Earlier this year we were contacted by Victoria Ong, a young journalist in the final semester of a Master of Media Practice at Sydney University. She was keen to interview us about our nude bushwalking adventures. Below is a short explanation of what inspired her, a short radio piece she produced, and a longer feature article.
One Tuesday morning, my eyebrows raised at the subject of an email blast from the Sydney University Bushwalkers (SUBW). The subject? “Easy nude bushwalk, with yoga session on the banks of a remote wild river”.
What I initially thought was an email gimmick turned out to be firm reality. Next thing I knew, the journalist in me felt compelled to hear from the Fat Canyoners themselves about the appeal of nude bushwalking… which led to this series of fascinating interviews.
By Victoria Ong
Mention “nudists” to the Australian public and you’re likely to get bemused grins or a horrified cringe. In Sydney, a group of nude bushwalkers known as the “Fat Canyoners” strip off common misconceptions about nudism and reveal the appeal of going bare to nature.
Summer is the perfect time to go bushwalking in Australia. Minty whiffs of eucalyptus perk you up as you trudge along the trail, while golden rays of sunshine peek through the canopy of trees to warm every inch of your skin.
From a figure of speech, “every inch of your skin” immediately turns literal upon meeting the Fat Canyoners – a group of Sydney-based bushwalkers who venture bare- skinned into the great outdoors with nothing but their sunscreen on.
The man behind the Fat Canyoners is Tim Vollmer, a self-professed fanatical bushwalker, canyoner, and nature lover. But the 32-year-old is quick to assert that he did not come up with the idea of going nude in nature. Vollmer’s mane of chestnut curls bobs in excitement as he enthuses over the long history of nudism and bushwalking. He describes reading books about bushwalkers “from nearly a hundred years ago, full of stories about them getting to a river and going for a skinny dip”.
Skinny-dipping is one of Sierra Willow’s favourite parts of bushwalking. As a regular Fat Canyoner, the 23-year-old describes how relaxing the experience of swimming naked is for her. “The water feels really different on my skin when I’m nude, rather than in swimmers…” Her sentence trails off as a dreamy twinkle lights up her oak- brown eyes. “It’s kind of a sensory thing. You feel and remember the bushwalking experience in a different way.”
The sensory pleasure of feeling relaxed in nature is a key appeal for nudists, according to Sydney University academic Dr Ruth Barcan. Sunlight streams into her office through 19th century Victorian gothic windows, illuminating a floor-to-ceiling bookcase. On it sits a copy of Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy – the book she wrote about the historical and cultural practice of nudism. Dr Barcan explains that beyond sheer physical sensations, nudists also feel “a deep psychological relaxation from having given up all sorts of social strictures”.
One of the social strictures that nudists resist is “the cult of the body beautiful”, Dr Barcan says. Contrary to popular stereotypes that nudism is “about those who think they look good parading before others”, she says people would be surprised to discover most nudists are not what the mainstream would typically consider “body beautiful”. Instead, her research finds that nudists are “a huge mix of shapes and sizes”. She explains this is consistent with the nudist belief in the equality of diverse body types.
A diverse mix is just how Vollmer and Willow describe the Fat Canyoners. From first-year university students to older couples in their fifties, they can be “short or tall or thin or fat”, Vollmer says with a playful gesture towards his slight belly.
Willow adds that people new to nude bushwalking tend to be self-conscious about their body before the walk, but they usually stop worrying once the group undresses. She tilts her head of auburn curls contemplatively and says, “Everyone has different things about their body that they don’t like. Even the most attractive person will be like, ‘Ugh, my nose, I don’t like my nose. Or there’s a pimple on my butt’. After a while, these little things average out to be unimportant or you just stop noticing them.”
On the most recent walk Willow was one of three women out of 16 nude bushwalkers. She suggests the gender imbalance may be because women tend to have more concerns about not being “body beautiful”, and also whether men might be there to “perv” on them.
Dr Barcan says that the idea of nudists being perverts is another common misconception about nudism. “People automatically assume that nudism has a lot to do with sex, and probably psychological conditions like voyeurism and exhibitionism,” she says. She adds while there may be individuals who might fall into such categories, they are the exceptions and not the rule.
On the other hand, men who have never experienced nudist activities tend to be worried about being unintentionally aroused. Vollmer says, “I had a young guy ask me recently, ‘What happens if I get an erection, what do I do?’ I had to assure him that it’s never happened on nude bushwalks. And that’s because the vibe in the context of nude bushwalking is simply not a sexual vibe.” Willow agrees and describes the Fat Canyoners as “a group of people naked in a colloquial family sense”.
Vollmer believes that Aussies tend to see nudist activities and sex as “intertwined” due to the prevalence of pornography. “A lot of people think Australians are really relaxed, but I actually find most Australians are quite prudish and very uncomfortable with nudity. I think especially with a lot of younger people, they grow up bombarded with sexual images, no thanks to pornography,” he says. He laments the challenge to get people to understand that “there isn’t a causal link between nudity and sex”.
Considering the misconceptions that surround nudists, aren’t the Fat Canyoners concerned about being reported for public indecency? Despite their good intentions, they run the risk of being charged for “obscene exposure” in New South Wales under Section 5 of the Summary Offences Act 1988 if someone takes offense and reports them to the police.
Vollmer nods. He shares that legality is a constant concern, but navigates around this worry by planning nude bushwalks to remote places to avoid running into the masses. However, he says where they have run into people, “they’ve actually been pretty cool about it”.
A wide grin sweeps across Vollmer’s face as he recounts an incident where the Fat Canyoners ran into an older couple. “The woman had a big smile on her face and as the bloke walked past – in a kind of classic Australian way – he looked down and said, ‘I don’t know if I’d be showing off my dick if it was that small!’ Then he just chuckled and kept going.”
Some reactions have been a bit kinder to the ego. Willow shares another incident where “some people came by in a car, beeped their horns and gave us a queen’s wave”. She pauses for royal effect, sucks in her rosy sun-kissed cheeks, and delivers her best impersonation of a stately wave.
With beeps of support and queen’s waves coming from the masses, is mainstream Australia likely to strip off like the Fat Canyoners anytime soon? Dr Barcan says the nude bushwalkers shouldn’t expect to see a surge in new converts, as nudism continues to be a “profoundly paradoxical practice”.
“Nudism remains a practice that’s stigmatised, largely quite secret, takes place in specific locations, and horrifies some reasonable percentage of the mainstream. So in an old-fashioned sociological sense, nudism is a ‘deviant practice’, yet it’s a practice that’s based on a sincere belief in its own wholesomeness and in how good society would be if everybody practiced this as they did.”
Deviant practice to the mainstream; divine practice to the Fat Canyoners. Since nude bushwalking is likely to continue trekking the remote trail in Australia, do give the Fat Canyoners a queen’s wave if you ever spot them going bare to nature.