How a childhood outdoors shaped my ecological career



As a child, getting out in the Australian ‘bush’ was a regular event (image taken ~1982)

My father scanned all the family photos and it has been interesting to compare the places we visited back in the 1970’s and 1980’s with what they look like now. But what also struck me was the importance of our holidays, from my childhood to now.

Filing the photos made me realise that for me, my childhood camping trips with my family in the Australian bush are what I would class as my first and most significant childhood introduction to ecology. I also believe it influenced why I chose to become an ecologist.

What was your first significant encounter with the environment as a child?  Do you believe it influenced your subsequent career choice?

I’m very glad my parents took us outdoors. I don’t think they expected me to take my experiences further towards a career. But I do believe that in taking us outdoors they directly shaped my, and perhaps one other siblings, career choice, and also indirectly influenced my remaining siblings.


Getting dirty was all part of the deal

And there were a few of us to influence. I am the third of six children, which meant that holidays were done simply. Nowadays, camping is trendy. But when I was growing up it was more the only option than a popular thing to do. Camping was cheap, fun, and accommodated all of us at a reasonable price.

My parents had no environmental background. What they did have was a keen interest in exploring and learning. My first field guides were Gould League bird books. We joined the Junior Ranger program and We were immersed in nature. The outdoors was a free, easily accessible classroom.

Ditch the technology and an inexpensive alternative awaits you.

We also didn’t have the competition of indoor attractions that children have today: computers, iPad’s, iPod’s, Xbox’s etc. We did have the television and believe me being a large family the free babysitter was used! But you can’t take a television outside. Books were transportable and we read outside beside a river, lake, beach and when it rained we stayed at the campsite in our sleeping bags and read  listening to the rain on the tent.

We didn’t have the dome tents of today. Our home was a canvas tent with large, heavy metal poles and two rooms: a back room for all to sleep in and a front room for cooking and eating. As we grew up so did the number of tents, eventually seeing us book two tent sites.


The Eucalpytus pauciflora canopy provided great shade for our tents at Mt Buffalo National Park

We had no polarfleece. Our clothes were handmade and of cotton or wool. We had no featherdown sleeping bags and they hardly rated to the 0°C sleeping bags you can buy today. We slept on airbeds (‘lilos’) which were always being repaired. Interestingly, on my trip to Heard Island in 2003-2004, airbeds were used.

Today’s parents and the outdoors compete with the attractions of technology. I know how hard it is. ‘Can I play the wii?.’, ‘Can we have some time playing on the iPad?’, ‘Mum, can I turn on the TV?.’ Argh! We are fortunate in Australia to have a very large, natural playground outside. Our urban areas still thrive with wildlife. And in the big cities the ‘bush’ is but an hour’s drive away. We also have a broad reserve system that encourages exploration at many levels so there is something to suit everyone: Wilderness areas allow you to escape it all; national parks, state parks, reserves (e.g. for Victoria) and state forests provide user friendly campsites and facilities so you can ‘car-camp’ or pack everything into your pack and become a snail. Even in urban areas you can wind your way along paths in parkland and easily find birds, invertebrates, plants, even platypus.  Ditch the technology and an inexpensive alternative awaits you.

My parents made use of what we had. We camped within the borders of many of Australia’s national parks, mostly centred on the southern state of Victoria. I think we visited most of the national parks, state forests and reserves that Victoria had to offer; in my  years working with the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research in Melbourne I think I can safely say that apart from a few places, I’ve been to most of the parks and reserves in the state. Victoria is about the size of New Zealand so you can imagine we had much to explore. When there were only four kids, we would pile into our gold Kingswood sedan, and go. Later, our Mistubishi people mover clocked up the k’s.


Working my way through the photos I chose a few I thought I could refind using Google images, for interests sake. I wanted to see what the landscape photographed in the 70s and/or 80s looked like now. My father and I did find a few, and I’ve included them below.

So where did we go? We visited the Great Ocean Road more than once. Along the road is the Great Otway National Park. The lush forests of the Great Otway national park are very similar to those of north-west Tasmania. Here the majestic Eucalyptus regnans and E. obliqua tower above broad leaf shrubs, ferns, bryophytes, fungi and lichens. Mapping the vegetation types for the Otways RFA between 1996-1999 brought back memories of time I spent here as a child. For our mapping we visited Melba Gully; I’d been there before.

Described as one of the wettest places in Victoria it is dominated by cool temperate rainforest: Myrtle Beech Nothofagus cunninghamii and Blackwood Acacia melanoxylon reach for the skies whilst the Treefern Dicksonia antarctica, and Broad-leaf Daisy Bush Olearia argophylla and many bryophtyes find what space they can across the forest floor. The image below is credited to It gives you an insight into what Melba Gully looks like today.


Wet sclerophyll forests featured much in our travels and it’s poignant that my work today focuses on towering giants. As kids we visited Mt Donna Buang in snow and I recall driving the winding roads of the Black Spur. IMAG1252As fate would have it, my honours was spent exploring the O’Shannassy Catchment which was close to these two areas.  Mt Donna Buang has changed from a ski resort to a day trip snow destination and the Black Spur and surrounding forests were burnt by the Black Saturday fires of 2009.

Further along the Great Ocean Road from the Great Otways National Park is Port Campbell National Park. Camping at Port Campbell National Park meant we were only a walk away from the main beach. The camping site is no longer run by National Park staff, but some things, like the beach, are still the same. The Norfolk Island Pines still tower, albeit taller now and a few are looking tired and old.

The Twelve Apostles,


Some of the ’12’ Apostles. I’ve tried to relocate this 1980s image using todays technology, and cannot.

which never numbered twelve, dropped from 9 isolated limestone stacks to 8 in 2005. The collapse of rock features reinforces the immense power of the Southern Ocean. With further erosion of the headlands happening at approximately 2 cm per year, more stacks are expected to form and collapse in the future.

As if to emphasise the power of the elements, London Bridge fell down and I was lucky to see it before this happened.


Futher west on the Great Ocean Road  is Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, located between Warnambool and Port Fairy. Interestingly, this volcanic landscape was declared as Victoria’s first national park in 1892, but land use by man continued regardless, with the evidence still obvious today. The native flora and fauna are returning and this is where we were chased by emus who wanted to eat our lunch. I do say we stood. Despite the available picnic table we stood. We needed to be ready to run away with our lunch!

Also near Warnambool you will find Hopkins Falls. The falls plunge 12 m down over dark basalt rocks which remind you of the landscapes volcanic history. The trees in the background of the image in 2010 have survived since the mid 1970s.

Mt Buffalo National Park was visited often. First, with four young kids, we stayed on top of the mountain and explored. Later, my parents packed up six kids into the van, hitched up the trailer, strapped the canoe onto the car roof and we were soon back on that mountain top. Lake Catani was explored, the Twin rivers conquered (part of an underground river system) and The Horn, Cathedral Rocks and The Monolith visited; the latter we even walked to in the dark with some ‘camping kids’ in order to see the sunrise.


Looking back over the photos two important points came to mind.

  • As my parents encouraged me outdoors today’s parents need to do the same, to ensure the youth of today learn about the environment so they have the knowledge and awareness to respond to environmental problems. 
  • Today’s parents need to be reminded that our environmental actions will have generational implications

I’m not the first person to make these points.

In 1974 the Australian Minister for the Environment and Conservation, Moses Henry “Moss” Cass, at at a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, addressed the Environment Committee. In his speech he included words of the environmental activist Wendell Berry:

“We rich nations, for that is what we are, have an obligation not only to the poor nations, but to all the grandchildren of the world, rich and poor. We have not inherited this earth from our parents to do with it what we will. We have borrowed it from our children and we must be careful to use it in their interests as well as our own. Anyone who fails to recognise the basic validity of the proposition put in different ways by increasing numbers of writers, from Malthus to The Club of Rome, is either ignorant, a fool, or evil.”

Get your children outdoors and show them, teach them, about nature. We choose to take our children camping and/or to explore the outdoors, for more reasons than just because it is a easy option. I know how beneficial being immersed in nature was to my childhood and how integral it was in shaping the person I am today. My children will have that experience too.

Looking back at the photos of my childhood camping, many of the places we visited some have changed and I wonder what will be left for my children to see.

In the end, what really matters is that the children of today see and experience the environment NOW. Only in taking them out into the world can they keep us in check and remind us that we are using the world for their interests, as well as our own.

Please feel free to comment on your first encounter with ecology/environment/nature as a child. I’d love to hear about your experience(s).

And if you have an updated image of any image in this blog, I’d love to see it.

Thanks to my family, especially my mum and dad, for creating the outdoors for me.


5 thoughts on “How a childhood outdoors shaped my ecological career

  1. Great post Pep! I had the same sort of childhood , youngest of 5 and our main holiday…..camping. Ours was based around water sports and exploring nature. The compelling lure of screens is a battle parents need to consciously make these days. As a child we only had one option for watching TV. It was on a Sunday night….world of Disney…this was proceeded by watching the Sunday night footy. We would all huddle around the TV. Later on there were a few hours in the morning aimed at children but by then we were at school and had also discovered being out riding bikes and roller skating was much more fun. On a wet day we would al sit around the radio listening to the ABC kids channel or make up elaborate games. So absence of availability of TV is what helped drive our play. In this day and age where there is so much research on the determinants of screen time, why are they ramping up its availability to children with more and more channels over more and more hours! This will NOT fight the obesity epidemic. The great outdoors, camping as a family, camping with other families builds so many skills for children in play, compromise, empathy and healthy living. It helps calm and soothe those beautiful little soles of theirs and ours as adults. Good on you Pep…creating amazing choices for your children and pursuing your career in the same!


    • Thanks Alison. I too clearly remember Disney, and listening to Lou Richards and Sandy Roberts commentate the footy. I agree that the absence of TV helped our play too – especially when yours truly blew the TV up (and in the middle of the Simpsons too. D’oh!). In addition to technology blame is placed at the door of Workplace Health and Safety regulations for why children don’t have the outdoor experiences we did. At a young age we were playing with sticks, wandering through the bush and climbing trees, and all the time being shown, taught and learning how to use be aware of snakes, use and hold sticks and work out whether a tree was good to climb or not. Parents had no mobile phones so supervision was not interrupted. There are so many benefits to be had for both child and parent through outdoor experience; many you have mentioned. And I’m looking forward to seeing the pics of your next adventure!


  2. Wonderful, I could almost smell the smell of those lilos and the wet canvas tent no nylon as I read about your adventures. I’m not so much of a camper now but still enjoy a good bush walk to get amongst it and Spencer loves them too


    • Exactly! Smells do bring back memories. Like the smell of wet lilos as we coasted down the Snowy River! Well, it was more like a slow float. I love the smells of camping too. And nothing beats the smell of Eucalyptus and Fireweed groundsel (a native daisy) in the Victorian mountains after rain. A colleague and friend even tried to bottle the fireweed smell. It wasn’t quite the same!


  3. Pingback: Perpetua Turner | International Association of Bryologists (IAB)

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