One magical part of the Port Philip Bay foreshore begins at the McCrae lighthouse and stretches a few hundred meters towards the head of the bay. This was our campsite, summer after summer, for years. It was bushland then, it became crowded later, now it is restored to its original state.
When we camped as a family during the forties and fifties, it was never a matter of just a week or two away. It was summer. It was more a ritual than a routine. We were setting up our personal summer home in ‘bring-your-own’ style. In early November each year the site bookings opened. Dad climbed through the manhole to retrieve the tent and the poles. This was peak anxiety time for our mother. ‘Be careful Joe, be careful up there’. The tent was heavy-duty canvas and the manhole he had cut just in the ceiling was small. ‘That thing weighs a ton’. Lowered on a rope it landed with a thud outside the bathroom door.
The Chev was packed early with all the camping gear as well as buckets and brooms .. This was a race to ‘choose our spot’. There was a certain criterion: not in sight other people’s tents, not in hot sun, a view of the Bay, toilet block and shower neither too near nor too far. We always arrived in good time, and to keep all options open one daughter after another would stand with a bucket or a broom in a spot which met some of the criteria. I’m sure compromises were needed before the most likely site was chosen, then the rectangular tent was positioned on the ground to gauge for morning sun on the ‘lift-up’ porch, the view from a deck chair or hammock, the direction of a track through the tea tree to the beach. After that the heavy work started.
The tent was twelve feet by eighteen feet. The wooden posts that supported its walls were six feet high. There were two center poles each twelve feet high, to be positioned six feet apart. The kids’ job was to attach the guide ropes and hammer in the tent pegs. Dad would go inside to raise the center posts. By that time the youngest of the family were down on the beach collecting clean sand for our track. When all was secure, we had a picnic lunch, paid for the rent of our site and knew that this would be our summer home once school broke up.
The second ritual was the loading of the Chev with ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ including Christmas gifts, pudding and cake. The cargo of tables, chairs, camp beds, paraffin lamp, mosquito nets and repellents, ice box and more were in the trailer. The kids in the back seat would sit on the bedding with heads touching the canvas roof. Precious things, the newest baby, and all the baby or toddler gear, together with the crockery, were in the front passenger seat with our mother.
Once we arrived there one blissful day melded with the next … sunbathing, swimming, reading, fishing, rowing the dingy that Dad would hire most summers so that we could catch flatheads and couta out in the deep. But the story most retold is the story of the storm.
Late one afternoon it came. The fierce winds, the lightning, the thunder and the turmoil of whipped branches had us huddling together inside, hoping the tent pegs would hold. There came a sharp crash and one comer pole caved in. Wet canvas crumpled down on to the bedding. Then in slow motion first one center pole then the other fell towards us as we crouched in the one secure corner left. Then it was over. We crawled out from under our wreckage and the crowds of strangers whom we had largely ignored during the years were gathered round in a kind of awe. An old-timer shook his head. ‘Never camp under a banksia’, he said.
If I had a choice of how to camp now, I would choose a swag open to the stars at night. In our last years of camping as a whole family Veronica and I would sleep in a hammock or in the trailer, hear the sounds of the bushland and watch the night sky.
Sometimes a casual question acts like a twist of a kaleidoscope. A new pattern emerges. Somebody said, ‘Can you picture a beautiful place where you feel totally at home’. Without giving a thought to houses I have lived in I was looking at a sandy, bushy foreshore with sun and clouds marking patterns of light on the placid water of Port Philip Bay.