Camping in Australia

January 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

I am planning my third research trip to the Bakken Oil Patch next month to continue work with a great group of collaborators to document the situation in the man camps in this rapidly changing area of the state. To this end, my colleagues and I have continued to try to find useful parallels to the pattern of temporary settlement now common in the western part of the state. (For more on the North Dakota Man Camp Project see here.)

This past week, I came across the work of Bill Garner, an Australian archaeologist and historian, who has written on the history of camping in an Australian context. In an article on the history of camping gear in the collection of Australian museums, he makes some pretty ingenious arguments for the history of camping in an Australian context. He begins with the 18th century use of tents by the first white settlers in Australia and the adaptation of the Aboriginal “gunyah” for shelter at the “leading edge of settlement”.

With the Australian Gold Rush in Victoria in the 1850s, tents sprouted in the gold fields and new forms of settlement and domesticity came along with them. In these communities, Garner noted a range of different settlement strategies which attempted to bring some sense of domestic order despite the chaotic organization and simple material conditions. Interestingly, he suggested that miners often created ad hoc communities around their tents and ate together as well as sharing some basic domestic tasks. We saw similar practices in some of the most humble Type 3 “man camps” in the Bakken Oil Patch, and far less sense of community in the more sanitary, neat, and industrial Type 1 camps. The sense of community in the informal settlements of the Australian miners could sometimes incubate radical politics. So, perhaps the orderly conditions of the modern man camps provided more than just comfortable surroundings for short term residents of the Bakken Patch.

Among the more interesting contributions in Garner’s work was his discussion of the rise in recreational camping at the turn of the 20th century and the so-called “National Camp” to support the construction of the new national capital at Canberra. In fact, members of parliament camped when they inspected the future capital in 1909. The workers who built the capital and the surveyors who laid out its buildings and streets likewise lived in the camp which existed until 1931 and served the needs of both laborers as well as the local unemployed. 

In the 1970s battles over Aboriginal land rights, camps at the capital took on another meaning. This “tent embassy” evoked both the traditional practices of Aboriginal settlement and more specifically the Gurindji settlement at Wattie Creek. I may have also been that the tents reminded Australians of their own history as settlers and the tragic inversion of fate for Aboriginals who now lived in tents on the lawn of the capital.

The meaning of tents as symbols of Australian recreation, as historically meaningful gestures, as symbols of protest, and as reminders of the nation’s natural wealth. This complex confluence of meanings certain cuts through American ideas of the camp as well. Even today, the work camps of Bakken Patch resembles the R.V. parks filled with recreational campers. Squatters camps serve as both practical adaptions to the lack of housing, but also as protests against unjust policies. Documenting the complex interplay of meaning in the works camps of western North Dakota is the next step in creating a more nuanced archaeology of the Bakken Man Camp.

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