Every now and again a book comes along that as a fellow-writer, I think "Argh, now why didn't I write that first".
Prolific Australian travel journalist Penny Watson's latest offering, Ultimate Campsites: Australia (Hardie Grant Travel, 2020) is one of those. As someone who has pitched a tent or rolled out a swag at dozens of campgrounds around our country, I've often thought about penning a similar tome, but never got around to it. Turns out it's probably a good thing as I wouldn't have done anywhere near as good a job as Penny has.
In the space of 281 pages, Penny, a more seasoned camper than your akubra-clad reviewer could ever hope to be, has thrown the spotlight on 75 'ultimate' campsites around the country - from watching the sun go down in the desert to falling asleep in an ancient rainforest.
She's mapped out an even spread of wild and wondrous nature-immersed campsites from all around the country, from the turquoise water and white sandy beaches of Lucky Bay in WA to the dramatic alpine and coastal national parks in Tasmania.
Yes, even the ACT's Cotter Campground gets a mention but there are also some quirky ones too. Like the Bellwether Winery campground in South Australia, the campground next to a pub on the Murray River (sorry, I'm keeping that one to myself!) and another in coastal NSW run by the local surf club (oh, ok it's the one at Coledale Beach, just north of Wollongong).
Each state-by-state chapter in Ultimate Campsites: Australia contains detailed maps and the what-when-why-where information about each campsite, alongside tips and anecdotes about the surrounding regions. You'll find special sections dedicated to remote-island campsites (when can I go?!), as well as sites with great nearby walks and places close to Indigenous cultural experiences.
In her introduction, Penny recommends her book as an essential addition to the glove box of the camper trailer or car, but lavishly illustrated with photos from her own travels and written in her engaging down-to-earth style, Ultimate Campsites: Australia is just as suited to the coffee table or holiday house bookshelf.
Not surprisingly, finding 75 'ultimates' was no easy task for Penny. "Not because they're hard to find, but because once you start exploring Australia's vast land you tend to 'discover' them as a matter of course," she says.
When I asked Penny for descriptions of her favourite campsites within striking distance of Canberrans for a weekend away or NSW road trip, she was at first hesitant to fess-up, claiming they are all 'ultimate'. However, with a bit of coaxing she nominated the following five.
Thredbo Diggings: A bucolic alpine wonderland of snow gums, wild flowers and botanical-scented fresh air. It has an icy-cold mountain river that proves perfect for an invigorating morning dip while the coffee pot boils. This riverside campsite is located 12km north-east of Thredbo and 20km west of Jindabyne, in Kosciuszko National Park.
Starview Primitive Campsite: Between Broken Hill and Silverton, Starview is in an arid but bountiful red desert landscape complete with scuttling lizards, stunted plants and seed pods dormant until the next rain. A nearby hill features a spectacular sculpture park and a sunset view that takes in the contours of the earth all the way to the horizon. The newish toilet block is also pretty fancy for these parts. Located in the Living Desert Reserve, Nine Mile Road, Broken Hill.
Picnic Point: Proximity to an oyster farm puts this one among her favourites. It's small too with only a handful of campsites so you're a good chance to pitch a tent on the windswept rocky peninsula looking down the length of the beach and out to sea. Don't forget your shucker. Located in Mimosa National Park between Tathra and Bermagui.
Pebbly Beach (check with NSW National Parks for post-fire reopening dates): Beachfront camping par excellence. The waterfront is a paradise of grassy dunes and creeping tropical flowers where kangaroos make footprints in the sand while lyrebirds hide in the nearby spotted gum forest. View it all from the open-air shower on the foreshore. Located in Murramarang National Park between Ulladulla and Batemans Bay.
The Basin: There's something fabulously romantic about dragging all your camp gear onto a ferry at Palm Beach and arriving in a quintessential Australian bush setting of Sydney gums and Moreton Bay figs surrounding an idyllic seawater inlet. Kayak, cricket, swim, repeat. The Basin is located just north of Sydney on the eastern foreshore of Pittwater in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.
Penny was just as reluctant to reveal her #1 campsite in the country, something she steers clear of in the book. "Naming my top Oz campsite is like choosing a favourite child, but this week I'll nominate stunning Eliot and Twin Falls in Tropical North Queensland.
''If you're hardy enough to get to the tip of Cape York Peninsula on mostly dirt roads, this wooded tropical savannah campground rewards with its stunning red cliffs and crystal clear (croc-free) waterholes."
Oh, another one to add to the list.
My only criticism of Ultimate Campsites: Australia is that while most of the campsites featured are secluded or remote, they are also relatively well-known to experienced and well-travelled campers, and not necessarily those top-secret 'hush hush' ones that are way off the beaten track. But then again, not everyone likes camping alone. Hmm, now there's an idea for another book. I'd better not broadcast that too loudly.