A drive back to the future

NRMA Holiday Parks of today drew inspiration from the original 'motor camps' established in the 1920s.

It's a typical scene at any NRMA Holiday Park: kids paddling in the pool while Mum and Dad watch on, finally relaxed and enjoying a well-deserved break.

It could also be a scene from almost 100 years ago, when NRMA Members holidayed at NRMA motor camps (as holiday parks were called back then).

Few would be aware that the NRMA's involvement with road trips and holiday parks began so long ago. In the early years of the NRMA cars were still relatively new, but car ownership was growing and so was the interest in 'motor touring'. Indeed, within a few years, motor touring was the favourite occupation among NRMA Members.

NRMA holiday parks

Motor camps

So, way back in the 1920s, the NRMA opened a string of 'motor camps' - the first organisation to do so in NSW - for the exclusive use of Members.

Initially, the camps were basic affairs. Members rushed to book a site where they could put up a tent, light a fire, and enjoy the great outdoors. Many of the sturdy canvas tents not only provided shelter for the holidaymakers, but came with a dividing wall so their precious vehicles - still an expensive commodity in the 1920s - could be 'garaged' and protected from the elements.

NRMA motor tent

According to a 1935 edition of the NRMA's Open Road magazine, around 8000 road trippers camped in NSW every holiday season. The NRMA took a leading role in developing this burgeoning industry, encouraging Members to tour country areas and bring money to regional economies, just as we do today.

In 1928, Open Road announced an "interesting experiment" for the NRMA. The Loughlin Park ground at Cattai Creek would supply and erect tents for hire by campers at a small charge. It was an immediate success, but over the decades, cabins, and eventually caravans, took the place of the less comfortable auto tents.

At the height of the road trip boom, the NRMA opened a string of motor camps across NSW and the ACT. It owned or leased camps at Lake Illawarra, Avalon, Wamberal, Burragorang, Cobbitty Bridge, Kurrajong Heights, Narellan Grange, Erina, Shellharbour, Mittagong, Lake Macquarie, and many more.

Christmas camps became a big thing. Then as now, the parks offered plenty of entertainment, although the activities have changed somewhat. In 1933, the Lake Illawarra camp offered the 'grand' prize of a camp stretcher for the best equipped tent. Organised sports and novelty games, especially tug-o'-war, were popular across all the camps.

"Splendid conveniences"

Each camp offered "a fresh milk supply, boiled water, and splendid sanitary conveniences". At Avalon Beach in northern Sydney, the camp had an absolute beachfront and water was available from a well on the camping ground or a 3000-gallon tank at the Avalon Store.

During summer, Open Road ran regular articles with practical tips for campers including, "Meat should be wrapped in muslin and then hung up in the shade of a tree out of the reach of animals. A little vinegar sprinkled on the muslin will protect it from flies and insects" and "All waste food should be burnt or buried. An open pit may be used and a layer of soil sprinkled over it to keep away flies".

Then and now

The Devil's Elbow

As we approach a century of helping Members with their road trips, things have, of course, changed and improved. Today's holiday parks have cabins with modern amenities, such as running water, stoves and fridges. And the cars in which holidaymakers arrive have air conditioning, comfortable seats, and are much safer. Roads too, are mostly sealed and well-repaired, unlike the almost undrivable roads a century ago.

But when it comes to the fundamentals, those early Members were pretty much the same as we are today. They liked nothing more than getting in their cars and heading off on a road trip so they could visit a town, stand on a lookout, or explore the bush, just as we do today.

And, in the 1920s, our adventurous Members also relied on NRMA Patrols (or guides as the earliest patrols were called) to help when mechanical disaster struck. In 2019, our patrolmen are still roadside heroes and always on hand to offer assistance - there's just a few more of them. Some things never change.