We just got back from a great overnight wild-camping trip on the River Wye. Weather was good, but very windy on day one which made the mailes hard going at times, but it cleared beautifully in the evening for our camp. We knew heavy rain was coming early the next morning so set about getting good tarp-rigs up for some protection, which worked great. Here’s some photos from the trip.
Inspiring short film on the ‘revival of cedar canoe culture’ among indigenous North Americans:
“The revival of cedar canoe culture and Tribal Journeys is one of the most significant cultural movements of our time. It serves as an example of healing through tradition for indigenous cultures throughout the world. Knowledge of the earth and sea, customs, language, and spiritual practices nearly erased from our human experience are triumphantly reestablished and celebrated through the canoe pulling and ceremonies of each Tribal Journey. Coastal natives, reconnect with the ancestors, with the traditions, with each other, with the water.
We are taking our canoes out of the museums and putting them back in the water and showing the world our culture is alive.”
A sudden down-turn in the temperatures in mid October didn’t put us off a planned canoe trip on the river Wye. We set off for a short trip with an overnight wild camp on the river, Autumn sunshine and the trees just beginning to turn, we had a brief shower once we got on the river, but sheltered under a huge oak tree, with acorns dropping all around us as the squirrels above were busy feeding before winter. There were a lot of pheasants around too, and we saw them scatter as the sound of a Goshawk called loudly from the tree just above us, something I’d never heard before – I still haven’t ever seen one of these elusive predators, even though the Wye valley and the Forest of Dean are one of the best places to see them, they are making a great comeback in recent years after being persecuted, like many birds of prey to the verge of extinction in the UK in the past. But the pheasants certainly know about them!
We canoed downstream in the most beautiful sharp autumn light late in the afternoon, the shower brought out the best rainbow I’ve ever seen, reflected in the river and reaching right across the sky. Arriving at our camp spot as dusk drew in, the temperature was dropping sharply, so with one strike from the firesteel on some birchbark and dry twigs gathered along the way we had a fire going, and set about organising the camp. With a bit of rain still in the air Hawkeye set up his usual tarp rig as a back-up, but we planned to sleep out until any rain came. In fact the sky cleared completely during the evening, but that meant the temperature really began to drop fast – with the fire roaring we were warm but a little apprehensive about how cold it would get during the night. The owls hooted all around the valley in the dark, and the sound of the fire crackling and the river running past made for a fantastic evening around the fire. We ate strips of rump steak on sticks over the flames, and big roast potatoes cooked straight in the embers – the best way: the ferocious heat in the embers cooks the potato much hotter than an oven, and really brings out the best sweet flavour, we both agreed that you need no more than potatoes cooked this way with some butter for a great camp meal. They were in about 40 minutes, then pulled out to cool: the surface turns to a kind of charcoal egg-cup, once cool you can hold that, break open the top and scoop out the soft potato inside, your hands get a blackened, but holy smoke it’s worth it!
The stars were soon out, full moon rising too over the treeline, and later we retired to the swag and sleeping bags with the fire still providing plenty of warmth. I fell asleep with the freshening air, looking up at a billion stars, with the sound of the owls and the river, an unforgettable magical experience.
Sure enough during the night it got very cold: I pulled the canvas swag over my head to keep off the breeze, and slept soundly, perfectly warm and dry: still nothing better for me than an australian canvas ‘swag bag’ and sleeping out, no tent required. Worst case if you get heavy rain a small tarp over the top would do the trick, but unless you get heavy rain you can sleep right out there in the open, in comfort too.
Hawkeye woke early, and got the fire re-started from the remains of last nights logs, then poked my swag with a stick to wake me so I wouldn’t miss the most beautiful morning scene on the river I’ve ever witnessed: the cold meant a thick mist was swirling around over the water, shifted around by a light breeze, the river and the forest around was stirring. H had the Kelly Kettle on too so I had no excuse but to jump up, get some clothes on quick and enjoy some hot tea by the fire, just watching the day begin. The cold was such that a thick frost had formed on most of our gear, and it felt like a winter trip rather then autumn! Warmed my hands on the fire as they were getting numb it was that cold, definitely sub-zero by one or two degrees.
After some coffee and hot porridge on the fire cooked in the trusty crusader mugs, we got into the canoes and pushed off to explore up river, paddling quietly through the swirling mist, the forest all around – a magical experience I’ll never forget.
So here’s the video of the trip… watch it full screen if you can, hope you enjoy it.
A new product from the Eydon Kettle company, makers of the famous STORM Kettles we use on this site, the POPPIN is a unique smaller, taller STORM Kettle, specially designed to “Pop-in” your rucksack or whatever else you use to carry gear around. It look a beautiful object from the photos we’ve seen and we’re hoping to get to try one out very soon and will of course report back on it’s usage here if we do. It’s slimmer shape would be a great advantage as of course the traditional shape kettles have to be quite broad for the way the flames will shoot up the chimney, so having a higher chimney allows a full 1.5 pint capacity in a much slimmer product, we’d expect that is a real advantage even just for storing your kettles – I’ve got 4 different ones and they do take up a bit of space! But the proof of any pudding is in the eating of course, but so far this looks like Eydon have done it again after our previous favourite the “Popular” model (see video here) and like that the Poppin comes in a gorgeous and very practical matt black heat resistant paint coating, and they really look the business – the true “Black Billy” of Australian legend, from the old folk song based on the Irish tune The Boys of Wexford song: “With a swag on my shoulder, black billy in my hand, I travel the bush of Australia, like a true-born Irishman” - A classic bit of Irish irony in there I think – a wandering Irishman, in a dusty land, far away from his lush green homeland (see our post “The History and Romance of the Australian Swag“) Some pictures of the new product below – and it’s available from the website here
I’m a huge fan of “swag camping” – camping out under the stars around the camp fire in a canvas Australian “swag” – see my previous post here. I’ve been facinated by these and have gradually been delving deeper into the history to this unique way of camping, that seems more or less unknown as such outside Australia, although North America has it’s “cowboy bedroll”, and we have the modern “bivvy bag”, but it’s not quite the same thing. So my research has come up with some fantastic historical details which I have compiled in this feature, covering the origins of the word, of the Australian swag in 19th Century Australia, and use of the swag in the 20th Century and up to the present day modern swags used in Australia.
In Australian historical terms, a swag is a waterproof bedroll. In the 1800s and first half of the 20th century a swagman was an itinerant rural worker – usually but not always sheep shearers – who carried their bedroll ‘swag’ with their belongings wrapped in them on their back. Most modern swags however are only used for bedding, but they are typically made with a waterproof outer section – traditionally canvas but more recent swags use more modern materials. Before motor transport was common, foot travel over long distances was essential to workers who were travelling in the Australian bush and who could not afford a horse. Itinerant workers who travelled from farm to farm sheep shearing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were called “swagmen” because they carried all their possessions in a swag. This image was immortalised in Australian culture by the song Waltzing Matilda.
A swag is also referred to as a “Matilda”, “Drum” or “Bluey” and hence “Waltzing matilda”, “walking along with my swag” (from the German auf der Walz, which means to travel while working as a craftsman) “humping bluey”. Bluey refers to the favoured blue color of cloth blankets used in the bedrolls. The word Swag itself appears to come from old norse word for “swing” or thing that “swings or sways”, can also be applied to a person’s gait as they carry something, swaying along. This word can be found in recored use back as far at the 11th century.
The most detailed 19th Century Australian description of the swag is found in Henry Lawson’s The Romance of the Swag:
The Jolly Swagman in “Waltzing Matilda” – Australia’s unofficial National Anthem
“Waltzing Matilda” is Australia’s most widely known bush ballad, a country folk song, and has been referred to as “the unofficial national anthem of Australia”. The song narrates the story of an itinerant worker, or swagman, making a drink of tea at a bush camp and capturing a sheep to eat. When the sheep’s ostensible owner arrives with three police officers to arrest the worker for the theft (a crime punishable by hanging), the worker commits suicide by drowning himself in the nearby watering hole, and then goes on to haunt the site.
by Bajo Paterson
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolabah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled
“You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me”
With a Swag Upon My Shoulder, Black Billy in my Hand….
Another folk song featuring the swag is “With a Swag Upon My Shoulder” (the tune being a variant of the Irish tune ‘Boys of Wexford’).
With my Swag upon my Shoulder
When first I left Old England’s shore
Such yarns as we were told
As how folks in Australia
Could pick up lumps of gold
So, when we got to Melbourne town
We were ready soon to slip
And get even with the captain
All hands scuttled from the ship
With my swag all on my shoulder
Black billy in my hand
I travelled the bush of Australia
Like a true-born Irish man
And so on, the full lyrics are here, a great bush song.
Use of Swags – late 20th Century
This photo from 1979 from www.our-camping-site.com shows a swag rolled up on the back of an old Bedford truck, way out in the bush, where the driver pictured had slept out in the swag right on the road itself – the author notes that you could do that back in the days when there was less trafic in these remote areas, but suggests ‘Of course, camping on any road today would not be a sensible thing to do’!
Contemporary Swag Stories
A party travelling through outback Australia describe the experience of renting a swag for the trip: Extract from: http://www.kia-sorento.org/swag.html “The swag, during those four days of driving along the Mereenie loop road, has been a staple of fun and tease among us. A swag is quite a comfortable bed that can be rolled and carried fairly easily. But the swag proved to have a couple of drawbacks, such as its renting price (150 Australian dollars apiece for 4 days), and its size, making it a bit bulky. However, facing the difficulty of accommodating everyone’s comfort needs, one swag was rented for one of us, while two would sleep in the tent, and the remaining two would sleep on a sleeping mat.
The cold (and mosquitoes) of the first night forced the two mat-sleepers to seek refuge into the Kia, and the two tent-sleepers to hug each other even closer (the next day sleeping bags were bought for those four unfortunate), while the swag-sleeper enjoyed a cold-free and almost mosquito-free night, and awoke with morale at its highest.
Tourist Swag camping – Swag Safaris & The Ghost of the Jolly Swagman…
Many tour companies now offer a nights swag camp in the Australain desert as a way to experience ‘the real Australian outback’ offered alongside snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef and other popular Australian tourist experiences:
“Sleep in a bush swag near Ayers Rock, snorkel the Great Barrier Reef and spot dolphins in the Wild West. Our friendly travel specialists will help you build a completely personal Australia trip with our unique bite-sized experiences, including ‘Coral Sea Meets Rainforest’, ‘Rock to Croc Safari’ and ‘Put Your Feet Up At Mission Beach’. Simply choose the mini-adventures that catch your eye and we’ll string them together using a mix of local and private transport.”
From: Australia Travel Plan
There’s even boutique hotel “swag” experiences available, such as this Blue Mountain Private Safaris Luxury Swag Camp although that comes at some cost, a world away from the original “swagman” experience! I imagine the ghost of the jolly Swagman of “Waltzing Matilda” roaming around humping his drum, and wearily wandering into one of these luxury swag hotel-camps! I reckon he’d set about making him self right at home, feasting on $200 bottles of wine and asking for more fresh towels – after a few days rest and gourmet tucker, our ghost would have to grab his old swag he left at the door, and head off into the bush again of course, perhaps with a bunch of miniature whisky bottles from the mini bar in his swag!
Ray Mears, Bushcraft & the Swag
Someone who has travelled and wild-camped all over the world is the UK bushcraft expert, writer and TV presenter Ray Mears. A proponent of swag camping and it’s benefits, Ray has featured swags in several of his programmes. Here’s Ray in a swag in the desert.
Modern Design Australian Swags
Often made with PVC base, witha lot of features like mozzie nets, vecro, storm flaps and comfortable mattresses, these come in many designs and colours and shapes, most now being offered with a hooped ‘dome’ design, such as the Waratah from Burke & Wills. Here’s a video of me from LandRoverExplorer.co.uk of the Waratah swag being set up:
Swags used on Path Of The Paddle
The Razorback swag used on many canoeing and wild-camping trips featured on this website
Got a Swag Story?
Got your own Swag camp stories? Or know of any more historical background we could add here? Let us know using the form here. Thanks!
We just returned from a short but fantastic wild-camp and canoe trip on the River Wye – very cold at night, a few degress below zero in a sudden cold snap, but it was a magical experience – the river never disappoints…. full video coming soon, but here’s a snapshot.
[Update: new Wild Canvas Australian Swags will soon be available to buy online - see latest post.
Australia is the home of the canvas “swag” of course, and the best place to look out for the range of different styles and prices available down under is the Australian Ebay site. This one above from Ebay is the height of luxury in a swag: a one person canvas hotel room! It’s an an Onland Woodland CDK Canvas KING SIZE Dome Swag with FREE bag & Stubby Holder! An extensive set of features includes:
- Fibreglass poles at head,centre and foot for easy entry and comfortable space
- Heavy duty PVC waterproofed base
- External window with roll up flap
- Zippered mozzie net in top section for ventilation
- Made from 14oz waterproofed cotton canvas
- Stainless steel “D” rings
- Heavy duty #10 coil zip
- 2″ High density foam mattress with removable cotton cover
Now that’s luxury Here’s the Ebay link – worth a look at some of the other Australian swags for sale on there too.
Held at the YMCA National Centre Lakeside (the largest outdoor centre in Europe) in the Lake District next year’s Bushcraft Show should be worth a look, especially if you live over that way. Weekend tickets include camping and bushcraft activities, and are a bit of an ‘investment’, but the day tickets seem good value at £20/adult, you could always wild-camp somewhere nearby!
Some of the activities at the show will be:
Bushcraft on Horseback
4×4 Off roading
Forge a knife or axe
Open Canoeing on Lake Windermere
Raft and Coracle Building
Specialist Instructors and Expert Speakers
and apparently “much much more”!
The event takes place June 3rd-5th 2011. See the website or email email@example.com.
Local bushcraft and survival expert Nick Gough of Woodlanders Bushcraft is running an island “Castaways Survival” 2 day bushcraft weekend course in early October on Flatholm Island in the Severn Estuary, where the mighty Atlantic flows into the wide mouth of one of Britain’s great rivers. With the second highest tidal range in the world this enormous estuary has several small islands in it, including Flat Holm, Steep Holm, and Lundy Island (the UKs first Marine Nature Reserve and established wildlife area including a significant Puffin Colony). For a look at Flatholm Island try this ‘virtual tour’, looks really beautiful.
Nick will be leading a group, taken on a fast boat from Bristol out to Flatholm for a weekend of instruction and discovery. This will be the fourth and final such event of the year, before the weather gets a bit more ‘challenging’ during Winter.
Woodlanders run a range of excellent courses in the South West, as well as tuition to Schools and Scout groups. From their website:
“Our Bushcraft Courses are designed to allow you to be at one with your environment. Using ancient techniques we will show you the many key areas of general bushcraft, perfecting them as we go.
At the end of the course you will have a greater understanding of the natural world around you and be able to use your new skills and natural resources to survive in the wilderness.
Our courses range from one day basic bushcraft course, two day weekend course, castaway course, bow making course, shelter building course, firelighting course, parties and forest schools
N.B. There’s still places for the October course available at the time of writing, so get in touch via the Woodlanders website if you’re interested in experiencing a weekend of Island Survival! It promises to be a very special experience, and a rare opportunity in southern UK to get out onto a wild and remote island, camping and practicing island-based bushcraft skills.
Mid way through September and the Fungi season is well under way. A walk in your local woodland should reveal some fantastic shapes and colours as the ‘mushrooms’ pop up all over the place. Here’s a fantastic ‘Fly Argaric’ the classic ‘toadstool’ – Thanks to Jorge for sending this photo in.