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Grandfather Cub

Updated: Apr 2

How an elderly couple in the outback taught us how to have it all.

I slipped into it like a well-worn glove. Or a swathe of wet clay. Or a glossy floor of tail-bone shattering tiles on a rainy day. Whatever metaphor we go with here, it’s a slippery one. I’m tempted by the cliche of “slope”, but I want you to catch the image of a steep embankment slick with ankle deep mud, water still running over the surface in hurrying rivulets, a few tufts of hardy grass but not enough to prevent the inevitable careen towards the bottom.

“The bottom of what?” you ask. I slipped back into the habit of wanting.\

It was always going to be treacherous country: coming back from nine weeks of living in little more than a tent straight into December, the king daddy month of wanting. I mean, say what your want about Christmas. I too champion the holiday of giving and peace and homemade biscuits. My kids can finish the lines at the end of the movie when the Grinch makes a toast to “kindness and love, the things we need most.” They, Iike the rest of us, are already proficient at paying the right lip service then expecting a payout come the 25th.

With me sliding uncontrollably down the mountainside of wishes and wants and grandparents literally piling on under the tree I found myself fantasising that the Grinch would visit our house on Christmas Eve so we could all wake up to hold hands and sing in the first light about how we don’t need more stuff. sigh If only.

This story relies almost exclusively on contrast though and in all my slipping and sliding I’ve slipped right past the providing some context on the space I was in before the festive season in suburbia swept me down the gully.

We had been on an extended camping trip. That feels like a pithy description because it turned into something much more profound, but it’s also accurate.

4WD and cub camper remote camping

We had planned to take as much of the school term as we could to travel around west New South Wales, the bottom corner of South Australia and Victoria. We have a hard-floor camper trailer. It’s called a ‘Cub Brumby’ (which is important to the story because people with Cub Campers take particular interest when they spot other Cub setups in the wild. I know.). It’s basically a trailer with a canvas tent that houses a double bed, a fold out floor where the kids sleep and a pull-out outdoor kitchen (tank-water sink and two-burner stove). We have a foldout table and camp chairs, a hand-pump shower and a bucket toilet. We stack the toys (kayak and boards) on the roof. It’s compact, minimal, unassuming.

We thought we would camp as much as we could stand and then splurge a few nights on a house here and there when we wanted a thorough wash, a lounge to sit on, a fenced backyard, a kitchen with hot water, wi-fi or flooring.

But to everyone’s surprise, that time never came.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

We met them while in the Flinders Ranges at Ikara-Wilpena Pound National Park. Another Cub pulled into a campsite across the dirt track from us and my husband, being a Cub owner, couldn’t help himself. At least he had the patience to wait for them to set up before making his introductions.

At this point you might be imagining a covet-worthy camper; a newer model, better suspension, more efficient awning, faster set-up, a range of impressive and fandangle tech accessories out the front. But you’d be mistaken. At least, it wasn’t impressive in that way.

It belonged to an older couple. Weathered by an intimate familiarity with the outdoors, they moved with a steady vitality and lacked that need for luxury that so often creeps into our lives as we age. Their camping arrangement was exceedingly simple: an early edition camper, original lime green 70’s font decals to prove it. They used a camp stove on the tail gate and set two well-used camp chairs out the front. They didn’t bother with an awning. Or a helipad quality floor mat. Or a Weber BabyQ. Or crystal-look moulded acrylic wine glasses. They were busy taking everything out of the back of the ute to clean out the red dust before “getting it dirty again.”

‘Grandfather Cub’ and his wife were the type of traveller we didn’t see often. They weren’t weekend warriors or wealthy retirees towing a small luxury villa around the country. They were, are, nomads who follow the weather through the outback, shirking modern convenience for a simpler kind of freedom. A freedom from that intoxicating illusion of needing more stuff.

In the weeks leading up to the trip we spent an inordinate amount of time researching, shopping for, accruing and collecting gear for our trip. We were convinced that having the right stuff would make our adventure more successful in really significant and necessary ways. We replaced chairs and bought storage boxes, ordered a fancy pants ground mat and researched hiking shoes. Tent pegs, dishes, tools, first aid (probably not a terrible investment), toys, sensory supports, jumpers, soaps and detergents. It’s astounding how many bits and pieces you can justify purchasing in the name of minimalist adventure.

It was our serendipitous meeting with ‘Grandfather Cub’ less than two weeks in that burst the imaginary bubble of necessity. As they took the road north, kicking up bull dust behind them, we couldn’t possibly have predicted what a lasting impact they would have on us. When we left, begrudgingly making our way south again, a tectonic shift had already taken place in our approach to the rest of the trip.

From then on, the longer we camped, the more we craved the freedom of it. “What would Grandfather Cub do?” became our playful mantra, prodding us to get further out of the way of the well-beaten path. Caravan parks became unbearable unless we needed to do laundry. We passed through towns to pick up food and supplies and, if it presented itself, a good coffee, but we would track out again looking for the most remote patch of dirt we could set up camp on. The challenge became less about whether we could get by without conveniences and more about finding the most interesting places where other people either didn’t want to be or couldn’t be bothered to go. Sometimes it took a little creativity, but every time our efforts were rewarded with nights under enormous indigo skies, shared with marsupials, emus, deer and the occasional prospecting poet. We got used to the kind of privacy suburban people like us are unaccustomed to: isolation. We tasted the sweet liberty that the animals take for granted.

They say the human brain can‘t imagine a colour it hasn’t seen before. I used to lie in bed and try this as a kid, determined to trick my visual cortex and outsmart my human limitations. But the best I could ever do was come up with combinations and shades. There’s a chance that it’s also hard to imagine a way of living without having seen it done. Grandfather Cub’s ethos orbited around practical minimalism and fossicking for hidden gems of wilderness. Under that seems to lie a philosophy of ENOUGH. And ‘enough’ is at the other end of the spectrum to ‘want.’

An old man and a camper saying The key to having more is wanting less

So 2024 is about having enough. The terrain out here in my ‘real life’ is riddled with ice and slick mud. There are so many opportunities to want or to be fooled into thinking I need. My dopamine stocks get real burnt out and a whole world of wonderful possessions are so bloody available when I have internet service and or accidentally walk into a Westfield. But I keep thinking about the old couple in the fold out camper that doesn’t even have a winch to unfold it and I do a double take on the new swimmers and the backpack. Because the real secret to getting what you want, is to want what you’ve got. The harsh truth, and the one no marketer is going to tell us, is that the key to having more is wanting less.

Thanks for being here. Let's get our runners on.

Kim xx

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