Free-wheeling. Motor Feature Motor News. Article from the Sydney Morning Herald, July 21, 2012. Author: Nick Galvin, Journalist
Why grey nomad numbers are booming
Grey nomads – the highway is our way, “Everybody feels like they are on an adventure.” Every day about 3pm in caravan parks, rest stops and bush camps around Australia, you’ll witness the same ritual.
A halt is called to the activities of the day, kettles are boiled and bottles produced and the occupants of the caravans or campervans settle down in chairs outside their vehicles.
These are the ”grey nomads” and it’s happy hour: a time-honoured custom that allows new acquaintances and old friends to mingle and share gossip, travel tales and tips on where to go and how to get there.
It epitomises the easy camaraderie that exists between these older travellers who take to the road in vans and campervans for extended periods, often escaping the winter chill of the southern states.
“Happy hour is very much alive and well just about everywhere people are,” says Cindy Gough, the co-author of The Grey Nomad’s Guidebook. ”It’s a famous tradition and a great way of meeting the people around you.”
Gough, who with husband Jeremy has ticked off most of the popular spots around Australia in their caravan, says friendships forged over a mug of tea or a glass of chardy are among the main reasons she doesn’t tire of being on the road.
”In general, in all the time we have been travelling, there have probably only been a handful of people we met that weren’t nice, helpful and interested in what you are doing,” she says.
”It is as much, if not more, about the people as it is about the places – although, of course, the places are fantastic as well.”
According to Tourism Research Australia, the number of older Australians hitting the road for lengthy trips is booming.
Last year about 2.6 million trips were taken by 55- to 70-year-old domestic travellers in campervans, caravans, tents and cabins. This was up 12 per cent on the previous year and a whopping 90 per cent increase on 2000 figures.
And they travelled all over, with NSW the top destination, followed by Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia.
This is supported by figures from industry analyst IBISWorld. In a recent report on the recreational vehicle market, it predicted annual growth of more than 3 per cent to produce an industry worth more than $2.6 billion by 2016-2017, largely on the back of the grey nomads, whose ranks are swelling as the baby boomers hit retirement.
”In general terms, the majority of people out there travelling long-term are retired,” Gough says. ”But I think that retirement age is coming down a bit. People are finding that they have either saved enough money or just decided that they are going to do it before they are too old to enjoy it.”
Keryn Earnshaw, 67, from Tahmoor, south of Picton, and husband Nev, 69, did their first ”big trip” – 15 months around Australia – in 1991 after a lifetime of shorter camping trips with their children.
Now they spend three to four months on the road in their campervan, generally leaving the chilly south in late May or early June for Queensland, returning home in September.
This winter, Kings Canyon, south of Alice Springs, is on the agenda for the couple. They’ve long wanted to see the region and it’s one of the few places they have left. ”We’ve got a map book [in which] Keryn has written everywhere that we have been and there are not too many tarred roads left that we haven’t been on,” Nev says.
Like many veteran grey nomads, the Earnshaws mostly avoid caravan parks. Paying caravan park fees every night takes a big bite out of a tight budget and, Keryn says, with equipment such as three-way fridges and auxiliary deep-cycle batteries making them self-sufficient for long periods, there is little reason to spend the money.
”The biggest thing we learnt in the early days was about free camping,” she says. ”Before that, we had always used caravan parks. When you’re on the road you’ve got to have food and fuel but not necessarily caravan parks. You learn where to and where not to park over the years.”
The best free spots are often passed on by word of mouth, but in practically every traveller’s glovebox you’ll also find a copy of Camps Australia Wide, a comprehensive directory of free and cheap places to stay.
The information in the popular spiral-bound ”bible” is now available as an electronic file that can be loaded into GPS devices. This is just one of the technological changes that have revolutionised the life of the grey nomad and contributed to the popularity of the lifestyle.
As little as 15 years ago, staying in touch with the children or grandkids back home meant the odd postcard and occasional calls from a campground phone box. Now, mobile phones, 3G wireless and laptops make the going much easier.
”It’s been a huge boost to grey nomads everywhere,” Gough says. ”They are increasingly embracing the technology, using Facebook or blogs and posting photos of their trips for friends and family back home. It’s made it a lot more viable for people. Mobile broadband is now a lot more affordable and efficient as well.”
Bryan and Helen Herring from Riverwood have had their present motorhome since 2008 and regularly take off on trips of up to three months.
Having owned a photo and graphic arts business, the pair are experienced with computers and the internet and their custom-designed vehicle is littered with devices including e-book readers, a GPS unit and his and hers laptops, on which Helen designs a newsletter for the Highlanders – their chapter of the Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia.
”We also carry a satellite phone with us just for insurance,” Bryan says. ”Helen doesn’t drive, so if something happens to me, at least we have the phone to get out of trouble.”
Like many of the grey-nomad tribe, the couple incorporates other interests into their travels – Bryan is a keen photographer, snapping thousands of pictures of wildflowers, while Helen is the family historian.
”I love genealogy,” she says. ”I’ve found relatives all over Australia and we go to visit them and to places that relate to the family.” Tracing family was also high on the agenda for 71-year-old Pat Mowat in 1997 when she and her husband, David, 74, bought their first van. They first headed off to Broken Hill to fill in branches of the family tree and since then the couple have seen most of the country, from Cooktown to Broome.
”My father always said he wanted to get a campervan and go around Australia but he never did,” David says. ”We’d talked about it over the years and after we retired I said to Pat, ‘Look, dad never did it and we’ve talked about it. Are we going to do it or not?’ She said, ‘OK,’ so we went and bought the Coaster and the rest is history.”
As with most grey nomads, fellowship of the road keeps David and Pat keen to keep travelling for as long as they are fit enough. ”You make a lot of friends and you meet up with them again and again,” Pat says.
”We were in a caravan park in Port Augusta and we met up with another couple and camped with them the next three or four nights, then they went their way and we went ours. And then four months later we were down in Esperance in WA and the next thing there they were – the same couple.”
Gough says stories like this are legion and the common experience of exploring Australia under your own steam naturally draws people together.
”Everybody feels like they are on an adventure and anyone out there is a potential friend,” she says.
”It’s a fantastic culture that inspires camaraderie.”
Caravan versus Campervan
BAIL up any grey nomad at happy hour and ask about the relative merits of travelling in a campervan or towing a caravan and you’d better be prepared for a long conversation. Nothing polarises opinion around the caravan park more than this particular topic.
The campervan aficionados will generally say they hate towing and all the palaver that goes with hooking up the van when it’s time to move and setting it up when it’s time to stop. Campervan owners “do it without a hitch” they chortle.
The caravan owners will return fire by pointing out the big problem with campervans – once you’ve set up a campervan popping down the road for some sightseeing or to go out to dinner is very unappealing.
The truth is that both options have their pros and cons and neither is perfect. The solution that works for you depends on your particular circumstances and variables such as how much you have to spend, where you are going, how long for and whether you will be staying mainly in caravan parks or in the bush.
Everyone has their own idea of the perfect rig and the best approach is to take your time choosing, asking lots of questions and examining everyone else’s ideas.