Echuca River Valley Nudist Holiday Resort, in Victoria, Australia, which has been known as "Shangri-La" to thousands of nudists - who regard it as one of the best naturist resorts in the world - has closed its gates as a nudist resort.
River Valley was the brainchild of Mr Keith Dohnt who 40 years ago used to ride his bike along the banks of the Goulburn River looking for a suitable place to sunbake in the nude. He was often disturbed by another man who paddled a canoe. Eventually they met and it turned out the canoeist was also a would-be nudist and was afraid that he would upset the fellow on the bicycle!
The two got together and planned a nudist camp. Keith purchased eleven acres of land and, being a farmer and expert in pasture improvement, he quickly turned the whole area into grassland. Then he set about building chalets, ablution blocks, campsites, etc.
Keith Dohnt was an unusual man and his prime focus was not to make money. He wanted to set up a really good nudist resort - and he did. People came from all over the world. He resisted using the camp for advertising promotions, and fees were kept as low as possible.
As a result, the camp never had top class facilities but it had a warm and friendly atmosphere and a feeling of freedom, which earned it the title "Shangri-La".
At one time the store and tuck-shop were run on an honesty basis: you went in, picked what you wanted off the shelf, put your money in the till and took your change. This system didn't work so well later on when the number on long weekends exceeded five-hundred nudists.
Our family was lucky enough to get acquainted with River Valley about 35 years ago - when our daughter and son-in-law and children had a caravan lent to them for a weekend and came home reporting that they had "had a wonderful time."
We had already been once to a nudist bathing beach so it was not quite such a great culture shock. However, the first night at River Valley my wife Beth was undressing and, as she drew the blinds of our chalet, I said, "You don't have to do that; everyone outside hasn't got any clothes on anyway." We realised we had a new freedom - especially as we had just come from Sydney where we had been in a flat next door to an elderly lady and whenever we were wandering around undressed we turned the lights off to avoid offending her - and we were always falling over shoes, etc!
On the second night we went to our first dance in the pavilion. We came in by the back entrance door and were amazed to see a rock band beating it out - with the musicians wearing guitar straps and nothing else.
A couple of hundred people were dancing either in the nude or with very little clothes - an extraordinary scene to us, although we saw it many, many times afterwards. When we went back to out chalet we commented on the fact that everyone was very well behaved even though there was quite a lot to drink - and in fact we thought it was better behaved than a normal dance.
Subsequently we had several square dances in that pavilion - with most of the square dancers unclothed. We told our square dance band when they arrived that they did not have to strip off. They were unpacking their instruments and it was about 42 degrees Celsius. The band leader's wife, Jane, disappeared and came back a few minutes later with no clothes on. She said, "I felt a bit conspicuous with my clothes on". So the band took off their clothes - and enjoyed it more.
Then there was the occasion when a rather rough looking bikie came into the camp. The bikies camped across the river and used to watch us swimming in the nude. We didn't mind. This one had paddled across in his canoe and, as he was a bit rough looking, someone said, "I'd keep an eye out for him."
One of the women nudists said, "Oh I wouldn't be too worried about him; once he has been round amongst us for a couple of hours he will be de-fused."
She was really illustrating the fact that public nudity is not provocative. It has the opposite effect to wearing skimpy clothes.
One New Years Eve, I remember seeing a conga line about one hundred yards long - a big brawny forty year old naked six-footer leading the way with his five year old daughter sitting on his shoulders, followed by 200 other people all conga-ing with the rock band as they moved their way in and out of the chalets. It was a lovely, happy family atmosphere and we said afterwards, "Who would believe this is what happens at a nudist camp on New Years Eve."
One afternoon a group of young larrikins came tearing into the camp in the back of an open truck - cat-calling and jeering at the nudists as they ran around the camp. The nudists closed the gates of the camp, surrounded the truck and threatened to strip the larrikins naked. They were terrified and much relieved when they were allowed to go out of the gate - never to return!
In one of my earliest interviews, whilst writing a book about sexual attitudes, the Deputy Chief of the New South Wales Detective Force said to me, "The day we get legal nude bathing beaches all around Australia Jim, that day you will see an immediate drop in all the sex crimes. What we so badly need in this whole area of life is more openness and honesty."
What I saw at River Valley confirmed this: our grand children were able to be out at ten o'clock at night bouncing on the trampolines in the nude by torchlight, without any fear that they would be molestered. This contrasted with the fact that we lived right by the beach at Brighton and my wife would not walk along the sea front at ten o'clock at night fully dressed, all alone, without fear of being attacked. That was the difference we found - and so I decided to make a movie about it.
I entitled in "Let's get it all off - for goodness sake!", with the word goodness underlined. I felt that there was much goodness to be gained from the nudist movement; that teaching people shame in the human body and other distorted attitudes could be linked to some of the problems such as sex crimes. I decided to make the movie as a video cassette to send to the Prime Minister, the State Premiers (including Mr. Bjelke-Peterson), in the hope that they would start making decisions based on the facts instead of on ignorance and blind prejudice.
The Reverend Reford Corr appeared in the film, stating that he was chairman of the Geelong Inter-Church council who were considering acting on complaints about a nude bathing beach. The Reverend Corr decided to go down and have a look. He found hundreds of swimmers, including some of his parishioners, enjoying themselves happily with their children and grand children - and, as it was hot, he stripped off and joined them.
My wife was annoyed that I spent so much money on this project and she said "if you ever make a profit out of it, I will kiss your feet."
The video was shown to the guests at River Valley and one or two decided to buy a copy. Then a nudist magazine asked me to write an article for them and, subsequently, decided to sell the video tape. As a result we sold more than 1500 - and made a profit. Yes, my wife kept her promise!
At River Valley, most of us played tennis on the three tennis courts and we were keen. Winning the Easter tennis tournament was like winning Wimbledon! Mini-golf, handball, swimming in the Sandy McDonald pool and in the river, going walking and cycling and sunbathing, barbequing under the trees at night with so many people we got to know so well - what a delight for our family for more than 25 years.
We were lucky - but now it is closing.
Keith Dohnt, the creator, was a remarkable man, he was also sufficiently unusual in his attitude towards life that he could be made to sound foolish sometimes by the press - which was unfortunate because he controlled the River Valley camp brilliantly. Everyone knew that any guest who did anything offensive would receive a note from Keith Dohnt telling them not to come back again. Consequently, with this threat in mind, no one played their radio too loud and there was absolutely no objectionable behaviour at all on the camp. We lived a life without clothes, without rules - yes, Shangri-La.
Keith died a few years ago and River Valley was taken over by Des and Lyn. Des was the canoeist who Keith had been avoiding when they were both trying to sun bake in the nude before they started River Valley. Then Des died, and Lyn sold the property to Jan and John. Now, circumstances have caused them to turn it back into a non-nudist resort. They are now accepting bookings from people who will be enjoying life at our gorgeous Shangri-La - fully dressed.
For me and my family, and many thousands of others who have enjoyed River Valley, just 22 kilometres outside Echuca, since it was set up as a nudist resort 39 years ago, it will be a strange sight indeed.
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