Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: June 1, 2001
I was woken up one recent morning, on Cable Beach at Broome (North Western Australia) by a ranger who informed me it was illegal to camp on the beach. In fact, it was illegal to camp anywhere within 16km of a camp ground in Western Australia - there was a $100 fine!
In my mind I was saying "but I wasn't camping, honest to goodness, just sleeping," but prudence dictated my mouth should say "oh, I'm sorry officer, I wasn't aware ...". As it was, I'd hitched into Broome the night before and spent the evening chatting on the beach with Jeff the cyclist who'd spent the last two years cycling Australia. When it got late Jeff cycled off to a camp he had in the bushes, but the night was fine, there were no mozzies, the moon was full, and I caught some shut-eye on the beach.
Of course, there were some mozzies, enough that within the hour my wrists were itching, so I quickly popped up my mosquito netting (really the inner skin of the tiny pup-tent I carry which is just netting really) and carried right on sleeping. I was quite proficient at this as I quite enjoyed sleeping out but occasionally the mozzies wouldn't show up till mid-morning, waking me and in my sleep I whip up the netting.
Thus the ranger found me in the morning. She was polite, let me off with a warning, I was from interstate after all, and appropriately humble and apologetic.
But still, the problem was not new, and had plagued me time and again. I'd never met a ranger before, but had pitched tent on beaches, in woods, behind scout halls, in parks, in towns, heck I've even pitched tent in London! Always it raises similar concerns, how will society around me react to my sleeping here the night?
So on this occasion I'm nabbed for camping. And I ask myself what is camping? Had I not put up my mosquito net, would I be camping? Or just sleeping? And is sleeping on the beach illegal too? What about during the day? Am I allowed to nap for an hour on the beach? Are 7 hours napping too much? Or is the witching hour taboo, unless I'm awake ... ? Honestly Ma'am, I just got here nice and early to grab a spot before the crowds come, and nodded off for a tick there, it is early after all, and this here is my sun-shelter ...
In any populated area, the hitch-hiker in need of a little shut-eye, and no burning desire either to fork out for a camp-site, dorm bed, hotel room, or to wander around in search of one, will face the same question. If I just sleep right here, what's the deal?
You're interested of course in avoiding any uncomfortable encounters with strangers. Be they drunken hooligans, nutty yokels, or passing rangers of police ... in other words, discretion is the order of the day.
But how discrete is discrete enough? Who are the enemies? Oddly enough, the weather and insects are among them and comfort is not a matter of discretion alone. A tent is often a boon!
But if you're anywhere near people, a tent also raises that perplexing question, am I sleeping, or am I camping? Like it or not, if you crash on a park bench in your average town, or even doss down under a tree, you'll probably (weather and insects notwithstanding) get an undisturbed nights sleep. In fact, if the air is warm and dry and the stars are out, it's as nice a place to sleep as any. More comfortable than in a cramped tent anyhow!
But if it's not so warm, dry or the biting bugs are out the tent starts to look wildly attractive. And yet, if you pitch tent in the same spot, your that much less likely to get an undisturbed nights sleep!
Perhaps something about a tent radiates a degree of stability, of territorial claim, which challenges others who lay claim to that ground? Or perhaps it advertises a certain defiance of the cash economy in which, if you're not paying for the right to sleep you're of clearly diminished social responsibility? Either way the subtle prejudice that emerges seems banal, but is nonetheless very real, and in my experience somewhat ubiquitous.
It is the same prejudice that caused the Gypsies so much grief as the land around them was consumed by urbanites brandishing those prejudices! A whole culture that has been oppressed, and demonstrates the teething problems of a huge shift in paradigm to this day as they've been forced into the towns and cities of Europe. Alas?
While working at a Bed and Breakfast in Darwin, not long before my Cable Beach encounter, I got to talking with the boss about the Hitch-hiker's Registry, a hospitality club for hitch-hikers. She was active in the Hospitality Industry in the Northern Territory, on boards and committees, meeting with ministers and hotel chains and tour operators and such ... "How does that go together, hospitality and hitch-hiking?" she asked me. I smiled.
I've always wondered myself how this oxymoron "Hospitality Industry" ever came about. As if a whole industry had taken the cause of hospitality to ransom. As indeed it has! Surely though, if I take a guest in, that is hospitality, if I ask my guest to pay, that is industry, and never the twain shall meet ...
But the hospitality industry of course must erode hospitality to further its own existence, and it's ever so quaint to see it's proponents so deeply lost in that mission as to have forgotten that hitch-hiking and hospitality are blood brothers! To have so wedded hospitality and industry in their minds that the one has taken on the meaning of the other (alas in the wrong direction - how fine it would be if industry were to become hospitable!).
But, for the hitch-hikers who remain, who are on a mission to see and experience the world around them, have little cash to burn, are disillusioned perhaps with the world of cardboard cut-out tourism, the backpackers scene with all its hostels and touts (and beautiful girls ;-) there is still a call to sleep out ... wherever, whenever. And for them, discretion will remain the order of the day .. and occasional musings on what is sleeping and what is camping.
(You may like to check out Donna McSherry's list of strange places to sleep for some inspiration)