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Photo: Leigh Henningham

Sleep under the stars or in a luxurious safari-style hut - the choice is yours when camping, Louise Southerden writes.

IN A SHOEBOX under my bed there's a photo of me when I was about 10. My family had a yellow pop-up campervan then and in this picture I'm standing on the grass in front of its open door, in flared jeans, with a rainbow lorikeet on my head, several more perched on my stick-like arms and a couple of kangaroos looking on. I'm pretty sure I was terrified at the time, but when I look back on it now, it strikes me as one of the happiest moments of my life. Everything essential was at hand: family, the great outdoors (wildlife included) and a clean toilet block.

That was Jervis Bay circa 1975 but camping experiences have a way of transcending time and place (and not just because some campers seem trapped in a fashion time warp). Even now, waking up inside my tent often makes me feel as if I've temporarily escaped the clutches of everyday life. Of course, camping trips can create their own routines too.

The only traditional thing about Christmas in our family was that we spent it every year at the same beachside campsite up the coast - far from friends, our extended family and, my brother and I feared, Santa. But Santa always found our Christmas stockings pinned to the edge of the dinette in our kitchenette (such quaint camping terms) and I grew to love the Christmas morning swims and the present-opening ceremonies at the picnic table in front of our van.

It was only years later that I realised not every kid had a camping Christmas. In fact, some kids, poor souls, never went camping at all. If you didn't grow up with camping holidays, it might be hard to understand the attraction of sleeping on a wafer-thin mattress in a "room" where the walls move with the wind, collecting water from a stream (isn't that what taps are for?) and brushing your teeth in the company of strangers.

But the joys of camping have a way of sneaking up on even the most reluctant camper. Sure, putting up a tent might take a little more effort than locating the nearest B&B. But once you're settled it's liberating to realise how simple life can be when everything you need in the world is within reach, and your daily schedule is determined by the tides, the weather and the fact that you've run out of ice for the Esky. Above all, it's about letting the rhythms of the day soak into your psyche so that when it's time to pack up and head for home, you feel renewed.

Besides, there's more to camping than tent pegs and sleeping bags. The following are a few of the many flavours that camping experiences come in these days. And if anyone asks why your hair looks a little windblown and your eyes are shining, share the secret. As the late Tasmanian photographer Peter Dombrovskis put it, it's not about getting away from it all, it's about getting back to it all.

The lap of luxury
If you thought you'd never be seen dead camping, Paperbark Camp's 10 permanent safari-style tents (if you can call them that) will convert you. Each one is like a hotel room on stilts complete with veranda, queen-sized bed and ensuite, all encased in a canvas shell. It's nature with a touch of class, camping made comfortable. Gourmet meals are served in the open-sided "gunyah" beside Currambene Creek, which flows into Jervis Bay - where you can join the local dolphins, seals and penguins for a swim.

Where: 200 kilometres south of Sydney, just past Nowra and just two kilometres from Huskisson, Jervis Bay's main township.

When to go: Any time.

Rates: From $295 per person per night including three-course dinner, bed and breakfast, and use of camp canoes and bikes.

Contact: Paperbark Camp, phone 4441 6066, 1300 668 167 or see http://www.paperbarkcamp.com.au.

Musical tents
One person's peace and quiet is another person's boredom. But you don't have to sacrifice culture to experience the great outdoors, not if you're camping out with 20,000 other music-lovers at the Woodford Folk Festival. It's as colourful as it is communal. Pitch your tent (or teepee) on the dedicated acreage between the Big Top and the chai tent and enjoy home-grown and international acts as well as comedy sessions, street theatre, a film festival, writers' panels and more alternative therapies than you can poke a joss stick at.

Where: 90 minutes north-west of Brisbane.

When to go: December 27 to January 1 (actually until the wee hours of January 2).

Rates: $350 for six days and nights; includes festival pass and camping fees.

Contact: See http://www.woodfordfolkfestival.com.

Horsing around
Hum the theme to The Man From Snowy River and saddle up for an overnight ride to remember - through Victoria's high country. This is horse camping at its most authentic. In the company of mountain men and women who look like they were born on horseback, you'll ride through stands of mountain ash and snowgums, cross icy rivers, lunch at Craig's Hut (built as a set for the movie in 1981) and, at the end of the day, unroll your swag to sleep by the campfire or in one of the original cattlemen's huts.

Where: Rides start at Merrijig, 18 kilometres from Mansfield, three hours north-east of Melbourne.

When to go: Overnight trips run November to May.

Rates: Rates start at $415 for a two-day ride.

Contact: McCormack's Mountain Valley Trail Rides, phone (03) 5775 2886 or see http://www.mountainvalleytrailrides.com.

Island life
Play castaways on Lady Musgrave Island on the Great Barrier Reef and prepare for splendid isolation. A boat will deposit you, your camping gear and supplies on this idyllic coral cay within Capricornia Cays National Park and pick you up a couple of days, or weeks, later. In between, it's just you, a handful of other would-be Robinson Crusoes and the island's permanent residents: thousands of sea birds, 1200 species of tropical fish, sea turtles, manta rays and dolphins.

Where: 100 kilometres north-east of Bundaberg.

When to go: Between Easter and Australia Day inclusive.

Rates: Camping permits cost $4 per person per night; boat transfers from Bundaberg cost $280 return.

Contact: The Gladstone office of the Environmental Protection Agency for camping permits: phone (07) 4971 6500 or 131 304, or see http://www.qld.gov.au/camping. For transfers, contact Lady Musgrave Barrier Reef Cruises, phone 1800 072 110.

Tent city
Avoid holiday traffic by camping in your own backyard (not literally, of course, though there is always that low-cost option). Lakeside Holiday Park at Narrabeen looks like it missed the turn-off to the Central Coast and ended up on Sydney's northern beaches. One of its great attributes is that it's a home not too far away from home. There are more than 300 grassy campsites perched on the edge of Narrabeen Lake - which is perfect for summertime swimming, fishing, kayaking and windsurfing, and just a stonefish throw from North Narrabeen surf beach with its cafe and rockpool.

Where: Sydney's northern beaches, 24 kilometres north of the CBD.

When to go: Any time.

Rates: $30 for two adults on an unpowered site, cabins $150 to $250 per night twin share.

Contact: Sydney Lakeside Holiday Park, phone 1800 008 845, 9913 7845 or see http://www.sydneylakeside.com.au.

Going bush
It's rare to find a place as untouched as Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, aka the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory. This tip of Aboriginal-owned land north-east of Darwin is remote with a capital R - it's beyond Kakadu, beyond even Arnhem Land. The campsite at Smith Point overlooks the Arafura Sea and although swimming is not an option (the coastline is patrolled by saltwater crocodiles, tiger sharks, sea snakes and box jellyfish) the world-class fishing and dazzling sunsets make it worth the trek.

Where: 200 kilometres north-east of Darwin.

When to go: May to October.

Rates: Camping permits cost $232.10 per vehicle for up to seven nights. However, there is a daily limit of only 15 vehicles that are permitted to stay in the park.

Contact: Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory, phone (08) 8999 4814.