Tuesday 16 December 2008

This was one of my university pieces for the year. I got an HD.

It seemed a good idea at the time but now, on the way, on the train, I’m having second thoughts. Who are these people? Where is this place? Will I really be sleeping in a tent?

At least I don’t have to worry about what to pack.

My suitcase, though, is remarkably heavy but that’s because of the two casks of red and three towels. I’ve also packed a magnum tube of sunscreen and a large brimmed hat. In my new shirt and newer haircut I think I look rather handsome, but it dawns on me, considering what lies ahead, I needn’t have made the effort.

At Blackheath I meet Joe who is to drive me the 75 minutes to John and Tony’s home – and my home for the next two nights – in the Capertee Valley. “We’ve got another passenger – Adam,” Joe says. “He’s a little… how can I put it… he’s a little strange.”

On cue Adam strolls around the corner. Dark hair with a neat beard, he moves and talks if possessed by Snagglepuss. “Mmmm… homosexuals… disgusting,” he minces more than once over the next few days. He doesn’t make friends easily.

As we drive along, Joe prepares me for what’s to come: relax, don’t worry and enjoy yourself. “You’ll be fine,” he says. Joe’s lending me the tent.

We pass a sign: Capertee Valley – The Widest Canyon in the World. Capertee is also the world’s second largest canyon, as while Capertee is one kilometre longer than the Grand Canyon, it’s not as deep. The road we travel dissects the Valley’s grassland floor, the fields stretching far away to the rocky walls where bushland takes over, only because it’s now too steep for cattle. I “moo” at a cow lazing by a fence; it ignores me. We pass another sign: The Lord’s return is near. I realise how isolated I am from everything I know.

The heatwave that had smothered the city cracked last night and it has rained off and on ever since. As we drive down the track on John and Tony’s property it is drizzling gently, not promising a comfortable weekend. Indeed, of the dozen men already arrived, none have yet gotten into the spirit of things – I’d expected it would be go-go-go from pistol shot to ribbon. It’s another hour before people start “changing over”. With some Dutch courage from the first of my wines, I join in…

It was remarkably easy. This weekend might not be that disconcerting after all. By the time we sit for lunch, and my fourth glass of plonk, I’ve completely forgotten my lack of… inhibition. It’s helped that the rain’s stopped too.

In the afternoon, John takes us for an impromptu bush walk. The property, a 100-acre block smack in the middle of the Valley, is surrounded by remarkable views, with in one direction Mount Canobola and in the other Pantoney’s Crown, which from this angle looks like one of Mavis Bramston’s hats. Still exhibiting his Aryan good looks from his modelling days (he had a bit part in 1966’s “They’re a Weird Mob”), our host stops at a little rock ledge. “All the way to the tree line is my property,” he says. The tree line is pretty far and I am well impressed, though I may have been a bit tipsy and focussing on the wrong spot.

Did you know that Capertee Valley is home to more species of birds than anywhere else in the Southern Hemisphere, with more than 235 species recorded, including 18 threatened? Tony tells me that. Alas, over the entire weekend I never spot more than a small honeyeater and handful of kookaburras. But I hear them constantly.

Heading back, between throwing the dog toy and yabbering on about how lovely it was to be out of Sydney, I pit-stop for a wee. Mid-stream, Mick, large in both height and frame, appears, camera snapping away gleefully. Lovely. Like me, Mick joined the Yahoo website group but took a while before attending in person. It’s not uncommon; while there are 150 paid up members, there are over 300 on the Yahoo mailing list. These weekends away give Mick the perfect opportunity to combine his three favourite things: camping, male company and photography. It’s the last one that I’m concerned about…

John offers me a guided tour of his house, telling the story behind each memento and trinket. The tour ends in the walk-in wardrobe off his Japanese inspired bedroom, where he proudly displays his vast collection of porn. “What should we put on?” he tempts me. I’m spoilt for choice.

I regret to say I’m not exactly sure what happened the rest of the night. I remember squeezing out the last few drops of wine – one cask down, one to go; and I know I was out by the bonfire (hazy, wary memories here); and I’m pretty sure it was around 10.30 when Joe took me by the hand and escorted me to the tents; and I’m certain it was me that suggested we share the one tent (not that Joe declined) as, well, I thought Joe was a bit of orright; but what I had for dinner… gone for good. I think it was chicken.

I wake in the night with the mouth of a dead rat. Water bottle empty, I get up to look for some more, disturbing poor Joe as I struggle out. At first it is pitch black – impossibly black – and then the sky explodes with stars. For a moment I regret leaving my glasses in the tent but my desire for refreshment wins over and I tentatively make my way to the house. Everyone has gone to bed – how they are sleeping I’ve no idea as it sounds as if an adenoidal grizzly bear is roaring a chainsaw. Originally I was supposed to be staying inside; many blessings to Joe. Still, I can’t find any water, or a hose, or a tap, and there are blow-up mattresses blocking the doors. Beaten, I pick my way back to the tents.

Not that I sleep. Soon it starts to sprinkle, then pour, then pelt. Listening to the rain, I try to relax and control the wine-induced thumping against my brain.

As the sun rises, the rain eases and the birds begin their morning chorus. I know there is no hope of getting any sleep now. I get up and leave Joe to some proper rest. With the empty water bottle and some Nurofen from my suitcase, I finally find a tap, guzzle a litre of water and wait for the drugs to kick in.

Remarkably, in spite of the rain, the bonfire is still burning, the coals that phosphorous orange when they are at their very hottest. In the crisp morning air, in the warmth of the fire, watching the clouds tumble over the valley ranges, I feel perfectly tranquil. Even the bloody great big orange tractor in the middle of the view looks magical. It’s also now, looking down, I realise just how well I’ve adapted to the weekend. In the middle of nature, I’m as Nature intended.

Eventually Andrew appears from the back of his car and, soon after, Adam staggers from inside the house. “Mmmm…,” he whimpers. He looks impossibly bad, so I fetch him some Nurofen. Together the three of us stand around the fire, occasionally prodding at it in that way that smoothers the heat more than encourages it, and try to piece together the night before.

“Ah, that’s right,” I say to Andrew, “We had sex, didn’t we?” His eyebrow arches; I take this as a “yes”.

Desperate for coffee, the three of us finally force our way indoors. “Excuse me,“ I say as I step over a couple enjoying oral sex in the path to the kitchen. They don’t seem to mind.

After breakfast, our host John claps his hands. “Who’s for an outing?” he asks. We’re to go kayaking at a nearby reserve. An hour later, I’m dressed and waiting by Joe’s car, but the kayak still hasn’t been attached to the trailer. It’s another hour before we set out – a five-car caravan daring the sodden roads.

First, we stop at Rylstone for petrol and provisions. Rylstone is one of those small towns that survives by being incredibly pretty, complete with wide tree-lined streets and an old-fashion lolly shop. My dad always said you can tell a country town by its meat pies and, considering it’s now past one, I’m starving. Unfortunately I can only find a milkbar that does sandwiches, but I make do with the most wonderful lime milkshake I have ever had.

We finally make it to Dunns Swamp, once the water source for the neighbouring towns and now a popular family retreat. Being a long weekend, the place is packed with mums and dads lounging in front of twelve-man tents and kids making mayhem with bikes, balls and boats. At the information stand, the ranger points us where to park. “What sort of group are you then?” he asks. “We’re an outdoor men’s support network,” Joe says without missing a beat. “Ah nice,” says the ranger, and waves us on.

We lunch on sandwiches, bananas and grapes. While the others dither with the kayak, Joe and I head off to attempt the Weir Walk.

Not far into the walk we detour to the Pagoda Lookout. Pagodas, abundant in this area, are volcanic rock formations that resemble the tiered roofs of ancient Chinese temples. These natural creations are just as beautiful and thousands of years older, so I feel slightly guilty as we bound like mountain goats from one platform to the next – millenniums to make tramped smooth by footfall. At the top I have a feeling of elation – I’ve achieved! – and marvel at the view. We are smack in the middle of the Wollemi National Park and are surrounded by untouched forestry in every direction. On the river far below, I spy hired kayaks gliding along, their captains’ laughter faint but crystal on the breeze. I can’t see our party but I never expected anyone to actually get in the water. But I’m enjoying the weekend, and Joe and I chat about maybe future bushwalks as we hike our way to Kandos Weir.

When we return, the others are ready to leave. “We know what you’ve been doing,” they slyly wink. Of course they don’t believe us, and they don’t stop teasing until we cede: Yes, we tell them, we’ve been busy fucking our brains out in full view. That keeps them happy; it’s what they wanted to hear. Turns out two cars have already made for home. Andrew was one of them. “I didn’t come away this weekend to be surrounded by families,” he said later.

On the drive back I count the wildlife. Kangaroos loll in the late sun. Kookaburras dart across the road, sometimes alarmingly close. There are even two wombats sleeping by the side of the road… at least I think they are sleeping…

At least I hope they are sleeping…

At the house, we get back into (or is that “out of”?) uniform and I unkeg my second cask. Considering last night, I’m planning on pacing myself – What is it they say about the road to Hell?

After dinner it’s time for speeches. John thanks everyone for coming, then Greg the treasurer takes the floor. “Thanks everyone for turning up and a special big big thanks to John and Tony for having us here (clapping). A special welcome also to the new people here today (more clapping).” It is an efficient speech that hints at Greg’s past life as a schoolteacher. A portly fellow, Greg has been involved from the start – 1999. “People are more accepting, even though you may be a bit fatter and older. They don’t judge here.” I nod.

“I’ve something to show you,” says John. Not more porn, I think, but instead it’s a documentary on the Wollemi pine. As fascinating as this is, I’d have preferred the porn, so I go start the bonfire. Eventually more join me and we end the evening chatting, drinking and poking at the fire.

It’s late in the night, second cask empty, when I make tentwards and the sleeping Joe. Well, he was sleeping till an amorous bunyip tumbled in. Joe tells me that I tasted like a cheap winery. All talk, I soon pass out. When I wake, both the sun and Joe are up.

Like Doctor Who opening the door of his TARDIS, I crawl out the tent to the splendour of an unknown world. All I can see are grasses and trees and mountains and sky. I have a minor revelation. It is a quiet, yet ecstatic, moment, and I finally understand why people go camping, or travelling for that matter: to have their comfortable mindsets dazzled by that first waking realisation that you are somewhere else. I could get to enjoy this. Perhaps I might invest in a tent?

I’m in no hurry, I’m spending Monday night at Joe’s, and it’s past lunch when the two of us head for Blackheath. Driving along we discuss the weekend. Joe’s enjoyed his time. I’ve had a good weekend too, nowhere near as scary as I’d thought – freeing, in fact.

And, as a bonus, no dirty laundry.


For more information about Gay Sydney Nudists, visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/gay_sydney_nudists/

Since writing this I have joined the Group for their annual Christmas Sydney Harbour cruise and experienced one of the more surreal moments of my life. There I was standing on the boat, on the roof platform bit, wearing only an unbuttoned shirt (it was cold), hanging on for dear life, feeling completely queazy, sipping on lemonade and trying not to throw up, while a motley crew of fully naked men dance animatedly to a disco mix of ABBA numbers, when four military helicopters fly fast and low over us. And then they flew over again, and again. With one hand firmly held to the railing, I did the only thing I could think of to do – I waved with the other.