“It’s the Freedom!”

Two powerful rigs at the Marlborough Roadhouse, Central Queensland

All the cupboard doors flew open on the way north. When we stopped for lunch, cans of baked beans were rolling around on the floor among plastic plates and cups and packets of biscuits. On the way home, the door fell off on to the road.

This was my first and only experience of caravanning. I was seven. It was a rented plywood van pulled by the family Vanguard, from Nambour to Yeppoon. The grey Vanguard: what an ugly car that was.

Caravan holiday with Vanguard

We never went caravanning again. From then on, it was Dad’s old army tent, from Melbourne to Cairns, out west to Barcaldine and beyond. I remember nothing but pleasure on those economical tent holidays. I was hitched on road trips, but not on caravans; unlike so many other grey-haired people today.

One winter, Con and I took a trip to western Queensland and spent a night at Nardoo Station campground, north of Cunnamulla. At Happy Hour, twenty or so grey nomads sat chatting, drinks in hand, resting their feet on the warm stones of the fire pit. All of them were on long trips with caravans or motor homes.

After Happy Hour – the fire pit at Nardoo Station

I spoke to people from all over the eastern states that evening, from the Adelaide Hills to the suburbs of Sydney.  When I asked them why they made these extended journeys each winter, they all said the same thing. “It’s the freedom.”

Freedom from family obligations, from work, from lawn mowing. It’s a fine thing to leave it all behind, liberated from routine and drudgery, and stimulated by new sights and sounds, friends and stories; perhaps feeling really alive for the first time in years.

Then Happy Hour was over, and everyone disappeared back into their campers and vans to watch television.

In the United States, retirees who migrate south for the winter are called snowbirds. Seniors from cold states leave home before the first snow of winter and travel to Florida or Arizona, to Palm Springs or Sun City. Thousands drive their recreational vehicles to the same RV resort each year. The parks advertise themselves as “Snowbird Friendly” and they attract so many large campers and caravans the shining roofs turn the countryside white.

Snowbirds at Quartzsite, Arizona Photo from San Diego Reader

In Australia, the move is from south to north, from May to October. Thousands of units of all shapes, sizes and capabilities head up the main roads, many of them travelling on or over the speed limit, others cruising along with semi-trailers and work vehicles packing up behind them, waiting for a passing lane.

Caravans are fancier these days – friends of mine bought one recently and had to take it back straight away because the wine cooler wasn’t working – but not everyone wants a huge, luxury caravan. There are different cultures amongst grey nomads, and different values. Younger retirees call themselves adventure travellers, and tow sturdy off-road camper trailers. They tackle the Birdsville Track and Tanami Desert, and scorn cheesey camper slogans: “Adventure before Dementia”, or “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance”.

I met one such couple who had camped at the basic, unpowered campgrounds of Karijini National Park in Western Australia’s Pilbara, a most beautiful place.

Back on the coast at Karratha, they’d told other travellers about Karijini.

“It’s wonderful!” they said to a woman in a neighbouring van. “Are you going there?”

“No,” she said. “We don’t have the battery capacity.”

“Can’t you run the lights off the car battery?”

“Yes, but not the TV. I can’t miss ‘Home and Away’.”

Each year, travelling retirees bring millions of dollars to country town economies; but they are careful with their money. The most they spend in any one town may be a few dollars for groceries, a meal at the RSL Club, and fuel. Like backpackers, they watch every dollar.

There’s a story, true or not, of a couple of men going into the bar of a country hotel. They order schooners of beer. To their astonishment, the publican charges them only ten cents a glass. They drink their beers and order another round, and the same thing happens.

The publican explains. “I won Gold Lotto, and I decided I’d buy this pub and charge everyone just ten cents a beer.”

“What a great idea!” says one of the visitors. “But tell me, those blokes sitting at the end of the bar, they haven’t ordered a drink the whole time we’ve been here. Why is that?”

“They’re grey nomads,” said the publican. “They’re waiting for the half-price drinks at Happy Hour.”

Speeding Tickets


We were on our way to Rockhampton in the old red Falcon. The Bruce Highway to Rocky was at last almost free of road works, after years of major upgrades. Constant speed limits still applied: one hundred kilometres per hour signs, then eighty, sixty, forty, and back up again. Construction had finished, but road marking was still going on, and so the speed zones were still in place.

North of Gympie, we failed to notice a forty kph sign. A police car appeared out of nowhere, and a handsome young policeman with a Welsh accent wrote Con a ticket for three points and two hundred and twenty dollars.

Considering that we are not tradies in a hurry, over-confident young drivers or hoons, Con and I have forfeited a lot of points over the years. We’ve both come close to losing our licenses at times, and it’s usually for going over the limit in a speed zone such as this.

We drove on, cautiously, and stopped for the night at Childers.

Childers has a quaint streetscape, with heritage buildings, trees, sculpture and mosaics, charming even with the Bruce Highway running through it. The traffic keeps the Childers pedestrians nimble, those pensioners, grey nomads, hippies and backpackers. We checked into a motel and dined at The Federal Hotel, a pretty, heritage listed building.


Next morning, Con did the Walk of Shame, down to the Police Station to pay his speeding fine. He likes to get these things over with.

“Can you remember your first speeding fine?” I asked him, when we were back on the highway.

“Yes, I can!” he said, with bitterness. “It was May 1977, in the Golden Holden. Nothing but trouble, that car!”

The Golden Holden was the same colour as the foil in Con’s cigarette packets. He was a great smoker in those days.

“It was our first trip south in the new car – going to a wedding, do you remember?”

Over the years, Con and I have travelled Queensland, north to south or south to north, for four weddings and four funerals. We could make a movie of it.

“Between Marlborough and Yaamba, a policeman stepped out of the long grass and pulled me over. ‘You were clocked on radar at one hundred and thirty. That’s three points and one hundred and thirty dollars.’ Only one hundred and thirty dollars. Those were the days…

“Next ticket – 1998. First long trip in the Falcon, and I got caught twice. The first was at Kuttabul, north of Mackay – a speed camera. The other one was south of Rocky, on the way home. A cop in a patrol car waved his finger to me to stop. Three points each time!”


“I remember. You were still down those six points when we started the round-Australia trip.”

“Yes. And just after we started, a few kilometres the other side of Cunningham’s Gap, I overtook a semi-trailer. I was going one hundred and twenty k’s when I came back over to the left. There was a white police van parked beside the road, and I knew I was done again.”

That would have meant that Con was nine points down before we’d even left the state. One more ticket, and I would have had to drive the whole way around Australia, so I said I was driving at the time, and took the points myself.

Back then Con did most of the long-distance driving because he has always been better at overtaking than me. I remember with pleasure, though, that I drove the straight stretch on the Nullarbor Plain, one hundred and forty-six kilometres without a curve; the longest straight stretch of sealed road in the country.

“Do you think I should overtake this truck?” I’d asked, about halfway along.

“If you can’t overtake here,” Con had responded dryly, “you won’t overtake anywhere.”

Now, on the way to Rockhampton, he continued to list his speeding tickets.

“It’s 2001, I’m going to Gympie for Uncle Frank’s funeral, and I get pinged for doing eighty-two in the eighty zone. I lost a point, and they sent me a form suggesting a driving counseling course. Ha!”

I’m pleased I didn’t get spotted last year, overtaking a semitrailer on the Marlborough stretch at one hundred and forty. No overtaking lanes on the Marlborough Stretch. Or the time I accidently set the cruise control to one hundred and twenty instead of one hundred and ten. That was a quick trip.


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