in the country: 3672 km, all the way to Adelaide’s kitchen taps.
I trudge upwards through cattle pastures in the bleak twilight, following the Condamine towards where it flows down from the belly of Mt Superbus. Here the river is inches deep and a foot across, cold and clean and untouched by any hand before my own. I maintain a subdued pace. There is a light drizzle falling, cold and steady. It is late April and the earth is slowing down, readying for winter.
Great rafts of cloud swirling about Superbus’ head hide the sun’s departure behind the Main Range, and the valley is plunged into night. Suddenly this doesn’t seem like such a good idea, spending the night in 1969 while my smug photographer drinks hot chocolate on cushions in front of the farmhouse fireplace, cackling, occasionally, at my fate.
I have left behind the good grazing land and entered a crumbling arroyo; beyond is the dark, sub-tropical Gambubal Forest and the mysterious origins of this long, long river. I decide to venture no further and set the Pallas down only a few feet from the river. It is just on nightfall, and I have run out of time to find a better place to camp than in the riverbed. If the rain intensifies I may well be on the way to Adelaide myself.
The tent is a nylon A-frame with a segmented crossbeam that attaches to a vertical pole at either end, also segmented. It takes a shameful amount of time to figure out which bit connects to which; the assembly quickly descends into a deranged Boy Scout version of ‘Dem Bones’.
Some of the poles have inexplicable springs inside them, resulting in improperly-connected segments flying off into the undergrowth like crossbow bolts. Finding these again in teeming darkness is not quite as much fun as I would’ve imagined.
Getting the structure erected is the next task, and here I fare no better; I very nearly end up in the river clutching spring-loaded bits of pole and cursing the long-dead makers of the Pallas.
Eventually, luck and prehensile toes get the thing up, but getting inside the tent is not straightforward either; the zipper has not worn the years well, and crumbles at my touch like one of those Hammer vampires when the sunlight hits it. Drenched and shivering, I worry open a tiny gap and squeeze myself through.
The smell of mildew is strong, but somehow comforting. I wonder when it was last used, then Laura’s tale of conception bobs jauntily to the surface, and I hastily think of something else. I have my guitar, a candle lantern, and a battered copy of On the Road. As I recall, Kerouac died in ’69—went off-road, you might say. It doesn’t get much more off-road than pretending it’s 1969 nearly a kilometre above sea level in the Great Dividing Range. Especially as the temperature plummets, carrying with it my appreciation of the conditions of yore; the tent is damp and draughty, the walls as thin as old parchment, the tent flap unable to be sealed shut.
Unable to source an authentic ’69 sleeping bag, I had blithely decided to simply sleep in my clothes. With the temperature now in single figures—as my IQ must have been—I picture Laura, nodding off on the couch while the fire burns low, farmhouse-warm and unaware that just outside a new ice age is commencing. She got the better end of this exchange, although given the revelatory diminutiveness of my IQ, it was perhaps not the toughest battle she’s had.
The rain continues to fall on the roof, running in tiny rivers down the creases caused by uneven tension due to the rushed erection. Everything has become sexualised; ’69, The Head, pitching tents, erections, conceptions … I lie down, overcome. Troubled, I doze off without eating dinner.
I wake sometime later in utter blackness, utter silence. Outside, the rain has stopped. I poke my head out and sample some 1969.
The silence is a physical presence, but as I grow accustomed to its nocturnal, sonic body, I become aware of intricacies in its homogeneous hide. The rustle of the night wind through the long, uncropped grass, the throaty chuckle of the Condamine endlessly amused in its infancy by the miracle of its own existence, knowing nothing of the journey ahead of it—long solitude in the barrens of the West, the slow torpor of Coorong dotage.
The heavy, bestial grunts and snorts of some large animal resonate in the stillness, their proximity impossible to gauge. I sit, afraid to move or draw attention to myself—it would be all too easy to imagine the owner of that primal grunt crashing through the flimsy walls of the decrepit Pallas, trampling my shivering bod.
Beyond the tent is unrelenting, depthless night. But I slowly become aware, as I had aurally, of variations: the blacker arm of the Main Range encircling the valley like a protective embrace, the explosion of galaxies above like droplets of foam from some unimaginable wave that broke aeons ago, and reflected in the virgin river’s onyx flesh below. Everywhere I look, some new component of the night reveals itself.
So too the mind, freed from the chatter of a thousand voices, is at first blank. Then, slowly, thoughts and memories wink into existence like stars no longer seen because of life pollution—they are always there, simply overwhelmed by the internet, the television, the radio. But here, camping in 1969, they return like old friends I’ve put off seeing for no good reason, and I wonder why I listen to all that other stuff in the first place.
We gained a lot by congregating and building and inventing our way to 2014, but maybe we lost as much as we gained. Our pockets can only carry so much, finite harbours of exchange.
I decide against breaking the silence with the guitar, breaking the darkness with the lantern, breaking my thoughts with another’s, even if they are Kerouac’s, who perhaps would have understood why. Instead I lie down on Kari’s old sleepmat (which looks suspiciously as though it began life as insulation) and let the night be what it is.
I awake with a feeling of being watched.
There is a presence; I can feel it.
Peering out of the tent flap, I forget to take the next breath.
I am surrounded by bulls—a wall of crowded, jostling black cow-flesh, silent and staring, nostrils flaring. Their size is hallucinatory. I grow uneasy; I’ve certainly eaten enough of their brethren for them to hold a grudge.
The tenuous ribbon of the Condamine is all that separates us, should they smell my fear and deem me worthy of a trampling. I am naked apart from an old pair of cut-off jeans, and the only weapon I possess is my battered acoustic guitar. If pressed I could serenade them, although what to play a ferocious cow? ‘Moooon River?’ ‘Rawhide?’ No, might touch a nerve. ‘Cow-ard of the County?’ Too close to home, given my nervousness.
The young bulls’ breath steams from their nostrils in the frigid dawn air, their eyes gleam with what can only be bloodlust, and as I launch into an ill-advised rendition of ‘Bulls on Parade’, I see Laura coming over the ridge, small and unwitting.
“Watch out, Lau—”
I taper off as she spots the herd and removes her jacket, waving it above her head and saying “shoo!” in a mild voice. I brace for the bulls’ reaction, wondering how I will explain the loss of my photographer, but they turn and, upon spotting her, flatten their ears in obvious fear and take to their hooves. Some cast backwards glances as they flee, in case she is giving chase. They no longer seem quite so menacing—Laura would be 55 kg soaking wet.
“What were you about to say?” she asks as she joins me, camera swinging from one hand.
“Nothing,” I say, trying to keep my voice neutral.
“You OK? You look a little freaked.”
“I said I’m fine—”
“Did the cows scare you?”
I say nothing, make a show of inspecting the Pallas’ stitching.
“What were you about to do? Sing to them?”
The Finnish haberdashery skills really are one of the unsung aspects of Scandinavian culture.
“Did they like it? Or did they moo you?” she says. A snort escapes her.
“Nobody can ever know about this.” I say without looking at her.
“Make me breakfast and you have a deal.”
Cold has seeped into my 1969 bones, and it will only be banished by a successfully smouldering fire. But the wood I’ve found is wet, like everything here. The floor of the Pallas is an extension of the walls of thePallas, with nothing so frivolous as an inbuilt groundsheet. I may as well have slept in the grass—the floor is soaked, as is my shirt, which acted as a pillow last night. I have newspaper, but it, too, is unenthusiastic about being up so early.
One unexpected boon is the old bits of 1960s billy-stand ironmongery I sourced. By using its framework I maximise the airflow to the extent that even wet wood can be coaxed to burn, at least enough to thaw out frozen appendages and warm baked beans to an acceptable temperature. They are for Laura—in my opinion, there is no temperature at which baked beans are acceptable.
I watch the camp fire smoke drift along with the river and think how a few minutes ago, that smoke was a page from yesterday’s newspaper, containing dozens of bits of information about our civilisation, a record of who and what we were. And, just like that, it vanishes into the high country dawn air. As the day brightens, so the 1969 dream dims. I am no longer cold.
I sit watching the light bleed from Wilson’s Peak. I am outside the modern tent, on a high knoll overlooking the valley cut by the Condamine over millennia. As the sun sets, the valley is draped in shadows, pooling in the deep hollows and spreading outwards. I can just make out the Pallas, still slouching by the river at the base of the ridge. It looks forlorn and forgotten, a refugee from another time, when the music was different and today’s retirees were just leaving the nest.
Up here, the sun still limns the fluorescent orange tent in vivid fire, allowing me to inspect it—it is a Sea to Summit i-Explore belonging to Laura’s husband. At four years old it is not quite at the cutting edge any more, but it will serve our purposes.
Instead of a guitar, I have Laura’s iPod with speakers … instead of Kerouac, I have her iPhone, and instead of the flammable lantern, I have an LED headlamp. With her husband’s propane stove replacing the Iron Age billy stand and a sleeping bag that makes the bed in my home seem decidedly spartan, the transformation is complete, with one exception.
“You have no idea how to use that, do you?” Laura says, pointing to the iPhone in my hand. I look at it, laden with apps, I presume. I’ve never seen an app, have only the vaguest notion of what they are and do.
“Absolutely none,” I say cheerfully. Laura looks at me, as though debating the merit in trying to explain it to me. Her face clears. “Don’t press anything,” she says, and sets off for the farmhouse.
“But how will I know when it’s apping?” I call out, the fear suddenly upon me.
“You won’t,” she yells without turning.
I look down at the iPhone. Sod her, I think, and poke the screen like I saw her do earlier. It beeps companionably and tells me it is 13° C with a 65% chance of rain in the next three hours. I am cheered by its unexpected forthrightness and enthusiasm.
Several hours after nightfall, it’s 10° C and there’s a 98% chance of me throwing the wretched thing as far as I can into the night. It beeps and tells me it is 836m above sea level, now 837, no, 836, now 835, 4, 3, now it’s face down in the corner, beeping occasionally, unperturbed by its prone position.
Laura’s iPod contains approximately 87 hours of music, she informed me, but through some cruel twist of fate I have managed to jam it on one song, looping endlessly. It is, naturally enough, Wham!, imploring me to wake them up before I go-go. I wasn’t aware this was what Laura was into … although, it would explain her dance moves. As the basso voice heralds the impending enthusiasms by intoning “the jitterbug” for the seventeenth time, I’m feeling pretty jittery myself. I cannot turn it off—I’ve tried. Heaven knows I’ve tried.
The headlamp is an improvement on the lantern, not just because of the reduced fire hazard but simply because my hands are free to do other stuff. In retrospect there is always the risk of what could be dubbed Luddite’s Delight, which goes hand in hand with a tendency to romanticise the past and issue blanket statements like “things were better in the old days”. Some were, others weren’t. The headlamp is a definite improvement.
But the iPhone—frivolous doodad or essential oracle? I pick it up again and inspect it. Like so much of what we invent, it seems a little bit good, a little bit bad, and mostly irrelevant. Do I need to know the barometric pressure is 1012 and in a state of flux? Probably not. Do I need to know a storm is on its way? Maybe. If I’ve got my young son with me, make that probably. But the danger is that relying on this stuff short-circuits the best apps of all—my senses, my wits, my instincts.
Beyond the stark glow of the iPhone screen, the night is even blacker than it was in 1969, and as long as I keep this device on, the dark will remain the frightening, featureless mass it currently is. I lay it down again to cut the light, but the ghostly green afterimage hangs over my vision for a long time.
Unable to sleep as the iPhone glows and beeps and iPod George warbles on about being unprepared for masturbation and yo-yos, I think of the night before, and in more generous terms than I had at the time. I was colder, wetter and less comfortable, but the night seemed richer than it does by the LED glow, my thoughts like the Condamine, smooth and flowing free. Long thoughts.
Long thought is impossible with the Internet. Humidity is 73%, barometric pressure dropping. It may rain. Outlook is unclear, check back later. Not to be outdone by George, the iPhone warbles too. I pick it up and see that Laura has received an email. It is Facebook, telling her about interesting pages on Facebook. Another warble. This is from Umberto, telling her she needs to start gambling online at the Ruby Palace before it’s too late.
I gingerly return the phone to its prone position. It’s too late, all right. As George tells me I put the boom-boom into his heart yet again I realise it has gone beyond all human endurance. It’s time I went-went.
I tug the broken zipper up and crawl into the Pallas’ mildewed embrace. It is mercifully silent … at least, 1969 silent. Not a warble or beep to be heard. I don’t know what the weather is doing, and I don’t care. You’ve got to have balance. Be willing to let go, relinquish control, or the illusion of it. Disconnect. But in a 2014 sleeping bag, and with a headlamp to read that Kerouac magic.
What we exchanged in order to get from 1969 to 2014 was a culture, an era, a set of things agreed upon by a group of people tied together in time. But technology’s advance means that nobody ever says “this will do, let’s stop here for the night”. Our tech-driven culture is like the Condamine River, always moving forward, incapable of stopping or deviating from the programming laid before it. A cynic might say it is all downhill from here.
But like the river, it is possible to meander a little, linger by the banks, and—if only for a moment—turn a deaf ear to tomorrow’s siren song.
I wake before the dawn and make the trek up the ridge to the modern camp site, where I will meet Laura for the dawn shoot. Under my arm I carry the Pallas in its canvas sack. It no longer feels like the Corpse of Camping Past, but a time-travelling vessel to a world where nobody knows where you are, and better still, can’t find you. The only GPS you’re likely to encounter is a Geriatric Pole Segment.
The first rays of new sunlight transform the i-Explore into an inflamed boil on the green buttocks of Mt Superbus, nuclear orange and faintly beeping. Even at this distance I’m convinced I can hear George, indefatigable, still wanting to hit that hiiiiigh.
The propane stove makes short work of breakfast, and packing down the tent is nearly as easy as erecting it was—that’s another thing that has improved with the years, the move away from tents that require complexcapoeira manoeuvres and a thorough grasp of engineering principles to erect them.
The rising sun bestows upon us temporary halos as Laura comes to stand beside me, and we look over the river on its way out of the valley and off across the country. We are silent for a moment, thinking of all those miles.
Then she turns to me and says, “What did you prefer?”
I look at the propane stove, the exchange we’ve made for the camp fire of ’69. What we exchange is usually convenience over satisfaction—it’s easier to cook with the stove, but it’s more satisfying to watch your companions warm themselves and their baked beans by the fire you built.
I don’t answer, because I don’t know the answer.
“Would you do it again?” she asks, another good question. It is one of her gifts, along with photography and bovine-wrangling.
“Yes,” I say, honestly.
The sun climbs a little.
“Do you hear that beeping?” she asks.
“No,” I say, lying.