Does a six-week outback trip make you a grey nomad

(No 1 in a series of six)

The last thing packed into the 12ft caravan we call The Tardis was a heavy duty doona, an essential item considering we’re heading west, to Charleville and beyond. Night temperatures out west at this time of year vary from -2 to 6 degrees. The days will be beautiful, though – sunny and still. I’m looking forward to the blazing starry nights.

The ubiquitous Grey Nomads, many of them temporarily migrated from Victoria, have Queensland all worked out. In the spirit of the Canadian ‘Snow Birds’, who winter over in New Mexico and Arizona, they are escaping the unforgiving cold of places like Ballarat, Bendigo and Melbourne for the stable sunny climes of west and north Queensland.

Likewise, Queenslanders tend to head south and west when the seriously humid part of summer starts.

The first thing you find when trying to research this elusive subject is that reliable data on grey nomads is hard to find.

A Sydney Morning Herald report last year surmised that grey nomad numbers had doubled in the previous three years. The latest official Tourism Research Australia figures show that caravan and camping nights are up 13 per cent on the previous year, to 11.78 million nights.

A more reliable way to get a sense of potential grey nomad numbers is to look at caravan and camper van registrations. They totalled almost 500,000 in 2017. Caravans led the way by a long margin (450,564), with 47,775 camper vans. States with the most registered caravans were Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales, each in six figures. NSW led Queensland and Victoria in camper van registrations.

Of course, these figures do not suggest that all of these vans are on Australian roads every day of the year. As caravan owners know too well, these expensive bedrooms on wheels sit in garages and carports 80% of the time. As many of you know, the old Coromal or Windsor van that has ‘done the lap’ twice is now sitting out the back, semi-permanent accommodation for a family member. It could be the adult son (between share houses), the adult daughter (between marriages) or Mum, who can still live by herself but needs a loved one checking in quite often.

Nevertheless, the call of the wild still drives tens of thousands of Aussies around the eastern seaboard or trekking across the outback. All they need is a reliable person to mind the house and pets (or take the pets with them). Or they may have sold the house to fund the road rig.

Research by Professor Jenny Onyx of University of Technology Sydney cited an estimate by the Bureau of Tourism Research that in a single year Australian retirees undertook 200,000 caravan trips of six weeks’ duration or more. The same source speculated that these numbers were set to increase greatly as more baby boomers retire.

Let’s be clear about the term Grey Nomad – it means a person of at least 60 years of age, retired and often pursuing domestic travel as a way of life. While the size of some caravans and road rigs would cause you to think otherwise, the demographic is not wealthy, often eking out stays in free camps waiting for the next pension payment.

Prof. Onyx also did research on the North American phenomenon known as ‘Snow Birds’ – North Americans who choose to winter in warmer American states like Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.

Prof. Onyx says that 220,000 retirees moved to Phoenix Arizona in the winter of 1993-1994, of which one third lived in what North Americans call RV Parks (dedicated resorts for recreational vehicles). All of which is a long way from the Aussie grey nomad, camped down by a billabong with a solar panel, a portaloo and/or a generator.

PhD student Rod Caldicott from Southern Cross University identified a growing problem for caravanners who stay on the road for extended periods. He said that while there was a 257% increase in caravan registrations between 1995 and 2005, the short and long-term capacity of caravan parks was on the decrease. Caldicott chose Tweed Shire for a case study, concluding that tent sites in the shire’s 27 tourist parks had declined by 64% since the 1970s and the number of ensuite cabins correspondingly increased. Annual caravan sites have fallen 12% between 1970 and 2010.

The advent of fly-in fly-out workers has increased demand for permanent and semi-permanent accommodation.

It’s not unusual to stay at an outback caravan park and find the washing lines full of overalls and high-vis vests.

There are a few unwritten rules if you are going to be on the road with a caravan for months at a time. The first of these is to take a break from driving every two hours. And the driving ought to be shared. It’s hard work.

The next rule is to set a constant speed – 90kmh is good, and keep a steady eye on the road behind you.

Extendable side mirrors are good, but a CB radio is better. Paint your UHF channel on the back of the van so the road train that’s following can call in: “10-4 Ned & Mary, B-triple right behind you and about to pass.”

SMH writer Sue Williams raised the common conflict between grey nomads (who seem to prefer 70kmh) and the road trains on freight deadlines. She quoted truck driver and Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls trucking company boss Heather Jones.

Jones says she was driving a triple road train with a 70-tonne load along a highway when she came up behind a grey nomad caravan that drove at 30km/h, then 80km/h, then 30km/h. Then it stopped dead.

“It turned out they’d stopped to take a photo of a Sturt’s desert pea flower,” she says. “But they seemed to have no idea that a massive truck was behind them that takes a while to stop.”

Our photograph this week, which I’ve used before, shows our road rig next to a cattle road train. It does make you think.

We were in an auto electrician’s shop recently having a new car aerial fitted to the Ford Territory (this is a virtue signal to show we have upgraded from the green wagon in the photo). While chatting to the young fellow who fitted the new aerial, the conversation fell to reversing cameras. The Ford has one, but it’s not much use once the van is hooked up. It turns out we could buy a monitoring camera for the caravan as well. This means you could have as good a view of the road behind as the road ahead.

Or we could do what most Grey Nomads do. The husband (usually) starts backing the rig into the designated camping site. The wife (usually), stands at the back and waves her arms to indicate keep coming, keep coming, and stop! (I prefer ‘left hand down’, ‘right hand down’ etc in dulcet tones while conversing through the open car window- ‘the wife’) We’re looking forward to this jaunt – west to Charleville, then north to Winton, Hughenden and on then to Coastal north Queensland before turning for home via Townsville (go the Cowboys!) and points South. We have star-gazing, the Winton film festival, national parks, hiking, bird watching and an ongoing scrabble tournament on our to-do list.

Somewhere along the way, we’ll do what all travellers should do – schedule do-nothing days. Throw the laundry in a commercial washing machine and assign the husband to peg it out when the time comes. Sit out in the sun and read a book; take a nanna nap…

This would be the day when hubby cooks dinner, right?

 

In praise of the small caravan

small caravan at Barkly Homestead Roadhouse, NT

It’s hard to estimate just how many kilometres we’ve clocked up touring around in this little Jayco pop-top caravan, but it’s a lot. Probably close to 100,000. We bought the van back in late 2011, after an exhaustive search for a small, older caravan. We decided that as we did not know if we’d enjoy caravanning or not, it seemed wisest to spend as little money as possible.

Eventually we bought ‘The Tardis’ from a retired aeronautical engineer, a Mr Fussy who’d looked after the 1984 caravan meticulously, kept it under cover and added luxury extras like electric brakes and LED lights, as well as small truck tyres to give extra clearance. There was an awning too, stored away under the beds (more on that later).

Done all the dumb things

Caravanners would probably agree, but you never stop learning. You never, ever stop doing dumb things (like not putting the chocks back in the van; instead driving them into the turf as you leave). One of our neighbours at Castle Rock campground at Girraween confessed he had once driven out of a camp site with stabilisers still down. This is not recommended. The same could be said for not properly clipping down the front window, not locking the van door and forgetting to undo the safety chains before you drive the car away! (Guilty as charged, on all counts. Ed)

Most of the National Park campers we encountered recently were in relatively modest rigs – a few A-vans, a couple of camper trailers and one caravan even older than ours. There were also a lot of tents, a lot of kids and not an IPad to be seen anywhere.

Not a small caravan

You don’t often see rigs like the one above in national parks. The access defeats them and there’s usually not enough room to park a beast like this (the sides push out, making for a large living room). I believe this one also had a washing machine and dryer. For $100,000 or more (including vehicle), you could have one too.

We saw many rigs like this (and larger) on our three month, round-Australia trip in 2014. There was a rig we saw in Alice that also had a trailer on the back towing a small Suzuki 4WD. On the back of the 4WD was a bike rack and two bikes!

Meanwhile we have learned how to eat, sleep, make love and play scrabble in a 12ft caravan. There have been occasions when we coveted more space, a toilet and shower even, but they are few in number.

Our caravan is simplicity itself. We arrive, pick a spot, reverse in (easy), put the jockey wheel on, detach the car, get the van level and push the roof up. Job done.

We should have kept a log book. The top photo was snapped at the Barkly Roadhouse in the Northern Territory. I was taken by the contrast between our humble rig and the ‘B-Triple’ cattle train.

Our most recent van trip between Christmas and New Year and beyond was to Girraween National Park via Brisbane, Warwick and Yangan. Our sister-in-law had a houseful prior to and including Christmas, so we parked the van next to her house on the bayside and did some ‘home camping’.

Onwards to Girraween where we found a quiet spot near some other campers, who appeared to be camping as an extended family.

This was the trip where, apart from the super moon and the blessed silence after 9pm, we made two amazing discoveries about our caravan. One, I found out how to light the grill! The van has a full-sized oven and cook top that runs off gas. To light the grill and make toast, I finally discovered, you open the oven door, turn on the grill and stick a match underneath. Not what you’d call rocket science, but we had tried various ways of lighting the grill in the past, but nothing worked.

The second thing, given we were going to be staying a few nights, was to put up the awning (left) − an old-style canvas sheet which has to be threaded into a channel along the roof of the caravan, then pegged out with poles and ropes. Believe it or not, this was a first. Now, with a bit of wax for the sail track and a few extra tent pegs, we can achieve this every time we stay more than one night. #feelingsmug

It’s been around, this little van. And, I’d need to add that we have seen smaller ones – 10 footers with a door at the rear. A six-footer with a home-made tilt-top and a few slide-on vans that sit on the backs of utes. There are also bubble vans so small you could probably tow one with a motorcycle.

Ours has been hither and yon – the first big trip in 2012 to the Man from Snowy River festival at Cooma, the National Folk Festival in Canberra and home again. We did a big northern trip in 2013, to Cairns and Karumba, across country to the Territory and back in a loop that took in Budjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park and home, via western Queensland. Then the big trip in 2014, road-testing our near-new Ford Territory (which had only 9,000 kms on the clock). On reflection, we should have gone for six months, as Western Australia is far too large to whiz through in a month.

We’ve also taken this rig to the Blue Mountains for the music festival and that was when we discovered the leaks we’d fixed were, er, not fixed.

So I went to K Mart and bought a really big tarpaulin for $30 and we threw it over the entire van. Try doing that in a fifth wheeler.

Caravans – a money drain or a hobby for DIY types

We have spent some money on the van, it’s true. The first time was when heavy local rain seeped in and destroyed the kitchen bench top, which we then had replaced with marine ply (after fixing the leaks). Then when our local mechanic checked the tyres, he concluded they were so old they didn’t even have identifier numbers on them. So $400 later we were back in business and feeling safe. We’ve had lots of spot jobs done on the road (the insides of our three-way fridge fell to pieces after being taken on the Lawn Hill road) but a smart young guy in Mt Isa fixed it for $130. Another chap in Mt Isa stayed back on a Friday night to fashion new aluminium hinges to repair the van door which had come adrift. An artful fellow with a van repair business near Sunshine Coast Airport recently fixed everything on the van that didn’t work properly and replaced worn wheel bearings.

Not a small caravan No 2 (is that a quad bike on the back?)

Some people, we found, are permanently on the road, hence the need for impressive rigs like this (left). Others make do nicely with vans as small as the one below.

Very small caravan

I fondly remember on one of our first forays north stumbling upon a former work colleague, retired from newspaper life, travelling with his wife in an old 10ft van with single beds. “It’s all we need,” said Roy, getting his fiddle out for a few campfire tunes.

As an old fella we met in the NT, towing a 30-year-old van with an aged Kingswood* said, when a fifth-wheeler rig roared past: “Aw, he’s just showin’ orf.”

*Holden Kingswood, the classic car for everyman, produced from 1968-1984.

More reading : an outback travelogue from 2014