Family camping for rookies in Moore River

Photo of Andrew Baillie

"Here was a chance to rough it and have a bit of adventure in the great outdoors... But where on earth to go?"

“Daaaaad, can we go camping?”

“Eh ... yes Anya, let me look into it.”

I hadn’t slept in a tent since I was in the Scouts back in Glasgow. My last memories of life under canvas were of a week in Wales, at a jamboree somewhere near Cardiff, in 1985. It was the height of summer, meaning it rained non-stop and very soon was a sea of mud.

Still, it’s hard to turn down the request of a then 10-year-old when she’s put on her cute voice. My wife Leyanne is strictly a five-star hotel holidaymaker, and our elder daughter Nina has inherited her luxury-loving genes. So here, almost seven years into our life in Australia, was a chance to rough it and have a bit of adventure in the great outdoors in a climate more conducive to that sort of thing.

But where on earth to go?

A quick chat with friends and Leyanne’s Uncle Pete, a seasoned camper, brings up Moore River. I know people go there for daytrips, and I’d often passed the turn-off on the Indian Ocean Drive, on the road up to Jurien Bay or Green Head, but that is about the sum of my knowledge.

Still, it is only 85km away from our home in the northern suburbs, meaning that if disaster strikes and I somehow can’t get a tent up, or Anya decides that she isn’t a happy camper after all, it isn’t so far to come home.

A bit of research reveals that Moore River isn’t a town, but (doh) an actual river. At its head is the town of Guilderton, and there seems to be only one place to pitch a tent there, at the Guilderton Caravan Park.

I wait until the worst of the summer heat is over and reckon the first weekend in April will be neither too roasting nor too wet. It seems I’m not the only one thinking this. You can book online and I get the last powered site for that Friday and Saturday night. At $45 a night it also appeals to my Scottish stinginess; that wouldn’t even get Leyanne a massage in one of her fancy hotels.

Talking of being tight, I reckon there’s no point shelling out for expensive equipment until we know we like camping, so Pete lends me his four-man tent, two sleeping bags, camp lantern and self-inflating mattresses. What seems like a whole day of food shopping later, the car is jam packed and we are ready to go.

The drive north, even through late Friday afternoon traffic in Joondalup, is easy, with the sun starting to set on our left and casting orange-tinged silhouettes on the bushland north of Yanchep. We reach Guilderton in just under an hour but it feels another world away, as if we’ve stepped back in time. 

Like many of the settlements dotted along this underdeveloped stretch of coast, it’s a mixture of shacks, holiday rental homes and new builds with big, seaview-capturing balconies. There’s one petrol station, a golf course, a store, fish and chip shop, some sculptures and, of course, the caravan park.

The friendly receptionist, who is also Scottish and clearly realises I’m a novice, points out everything I need to know and gives us a key to the family bathroom. When I do find our site I reckon it’s a good spot. We’re one tent away from the river, while behind us is the edge of the park and scrubland, meaning more peace than others stuck in the middle of the place. We have about an hour of light left and I don’t fancy trying to pitch an unfamiliar tent by car-light, so I stop drinking in the fresh sea air and get to work.

Rookie error number one: I’ve forgotten a hammer. And the ground is packed hard and won’t take a tent peg easily. I can’t face admitting my mistake to my neighbours or at reception, so dig about in the car boot and find the wheel-nut wrench. I probably have to hammer away twice as hard as normal, but finally get the tent up. Now for a quick cuppa.

Rookie error number two: In my naivety, I thought a powered site meant I would have a power point at, well, my site. Watching other campers wind out their long cables, I quickly realise that’s not the case. So the ground coffee, plunger and kettle can stay in the car. Luckily, I’m not relying on a fridge like some, with my perishables in an esky full of ice. 

Instead, after a quick walk up to a lookout in the fading light, the portable gas barbie comes out and we make dinner. Honey soy chicken and grilled corn on the cob. Sitting on our low concert chairs. On our adventure. It must be the fresh air but it tastes nicer than when I make this at home.

The tent manages to stay up all night and we have a decent sleep on our little mattresses, woken at about 6.30am by the sound of children roaming round, chattering, carefree. It reminds me of Rotto. Like I said, it’s like we’ve stepped back in time.

Saturday is April Fools’ Day, and the weather is playing tricks on us. It’s glorious, 32C, and the start of that incredible autumn run of settled, sunny weather.

After a barbecue breakfast we wander round to get our bearings. Every site is taken but it doesn’t feel crowded. There’s the big, clean toilet block with heated showers, which are turned off from 11am-4pm to save water. There’s a barbecue area and a kitchen which, again, is spotless, and the queue for washing up is never very long. Then there’s the fish and chip shop, which in the morning serves coffee and feeds my caffeine addiction.

It’s then time to head to the river to check out the sandbar, the natural barrier that blocks the water’s path into the ocean. By now it’s heating up and Anya is desperate to try stand-up paddleboarding. There are a few board and kayak rental places next to the river and we opt for Get on Board WA, which will loan you an inflatable SUP for various time periods. We pay $25 for an hour and share a board.

Neither of us has done it before but, despite a few dunkings in the chilly water, it’s good fun. The exertion, especially when trying to head upstream into the strong wind, means we’re happy to spend much of the afternoon relaxing, people-watching, snoozing and reading, before another dip in the river ahead of some cracking fish and chips.

Our big adventure is far from over, though. Anya’s school class has been learning about the solar system so we have booked a night of stargazing at Gravity Discovery Centre’s observatory in Gingin, about 30 minutes drive away.

We arrive at 7pm and, while other visitors are enjoying the centre’s cafe/restaurant, we spend 30 minutes exploring and experimenting. Anya’s favourite exhibits are the Bernoulli Ball, a jet of air that sends balls floating high in the room; Magnetic Levitiation, which somehow uses a magnet and a copper plate to suspend another magnet in midair; and the Giant Slinky, an 8m exhibit which shows how waves work.

We then joing our group and meet senior astronomer Richard Tonello, who talks us through the areas of the sky we’ll be looking at through five telescopes, with a mixture of humour and knowledge that leaves me feeling rather small in our big universe.

The main things on show tonight are a spot near Orion’s Belt, an area just under the Southern Cross and Jupiter. The lack of light pollution means Gingin is perfect for stargazing and Richard and his team answer our questions willingly. They could talk all night, it seems, but at 9.30pm, with the temperature dropping and Anya flagging, we head off before they set up the 1m Brodie Hall telescope, the largest public-use telescope in WA. Still, the night sky is ever-changing and we make plans to come back and try it.

All too soon, it’s 10am on Sunday, the tent is packed in the car and it’s time to head home. Two nights away, just over 40 hours in total, but it feels like longer.

A proper break. A proper adventure.

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