Australia is a country that people cannot help but picture in the sun. Beaches, surf, sand, sunbathing. When I first arrived here, straight into the tropical north in springtime, I couldn’t imagine ever being cold again.
Actually, on some days, I couldn’t imagine anything better than being cold again.
But it’s winter now. And while the north of the country enjoys its holiday season at this time of year, here down south it’s a different story. It’s not quite ice and snow, but it’s certainly cold enough for some frosty fingers and toes if all you’ve got between your sleeping body and the great outdoors is a flimsy piece of canvas.
But here’s the thing. Travelling in winter is actually kind of wonderful.
To be honest I didn’t give much thought to the fact of encroaching winter before I set off on a road trip from Melbourne to Perth. Over 5000 kilometres, camping in the great outdoors, just a car and a tent and a bunch of food packed into the boot – what could be simpler? There was this significant part of me that felt that when my Australian friends insisted that it does get cold in winter, they just didn’t know what ‘cold’ actually was.
I was wrong.
Winter in Australia can be just as bitter as winter in the UK, albeit usually without the sleet and the slush of failed snowfall. It rains a lot, the air develops a ferocious bite, and there is a need for at least four layers of clothing if you’re outside in the evening time.
Although there are inevitably difficulties that come with cold weather, it has its advantages too. Like, you don’t need to worry about all your food going off – the car boot is basically a ready-made fridge! And you needn’t concern yourself with booking campsites ahead of time – there’ll be plenty of space.
(Almost too much space, at times. You might start to wonder when you’ll next see another human.)
And of course, there’s always the magical power of contrast. There is no way, in summer or spring, that you will have the same appreciation of every ray of sunlight, every fresh, dry breeze, every clear night. In those seasons you have a set of expectations which can only be disappointed; in winter you can only have hope and optimism.
You can only truly appreciate the value of being dry and warm when you have spent night after night consumed with worry that your tent might get flooded.
There is also some appeal in having the best camp spots all to yourself. Sure, company is great, but solitude lends a certain beauty to your surroundings. The middle of a national park, closeted by trees; the choice spot in the camp ground with the view of the ocean right from the tent zipper; the space with the best shelter from the wind.
I loved this road trip, among many reasons, because of the chance to be alone in nature. To sit there, uninterrupted by the irritation of over-loud speakers blaring, inane chat, the raucous noise of fellow campers getting drunk on cheap wine. To be able to just listen to the sound of the waves hushing over the shore, or watch the birds argue in a neighbouring tree, or the kangaroos nosing their way around the tent. In summer, you wouldn’t get any of that.
Adversity tempers joy. It gives it a shine that it would not otherwise have. I do not think that I would have looked up at the stars in the Grampians national park with such excitement and wonder, had I not been frozen to my very bones.
So I’m glad that Australia is not always what I imagined. Beaches, surf, sea, sunbathing. It is all those things, but it’s more than that. I could not have envisioned sleeping in a tent, many-layered, tossing and turning all night because the cold gnawed through my two pairs of socks. But then, I couldn’t have envisioned the beauty of waking up to a campsite all to yourself among the sand dunes.
Travelling in winter. Cold, but so much more than cold.