The Big One - 2004

The Age

The wander years

Author: Liza Power
Date: 29/12/2004
Words: 2036
Source: AGE
      Publication: The Age
Section: Drive

Page: 12


Have caravan, will travel is the motto of an increasing number of baby boomers. Liza Power follows the travels of Australia's grey nomads.

AS AN IT consultant for KPMG, Rob Tudor spent most of his working life living out of suitcases while travelling across Asia and America. When he retired 15 months ago, he was keen to continue travelling, but "roughing it" in hotel rooms didn't appeal. So, after extensive research, Rob ordered a custom-built Future System Jet 610 caravan, a LandCruiser to tow it, completed a caravan towing course, set up a webpage, and hit the road with wife Judy. Now, after several trips, including "the big one" around Australia earlier this year, the pair proudly consider themselves "grey nomads".

"We had done some caravanning in the past, as kids, either down to Rosebud or Sorrento and Queenscliff, but we'd never owned a van," says Mr Tudor. "We started off slowly with a trip up to Echuca to get used to towing the van. Then we headed up to the Gold Coast for three weeks."

Mr Tudor says the choice to buy a van was based as much on the promise of making new friends as it was to travel. "The social side of caravanning really appealed to us. A lot of people were around the same age, 50 to 60, and had the same interests. You make a lot of friends very quickly, and there's always happy hour at somebody's van each night. When we're not on the road, we keep in touch with a lot of people."

Researching and planning the trip was fun, too. "We got on to some of the caravan forums on the internet, and several websites, and we planned our route according to the advice we found."

When Mr Tudor had questions about equipment, distances or places to stay, he simply posted them on the net and waited for the replies to flood in.

One of the best parts of caravanning, says Mr Tudor, is that you're never treated like an inconvenient tourist. Better still, life on the road provided him with a sense of freedom he hadn't experienced before. "There was no packing and unpacking, no decisions about booking hotels or motels. The biggest decision was whether to move on or stay another day."

While Mr Tudor didn't sell his house to hit the road, he's met many grey nomads who have. "I think a lot of people get a bit of a shock. They sell the family home, buy a van. When they get tired of life on the road they head home, only to find that property prices have shot up and they can't afford what they had before."

Trevor Conner is another proud nomad. Ask him what he likes most about life on the road and he'll tell you it's the fact that there's never a hurry. "There's no rush. When you go on overseas tours, you get to a destination in the late afternoon. You have time for a shower and dinner that night and at seven the next morning you're up and on the road again. With a caravan, you take things as they come. You have everything you need and it's all your own things. If you pull up to a place and you want to stay a few extra nights, you just do it."

Mr Conner and wife Beth were nomads well before they turned grey. Given their first caravan, homemade by Beth's father, shortly after they were married, the pair have since owned four other caravans. They now travel for between three and four months each year. "Broome is the place we like the best. We've been three times, and we're booked to go again next year. It's about a 4500-kilometre journey. It takes us 12 to 13 days. I'm into golfing, fishing, beaching and lawn bowls and we catch up with the same people each year. When we're not in Broome, we keep up in contact with cards and telephone calls."

Don Giddens and wife Sylvia sold their house and bought a van three years ago. They've been grey nomads ever since. Calling from Queensland, Mr Giddens says: "We've had three years on the road so far and we reckon we have another three years on the road left in us. We have an agreement that if either of us gets sick of life on the road they'll tell the other one and that'll be it. We'll stop."

Highlights of three years on the road include Exmouth and Ningaloo in Western Australia, although most of his travels, he says, have been memorable. The best part about caravanning for Mr Giddens is simple: "You meet people from all walks of life and everybody is at the same level. This life is a great equaliser. It doesn't matter if you have a big, fancy Winnebago or a tiny Jayco, you're all the same on the road."

Pat Hayes, publisher of monthly caravan, camping and touring magazine On the Road, says that for the baby-boomer generation, the dream of travelling Australia in a motorhome is about searching for roots. "Born out of the war generation, the boomers want to learn about what their country is about. They want to get in touch with the dreamtime, explore the romantic image they have of the outback - stars at night, the isolation, friendly country people. The journey, rather than the sights, is the most important thing for them. They don't see themselves as tourists. They're travellers and explorers."

Now a grey nomad himself, Mr Hayes' most memorable journey was travelling overland from London to Australia with his wife and three children in 1976. "We drove through Europe, across Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, up to Nepal and down to Penang, where we shipped everything across to Australia. It's a journey you couldn't repeat now."

Mr Hayes says retirees spend between $30,000 and $400,000 on a fully-equipped motorhome. Most travel for two to three years, see some of Australia, return home and put the motorhome on the market. "It's a shame, really. Many do one trip around Australia, clock up 30,000 kilometres and, just as their vehicle is run-in, they put it on the market."

Bobbi Mahlab, publisher of Get up and Go, a quarterly magazine for 60-plus travellers, says that assumptions about baby boomers and the way they travel can be misleading. "There's a perception that travellers in the 60-plus age group are a homogeneous group, but they're not. Travelling around in Australia in a motorhome might be one person's dream, but lots of people can't imagine any-thing worse than being in a car with their lifelong partner for hours on end. Age isn't the defining factor of how people choose to travel."

Ms Mahlab says that she has seen subtle shifts in the way grey nomads travel over the past five years. "People are looking for more meaningful things to do while they're on long expeditions, so we're covering stories which focus on people contributing to the communities they travel through." One project, run by Outward Bound, involves people spending time on an outback property and, in exchange for room and board, they perform farm duties.

Finding the confidence to travel is, says Ms Mahlab, something many retirees struggle with. "Stories of inspiration get great responses. We ran a story about a woman who was in her 60s who bought a Kombi van and headed around Australia with her dog. It was a really courageous thing to do. She was a pensioner, she had very little money, and she really made a go of it. Inspiring and motivating people is really our role."

Don Richter, director of marketing at Tourism Victoria, says that tourism bodies are paying particular attention to the baby-boomer group as they age. Grey nomads, he says, contribute 25 per cent of Victoria's annual tourism revenue. "We're looking to promote the things about Victoria that the baby boomers can do as their children leave home and they come into the position where they have more time, money, effort and energy to get out and travel. To appeal to that market, we've launched a series of touring campaigns - including Bendigo, Ballarat and the goldfields, the Grampians, and the Great Alpine and Great Ocean roads.''

Mr Richter says that research into the so-called baby boomers and their tastes has been surprising. "We've found that when people are in their 20s or 30s, they go to movies, theatre and restaurants and, when they don't have kids, they spend their money quite freely. This goes into a period of remission for 12 or so years, when children are around, but they emerge at the end of it with the same tastes."

Mr Richter says that there are subtle differences between grey nomads and the rest of the caravanning public. "Older people have more time to do things. They'll take a longer period touring. But they won't splash their money around like high-earning

30-year-olds because most are on restricted retirement funds. They're much more considered in their spending."

According to Caravan Industry Australia, the caravan, camping and motorhome industry is Australia's fastest-growing tourism sector - the production of caravans and other recreational vehicles has almost trebled since the early 1990s. There are 350,000 registered recreational vehicles in Australia. In 2003, registrations of new caravans increased 14 per cent on the previous year. More than 70 per cent of new caravans and motorhomes are bought by consumers in the 55-plus age group. Figures indicate there are between 70,000 and 80,000 people doing a round-Australia trek at any one time - 70 per cent of them early retirees.

Grey nomads go high-tech

They may be grey, but most retirees are anything but old-fashioned when it comes to technology. Grey nomad webpages detailing routes, experiences, life stories and photo galleries are increasing in popularity. Ideal for family members wanting to track their parents' adventures, and fellow nomads looking to catch up enroute, many sites also have links to caravan park review sites and chat rooms.

Rob Tudor, who set up his webpage before leaving home, posted an online diary, with images of destinations, as he travelled. "Everyone has a laptop and a mobile phone on the road," Mr Tudor says. "Telstra has a free hour each day for users, and internet cafes, especially in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, will let you hook up to their broadband connection and update your internet site."

For wannabe grey nomads looking to research the ins and outs of life on the road, advice on pre-trip preparation, house-sitting, repairs and travel tips is plentiful on the internet. Those already travelling can post questions about preferred routes, or buy parts via the online buy/sell/wanted link. The largest of these is at

For travellers with money to burn, the new must-have piece of caravan gadgetry is a mobile satellite dish. Perfect for grandparents looking to video-conference with their grandchildren, the satellites can also provide broadband internet connections and better television reception.


Another handy unit that could be a lifesaver in remote conditions is a personal emergency position indicating radio beacon. Models that have the ability to send out a distress signal for up to four days can be bought from camping stores for about $250. Could be the cheapest life insurance you buy.

Keep it clean

Even if you're not part of the fortunate few with motorhomes with built-in ensuites, outback ablutions have become more civilised with the advent of pop-up shower tents. Many use the self-supporting geodesic fibreglass rods with floors that can be left in place or zipped out for drainage (about $100). Solar shower bags ensure a warm shower (under $10) while 12-volt power showers ensure good pressure (about $40).

Map it!

GPS satellite navigation systems are coming down in price, with models from recognised brands such as Magellan from about $250. Fully featured models are now under $1000.

Buy or rent?

You need not go the drastic step of selling your home to buy a motorhome, only to discover it's not for you. The Australian distributor of Winnebago - the US brand synonymous with mobile homes - has a list of authorised local rental companies that will hire you a motorhome, and if you decide to keep it, some dealers will deduct the rental cost from the purchase price.