Free camping: The good old days

By: Kath Heiman, Photography by: Kath Heiman

There’s a lot of country out there to explore, but it turns out life on the road is not as free and easy as it used to be.

Free camping: The good old days
It’s been a long time since we’ve simply turned the vehicle’s nose perpendicular to the road and headed into the scrub in search of a secluded hideaway

As overlanders, we must live in the best country in the world. The government says that urban development occupies only around 3000 square kilometres of Australia’s landmass and over 80% of us live within 100 kilometres of the coast. On my calculations, that leaves around 7.5 million square kilometres to explore, limited only by the capacity of our rigs and the campers we pull!

Or does it?

Shortly after we came to Australia from the UK in 1978, dad bought a short-wheelbase 1976 FJ 40 Toyota LandCruiser. It took us across vast tracts of country — to the back of Bourke, up the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks, through the Simpson Desert, Corner Country and beyond. We travelled to Alice Springs when the road was still unsealed and earned you a bumper sticker proclaiming "I survived the Stuart Highway".

Camping then seemed fairly unregulated. On most afternoons, we’d simply drive off the main track and pitch our tent behind a convenient dune or some dense vegetation. In hindsight, we were lucky a landholder didn’t object to our unintended intrusion on their property, but back then there seemed to be no-one around who’d care.

We were probably wrong on that score.

Crown Land

Whether or not the situation was the same in the 1980s, these days over 60% of Australia is under agricultural management. A further 24% is subject to specific land regulation – whether related to forestry, water or indigenous management, biodiversity, conservation, or mining protections. That means in at least 84% of the country, somebody cares if we want to camp on the land.

While Crown land is generally viewed as the only guaranteed "free" land for camping, even that assumption isn’t necessarily correct. Crown land regulations can still apply to what we do, particularly when it comes to how long we can stay in one place.

And we haven’t "got it made" if a landowner allows us to roost on their property for a few days fishing and a bit of vermin eradication. In some jurisdictions, council approval is needed to camp at the same place for more than two days at a time and it may not be permissible to exceed 60 days at the same site in any single year. So much for the freedom of the open road. Bureaucracy follows us everywhere.

One of the perennial problems is how to distinguish Crown land, from council land, from a nature reserve, from a fifty-squillion-hectare pastoral lease, when there are no signs anywhere. I’ve got to admit that, when the sun’s going down and our three-year-old is trying desperately to extricate herself from her seatbelt, my mind’s not focused on land management regulations.

Happily, there are many, many acres of designated bush campsites that are routinely managed and maintained by local councils. So the prospect of an overnighter doesn’t have to mean sleeping "cheek by jowl" with fellow travellers. I won’t pretend that any of these sites has topped some of the "illegal camps" that we enjoyed when I was a kid, but, for the most part, I’m pretty comfortable with the new way of doing things.

The good old days?

Do I miss the old days? Yes, I do. It’s been a long time since we’ve simply turned the vehicle’s nose perpendicular to the road and headed into the scrub in search of a secluded hideaway. And I miss the spontaneity.

But I know that what we do now makes sense. The fact is that there are simply more people on the road these days. If we all just did what we want, wherever we wanted, it wouldn’t take long before some of the best bits of this fabulous country would resemble makeshift latrines.

And I’d hate it.