This is the first of a series of interviews. An exploration of the inner and outer lives of people I was yet to meet, until I did. Interviews with strangers and the experiences our meeting bought. Each meeting a conversation, a curious opening for shared humanity, friendship, inspiration and community in a world that has never been simultaneously more connected and disconnected.
Back to the land,
with Simon Camp
It’s early morning at Gold Gully Farm in Nannup, the southern timber mill town of Western Australia. The air is cool, not a whisper of a breeze, cloud cover smears the sky a deep shade of grey. I stand nude, in half a rain water tank, bare feet on cobbled stone, steaming hot water raining over me, I glance up to the late blossoming plum tree branch hanging above and smile. Sudsy, I turn and gaze across the property to the line of tall gums, a wild garden, a duck moseying for worms. When the brightest rainbow paints the sky, for a very real moment I wonder if I am actually in heaven.
Welcome to Gold Gully Farm.
I came across Gold Gully Farm before I came across owner, Simon Camp. Moodily snapped photographs, uploaded each morning; instagram captures of small moments on a 250 acre property in one of my favourite country towns. Many a ‘like’ later, having expressed an interest in learning more about his lifestyle, I was generously welcomed to experience Simon’s off-grid existence.
Finding myself amongst rolling hills, the trees, a flowing creek, a glamping tent set in the foreground (my home for the weekend) and in the company of Archie the tiny and newly rescued kitten, the hens, the ducks and some lovely neighbours, we spent the next few days in conversation about off-grid living, community and the importance of aligning ourselves with nature.
After two days on the property you get a sense that life on Gold Gully Farm is synonymous with slow living. Simon holds himself with a sense of ease, a sense of being very at home here. He resides in the properties original stone cottage, an unfinished yet evolving labour of love.
Although now liveable, the house remains very much in the restoration. Of what Simon has restored, the cottage remains modest, humble, simple. It is clear the luxuries of the property lie not yet within the walls of the house but in the quietness of the valley; a sense of time, slowed down; the wonder of nature, moment by moment; the space; the creativity, simplicity and freedom that living this way inspires.
How did you find yourself here?
I have a clear memory of being in Year 7 reading the book Tomorrow When The War Began. There is a chapter, that is all-very fear mongering with these kids doing gorilla stuff against the enemy of their country. They meet an old bushman and I remember reading about this lonely old bushman gone half mad and thinking ‘I think this guy is on to something.’
At that age, I remember thinking that sounds really lovely and I guess I have wanted to do that thing ever since. I bought my first property when I was 17. I hated school, I was always pulling sickies and I recall having the realisation that work was simply an extension of school and that I would be locked into something like this for my whole life. This is what drove me into real estate investing, property renovations, property development. It was a stressful time, I started getting panic attacks and at the time I felt driven just to get through this period of hard work. When my anxiety was at its worst, I saw it as walking through hell and when you’re walking through hell you don’t stop, you just keep walking, so I did.
At age 24 just before the financial boom, I had a heap of debt and the banks started freaking out, ‘Simon pay down some of these loans.’ By this stage I was having daily panic attacks, so I moved away from property investing. I then moved into firefighting working for the Department of Environmental Services. Shortly after this the financial boom happened which was interesting. I would have been really quite successful but then the crash happened and if I had kept going the way I was going, I may have been a financial wipe out.
As a firefighter I was always out in the forest with the forest department. Then I owned a fire management business, I was on big properties all the time. I always dreamed about living on a property and had been keeping an eye out for things coming up on the market. Not serious looking but definitely keeping an eye out. Though it wasn’t until my dad had a stroke, a few months into his recovery, there was a point where I was sitting in my car and I thought, ‘stop trying to become the future person you think you should be and just be the person you are.’ That was a big realisation and that’s when I started looking at buying something more seriously.
In hindsight it was probably an escapism thing from my trauma (father’s stroke), this was the push, but this was followed by the realisation that this was what I’d always wanted to do, it tied all my skills together, it’s where my soul wanted to be. It was my realisation that life is about being here, now, not about planning for the future.
Was there a spiritual or religious background to your childhood?
My family was Pentecostal Christian, so yes very spiritual. We grew up being told by our dad that there were 1000s of angels looking after us all the time; we didn’t need to lock our doors or worry about anything, we were being looked after.
And do you consider yourself spiritual now?
(Long silence) Yes, deeply. If you were to pick us a part one atom at a time, you would be left as a pile of atom dust, of which no atom was ever alive. Those atoms are the exact same thing that everything in this universe is made of. Somehow, when the atoms are put together as a human, we have a life force, we grow. Trees, animals, viruses, bacteria are all just atoms that somehow have been combined in a way that creates a life force, we are all connected, even the air is made up of the same stuff. So if everything is made up of the same thing, including the air and soil, we must be connected as one to everything.
Do you have a meditation or contemplation practice?
For me I find lots of moments meditative, whether doing physical work or just sitting on the verandah. I've always been good at observing my emotions and thoughts. I believe a lot of my anxiety as a young adult came from the observation of my emotions. It had the affect of detaching me from them. I didn’t understand that it was ok to feel the ebbs and flows of emotion. There was an imbalance between my observation and acknowledgment. Whenever I felt any ‘bad' emotion like fear, I would feel shame on top of that. It seems like a lot of people do that, they feel sad about feeling sad or depressed because they are depressed, sure it doesn't apply to everyone but we seem to live in a society that only wants people to feel happy, excited or in love, anything else and you need a pill. I've spent a lot of time down here learning that the ebbs and flow of emotions are as natural as the seasons so to not feel shame about the so called negative ones because we do feel them for very important reasons and also to really enjoy the good ones.
What did your family value?
From my grandfather and my mother’s side came values of academia and wealth. Coming from extreme poverty in London, in the poorest house in the poorest street, and my Grandad’s striving to move out of that, I guess this was passed down to my Mum. At the same time, it was to be happy, we were always told we could do or be anything we want.
I remember when my sister was 12, she said she wanted to be a pilot for Qantas and I remember Dad saying “why stop there, why not be an astronaut?” It was a really good thing but it also added pressure, it was quite unsettling because you no longer had restrictions, we were always striving for astronomically big concepts. Family was very important too. Mum would always have cakes and scones ready for us. She was always home doing those sort of things, looking after the family.
Can you describe the cottage and the amenities you have here?
At the moment the cottage is an old original settlers stone and mud cottage with a little wooden section that was added on in the 1940s. No one really knows how old the stone part is. It’s been around a very long time, at least 100 years. There is an outdoor composting toilet I built myself and an outdoor shower, two kitchens, one inside, one outside. It’s a one-bedroom cottage at the moment but when I am finished it will be a 3-bedroom cottage. I will bring the bathroom and toilet inside, though I do like having my outdoor shower.
How about your garden?
It’s ever growing and mainly vegetables. The aim is to become self-sufficient in vegetables, fruits and eventually nuts, all the plant based things. It’s important to embrace the ebbs and flows of the seasons. In the city our life doesn’t change in response to the seasons, we don’t embrace the seasons or the specific foods we should eat. Observing the ducks, the chickens, the wildlife responds naturally to this. The garden allows me to do this. There are certain things we should be doing, consuming, planting in summer or winter. My garden is that connection to nature; it’s a doorway into that world.
What does living ‘off grid’ actually mean?
On this property there is no water or sewerage, no electricity or telephone lines coming in. I have a bit of mobile reception down here. Being ‘off grid’ means to be disconnected from these essential services and providing for yourself. This means I have the ability to be self sufficient in a lot of things. This was the first time I realised my stress dropping away, the realisation
As humans we have a long history of hunter gathering and then we moved into farming, this was all about self-sufficiency. Coming down here was the first time I notice my stress dropping away, settling into the connection with nature and the providing for yourself, the satisfaction of collecting your own rain water, growing your own vegetables.
In the city we have set ourselves up on a subscription lifestyle, we are locked in to spending our money on all of our essential services. When I lived in the city it use to bug me that it would cost me money for vegetables, I wanted to detach from this, so then I would spend more money on improving the soil and more water. I couldn’t escape those ongoing life costs. I control it all down here. The power is from the sun, I don’t pay for water, it was just detaching from the corporate grips for basic things. If we all lived in utopia there is no one making profit from food and water there, surely? So why live like that?
Do you use any particular planting practices?
It is all organic. I do my own composting. I bring in organic manure as I don’t own animals yet. I am going down the permaculture path. It’s essentially letting nature do its thing and bringing it back to the basics. I haven’t studied it but it’s more intuitive as a principle. I think we over nurture our plants. Plant the seed at the right time of year, make sure it’s got the right moisture in the soil, the right nutrients, let it grow, they know how to grow. If I am inundated with pests, I know there’s an imbalance. I have the pond for the frogs. It’s all quite intuitive. I work with the principle of leaving it to do its thing.
What feelings does growing your own food evoke?
Security, safety and wellness. I could go on about all the health benefits, but definitely the connection, a garden is a gateway back into a world we have been isolated from for a long time. I find it very calming.
What challenges you out here?
I like that everything out here is a challenge. I like the harshness of the seasons. I like the challenge of providing for myself, the challenge of being self-reliant. It makes me feel connected. I like that slight concern of whether your might run out of water or not. Living off grid, really is just a lot of physical challenges, but these are things we have evolved to do, so it feels natural.
I don’t think there has been any spiritual or emotional challenges. I am about to go through a period of a lot of alone time, so that might bring some things up, but I am intrigued by it. Coming down here you find a sense of self, who you are. I understand myself a bit better. The idea of being alone for a while, there’s something quite nice about that, time for self analysing.
Also then there’s the physical work; heavy lifting, building things, 250 acres of land, there’s a lot that needs to be done. Every day is a hard physical day, you feel it in the body. Mentally in winter there’s so much to do. Mentally slowing down does bring me some guilt but I am trying not to work so hard or too fast. I am learning it’s ok to be present and aware of every step. In the city I lacked presence. It’s about embracing individual moments, individual steps.
What are you inspired by right now?
I want to build off grid cabins that are made from 100% recycled and recyclable materials. I would like it so people can come down and reconnect with the environment and themselves. It would be an opportunity to subtly educate them on how easy it is to reduce their environmental footprint. They can come and stay a few days, head back to the city and before they know it they might have installed a rainwater tank or some solar panels, have their hands in the dirt planting a new veggie patch, that sort of thing. There are plenty of things that inspire me but that idea is a big one.
Can you give me a glimpse into what your days look like?
My days start with slow wakeup morning coffees out here (the verandah). The waking of the valley is really lovely, the birds come alive, the kangaroos come in. When I left firefighting I decided I never wanted to start my morning with an alarm clock, so I wake whenever I wake. Sometimes that means 4am and starting work under torch light but a lot of the time it’s slow. It starts by watching everything wake up around me. It’s really nice watching a valley wake up. Sometimes there’s structure to my day, there is structure if I have a lot to do, but I also listen to my body and figuring out what it and I feel like doing. It might be the challenge of building, or being in the gardens, or tractoring if I want to feel like a farmer.
I finish work, it could be anytime, but it’s usually when it starts getting a bit dark. You fall back into the timing of the seasons. Then its coming back to the house, having a shower, cooking dinner, settling in for dinner, doing some writing, playing the ukulele or listening to old records or maybe watch a movie from the extensive DVD collection. I don’t have a TV or internet so I might watch a movie on my laptop but I don’t lose a lot of time to that.
Do you have any rituals?
Coffee in the morning out of my jar. Hmm what other rituals do I have?
Blackberry jam. I really like cementing experiences with key days. Like making blackberry jam and days for passata making. I class these as rituals. For me I planted a seed, I nurtured it to grow, I picked the tomatoes, I cook them down, I jar them. I have them to enjoy through the depths of winter, that’s something I love and it’s much than just the physical act of doing it. If I am making passata, I put on old Italian music, because that’s how I want to do it, I want to create a moment.
What does living the good life mean to you?
It looks like this (points to the valley). It means living in a way that’s more connected to a community and the environment. It means slowing down. The energy in the city, there’s a lot of people chasing things. For me it means stepping away from that, to settle. You know now, look at the clouds ripping through the valley, the wind through the trees, to be able to sit and observe the storm coming, having the time to do this. Not being stuck in a dead awful routine. It is this. Everything about this (referring to his property). But if you asked me what ‘this’ is, I don’t know what ‘this’ is. Stepping away from a very consumption orientated way of living.
Living in a small town what does community mean to you?
Living here? It’s interesting in the city I didn’t have one (a community). It’s only been a realization now that the only reason I didn’t have a community there was because I didn’t actually engage in it. I shopped at the big supermarkets. I didn’t shop at local grocers, butchers, none of that, you know?
Community is now essential. You can think self sufficiency means becoming isolated, but community is essential in self-sufficiency. You need to get to know the neighbours, the local bee man, making sure I don’t disconnect from them like I did in the city, now I embrace it.
It’s easy being in Nannup to be connected to a community. Everyone is here because they have chosen to be here. It means you’re surrounded by like-minded people, they love the town, and you want to help people out when you can. I am a member of the local volunteer fire fighters, not because I necessarily want to be, because that’s just what you do, I have the skills, so you bring them.
Nannup’s best kept secret?
Actually it’s a rumor I heard the other day. I have heard about a water hole somewhere deep in the middle of a pine plantation, with turquoise waters and white sand beaches and crystal clear water. It’s such a well kept secret that I don’t even know where it is, so I need to find out this week. The forests around Nannup are stunning, the terrains are just beautiful, I’ve been in spots that feel like Canada and then there are spots which are the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. There is such natural beauty here but unfortunately the government logs a lot of it. You know what? It’s the community; it really is a special community, once you settle into it, it’s very lovely.