In our national psyche, we are a nation of outdoors-lovers. We load the station wagon with folding chairs and eskies, with fishing rods and cricket bats. If the season is chilly, we pack marshmallows and hunt for sticks on which to roast them. We are rugged and resourceful, fully equipped to deal with nature.
The last time most of us actually went camping was a long time ago. We went to bed early to get away from the mosquitoes, but we couldn't sleep because there was a large wild animal snuffling outside looking for food scraps. It was just as well we were awake, though, when the rain came at 2am and the tent collapsed under the weight of the water.
Is it camping, then, if you dine on asparagus with kohlrabi, duck ham and summer blossoms at western Victoria's Royal Mail Hotel, then return to your slickly detailed '60s Airstream caravan parked in a campground in the Grampians National Park to sleep? Is it camping if you stay in a permanent tent with wooden floorboards, bar fridge, queen-size bed, ensuite and the toilet-paper roll folded neatly into a little point at the end?
Having recently returned from a three-month camping trip to research the east coast's best camp sites for Cool Camping Australia, I'm happy to report that it seems peevish to agonise over semantics when you've just poured another glass of Gippsland chardonnay from that bar fridge and you're sitting outside on the tent's hardwood deck watching a kookaburra cock his head at you, sharing a glance that says "this is the life, eh?" Recognising the market for stylish camping options, Parks Victoria offers "wilderness retreats" in three of the state's national parks and camping reserves.
Wilsons Promontory Wilderness Retreats are the last word in government-run camping luxury (four words rarely seen together, it's true). Each permanent "tent" has an ensuite bathroom, electric heater, piles of squishy pillows, and hot-water bottles with soft covers. The tents share a camp kitchen equipped with stove, microwave, fridge, coffee plungers, crockery and so on, and the barbecues outside are for the exclusive use of retreat guests. (The only discordant note is the instant coffee, so BYO beans.) The private deck is the best part of the whole deal: a generously sized area with close-up views of the coastal heath. Tempting as it is not to stir from here, rouse yourself to stroll the 3.8km Tidal Overlook circuit, which leads through lilly pilly and eucalypt forests to a lookout from where you can see all the way over to Squeaky Beach. From late afternoon onwards, you're likely to see wombats and wallabies on the track.
At Buchan Caves Reserve in the foothills of east Gippsland, the wilderness retreats come with a rumbling soundtrack. It sounds like mountain cattlemen, but in fact it's a mob of kangaroos bounding down into the valley. Kangaroos seem exotic here, where mature European trees - silver poplars, English ash - are as common in the campground as eucalypts, and where autumn brings a blaze of deciduous colour. The big draw is the extensive caves system, open for tours daily. The retreats look identical to those at the Prom, although the bathrooms are shared.
Cape Conran Coastal Park, 420km east of Melbourne and 650km south of Sydney, is a long way from anywhere, so don't forget the corkscrew. The wilderness retreats and the campground are set amid scrubby tea tree, banksia and southern mahogany moments from the beach. And what a beach it is: wild, unpatrolled and not for the faint-hearted, but perfect for hours of solitary beachcombing.
US columnist Dave Barry once wrote, "Camping is nature's way of promoting the motel business." My own heart, though, still belongs to the old school of camping. I like being outdoors and staying outdoors. I like getting dirty and staying dirty. Most of all, I like waking up in a tent. Just as long as there's real coffee to start the day, and a bottle of wine at the other end.