Warning: in the next few pages I am going to be naked. This is unpleasant for all of us, so I want you to imagine a big bunch of flowers hovering around my middle. They can be whatever flowers you like.
Just like mad scientists and Iraqi dictators, nudists (or “naturists”, depending how much you want to dress it up) have always said they just want to be left alone to do their own thing. With River Island Nature Retreat, they’ve succeeded.
River Island is located in a hidden valley, up a rough track, 40km north-west of Mittagong, NSW. Never mind nudism: they could breed a race of giant mole men here and no-one would know. Until it was too late, anyway.
I’ve picked this resort for two reasons, the first of which is image. Part of the trouble with nudism is that the wrong people do it. If you went to the average nudie beach, the last thing you’re going to see is Elle McPherson playing in the surf, bits out. No, you’re going to see two fat blokes playing Frisbee.
And they won’t be young fat blokes, either; they’ll be ageing flower children of the mid-60s, who still think the best way to rebel and drop out is to show everyone their old feller. Take that, Mum and Dad.
I call the office of naturist mag Australian Sun and Health to ask them where the young people are. River Island, I am told, is where I might find “that kind of thing”. He sounds suspicious, as though it might really be a front for giant mole men.
The other reason I’m here is because it isn’t actually a club. This means that I can drop in at any time and top up my nudity without being bothered by a billion rules and regulations. Like a lot of “anti-establishment” organisations, the nudists can be as fussy as anyone else (I once crossed the Anti-Nazi League and regretted it, and don’t mess with Greenpeace).
In my search for a suitable “clothes-free environment”, I uncover (sorry) many amusing items of banned behaviour at the various naturist clubs. These include “persistent staring”; “voyeuristic positioning”; “ridicule or jokes of a crude or sexual nature”; “unsolicited comments about a person’s body”; or (the best one) “presumptuous hugs”. You damn well have to be nude too, while River Island at least is “clothing optional”.
My girlfriend and I check in at the office, where Colin the owner checks my credit card. He is wearing a pair of shorts, thank God. I can stand the sight of 300 jaybirds on the beach, but one bare-arsed bloke at the till is too much.
I browse the nudism magazines on the counter, and look through a list of upcoming activities.
“Got anything on this weekend?” I ask.
Colin smiles weakly. He must have heard it before. I note the upcoming “Nudefest”, which includes that most dreadful of crimes – nude line-dancing.
Colin shows us to our cabin. We pass the pool area, where I catch glimpses of people who are definitely wearing nothing at all. My girlfriend is making “God-help-me” noises behind her hand. Colin pretends not to notice.
All the cabins and caravans are pretty well spaced up the side of the valley away from the Wollondilly River. You can have all the privacy you want, but it’s still neighbourly enough so you can invite people over for a game of nude Twister or dress poker, or whatever.
There’s still enough daylight for a hike along the river, but we decide to start off small with a nude lie-by-the-pool.
“The trouble is,” says my girlfriend, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to stop laughing.”
On the walk we see a middle-aged man sitting in his deckchair with a beer. He is wearing a big cowboy hat and unfortunately nothing else.
There is an unheated pool, a smaller, heated pool and three spas. Arranged around them in lounges are naked people, many of whom would have clear memories of World War II. They have gone past their prime in the way a Ferrari has gone past a small, asthmatic donkey.
Aware of breaking the “persistent staring” rule, I strip off and lie down quickly. If I lie here quietly, I can pretend everything’s fine and normal. Unfortunately, every time I look down, I see my FLOWERS! THINK OF THE FLOWERS and give myself a shock.
Getting into the pool doesn’t help either, especially when that nice large lady I’d talked to earlier strides naked to the edge and climbs down the ladder after me.
“Isn’t it nice here?” she asks, while I desperately look at a spot about an inch above her head. “Yes,” I say. “Nice.”
At night, the only entertainment is sitting in a spa or playing pool in “The Barn”. The Barn is a big, cold room that’s living on past glories. There are two free pool tables, some long benches and a hatch at the end where you can buy burgers. On the walls are photos of young, happy, sexy nature-lovers. They are sitting on big rocks or looking at sunsets. They look nothing like the people at the pool. Only their groovy hair gives them away – the photos date from the ‘70s, ‘80s and earlier. They might actually be the people at the pool.
The bookshelf is a giveaway too. Many of the books are the sort of off-colour thrillers you flicked through for the sexy bits when your Dad nipped off for a pack of Winfields or a beer at the pub. At least six of them are by Irwin Shaw, who’s been dead nearly 20 years. In the pile of magazines is a 13-year-old New Idea – the first time irony and New Idea ever appeared in the same thought.
We knock the balls around, so to speak, and exchange small talk with the couple at the next table. I’ll call them Dennis and Sandra, if only for the sake of their children who can’t possibly suspect their folks play pool without their gear on. It could be worse – they could be line-dancing.
It’s clear Sandra is uncomfortable with our shorts and T-shirts. We are clothing fascists. “It’s horrible” she eventually mumbles. Padding nude around a chilly barn with a pool cue is only fun if everyone else is doing it too. It may be cold, but that’s not the point.
Already, I can see myself getting tired of all this, but in the spirit of it, I suggest strip pool. We glumly climb out of our clothes and my girlfriend’s fragile game disintegrates. It’s as fun as a damp cheese sanger.
“That’s better,” says Sandra happily, as Dennis sprawls forward over the table for an unhygienic long-shot.
I ask what they’re doing here, but get no clear answer. Sandra says it’s fun. Dennis says, “We found it on the internet and thought we’d give it a go.”
He misses another easy one into the middle pocket.
At that moment, a 12-year-old girl wearing pyjamas wanders in and sits down. The possible social and moral implications of this collide in my brain like a train wreck. All I can think is that my clothes are in a pile 3m away. I turn away and pretend to study a poster of a smiling woman wading across a river back in the ‘70s. Finally the girl gets bored and leaves, thank God.
On the way back to the cabin, my girlfriend tells me that this is a classic insecurity dream – except it’s real, and we’re paying for it.
Later, the neighbours in our two-cabin block arrive in a Pajero. They’re young. More importantly, they aren’t fat. They haven’t put in the hard years of pies and cigarettes the dinosaurs by the pool have.
I twitch the curtain like a regular Mrs Mangel. It’s exciting, for no good reason. She’s a scrawny looking blonde and he’s a stocky bloke with a chubby face. We are total strangers, but I know I will soon see them nude. And they will see me.
In the morning, I get up, slip on sandals and a hat, and walk outside. Actually, I sensibly put on sunscreen, too, but you don’t want to know about that. Our neighbours also emerge, get in their car and drive off. They are still dressed.
We go for a hike alongside the river, the other main activity here. As we take our first steps of active nudism, I feel things I’ve never felt before – daring and liberated, for instance, and finally at one with the plants and animals. I throw up my arms like it’s the final whistle of Origin III. “I’m free at last,” I shout. “Thank God almighty, I’m free at last.”
Only I don’t.
All I feel is a vague sense of something missing, like I’ve forgotten my car keys. Not to mention a pleasant breeze around the FLOWERS! JUST THE FLOWERS. As an overall sensation, it’s in the same league as finding a parking space or getting a small amount of money in a birthday card. Pleasant, but hardly a lifestyle choice, is it?
Well, what a nice nude land it is. Further along the path are two middle-aged blokes in DIY mode (including risky use of a hammer) on a cabin roof, while on the river, pale people are putting up tents. A couple in their late 60s sit at the water’s edge. She is bravely naked. He’s in the kind of old blue suit that maths teachers wear when they abandon society for the classroom. It’s a bit strange, in a David Lynch kind of way. What next – a laughing elf in a tree?
We give them a polite nod and wade on across the river. It’s very pretty and quiet. The hills around look just steep enough to pose a challenge. Bet I could climb one in 20 minutes. Perfect for training legions of deadly mole men.
As I turn to watch my naked girlfriend crossing, I get my one and only insight into the cult of nudism. She looks great in this setting, like a timeless tribal girl, or Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon. Someone who doesn’t even know what clothes are. I barely manage to avoid giving her a “presumptuous hug”.
With the excitement of the walk and the distraction of a swim in the river, we fail to notice thunderclouds filling the valley. We only look up when the sun has disappeared. Through pure instinct, we make a dash back through the bush to shelter. Then we give it up. What does it matter if we get wet?
It starts to rain like a bastard. And it’s cold. All of a sudden I remember what clothes are for.
We emerge from the trees and pass two blokes walking the other way. They are smiling, and carry small glasses of sherry. I feel my sense of reality tilting. “You guys are going to get really wet,” is all I can think to say. At least they agree and turn back.
We arrive back in time to see our neighbours drive off again – with Dennis and Sandra, of nude-pool fame. They’re still dressed, I cannot fail to notice.
It rains hard, then harder, all the rest of the day. I worry we may not be able to get up the valley road in the slippery conditions. I could be stuck here. I think about the definitive book on nudism I will write when I return to civilisation, called, It’s All About Tiny Willies.
As darkness falls, I peer through the rain and see an old man naked at his barbecue. I can tell he’s of that old-fashioned generation, though, because he’s put on a good shirt for dinner. Just the shirt.
Further up the hill I see others on their balconies, also nude. It’s freezing and wet. These people are just being bloody-minded. They are hardcore. They are risking pneumonia to prove a point.
I finally meet my neighbour, Don, as we stand on our balconies. He is still dressed, I’m interested to note. He and his wife have been here nine times, which is an odd number to know. They found the place on the internet and have a young son they don’t bring because it would seem “a bit funny”.
Don is a normal, simple, friendly bloke, but he can’t or won’t explain why he and Diane spend their weekend bare. Diane, who nods in automatic agreement to everything Don says, doesn’t seem to know either. The point is, reckons Don, “It doesn’t matter who you are. You could have three heads and you’d get treated the same. Everyone’s really friendly.”
In the evening, I sit in the spa for hours, mentally dressing people, while the bubbles do funny things to my FLOWERS! A GREAT BIG BUNCH OF FLOWERS. It’s strange, I think, as I feel my skin wrinkle and fall off me. It’s strange that the younger people are dressed, but the older ones are not. The few under-35s are here as a group; they sit by the pool smoking and drinking, but blatantly not undressing.
I reach over and drink my beer before the steam gets to it. It’s like a party at the Playboy mansion, only I’m drinking lukewarm Tooheys New, and I don’t want to see the orgy room.
Don and Diane are out of their clothes, but when Diane leaves the spa she puts on a towel. “Isn’t it great?” shouts Don. I don’t know, but I say yes anyway. It’s a question of logic: are all friendly people nudists or are all nude people friendly? Or are there camps full of unfriendly nudists I haven’t met yet?
Faced with another clothes-off hike the following morning, my girlfriend mutinies. She is “over the naked thing”.
“At first it was a challenge, now it’s just a pain in the arse,” she reckons.
This is not fair. Now I feel like that chimp, Cheetah, being taken for a walk by Tarzan. Instead of being a nude pioneer, my role is to do backflips and point out where the hunters are.
By the end of the weekend, I am bored out of my mind. If I have to sit in one more spa I’m going to shoot somebody. Hiking is OK, and so is pool. Occasionally. When I talk to other naked people it’s still surreal, but not much. I feel like I’m in the middle of a child’s dare. An ex-editor of nude bible Health & Efficiency said nudism was “a desire to see and be seen”. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. Whoopee. People over 50 should know better. People under 50 obviously do know better.
In the warm pool I float past a bloke from Ecuador. He says he wants to be at one with nature. I ask him if he can’t do it with boardies on. He just smiles. Maybe he didn’t understand. Maybe I don’t understand. Things will be much simpler when the mole men arrive.
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