August 12, 2016 1:00 pm JST

Nothing retiring about Australia's 'gray nomads'

GEOFF HISCOCK, Contributing writer

Judy, left, and Rob Tudor with their caravan in north Queensland (Courtesy Rob Tudor)

SYDNEY -- Around 5 p.m. every evening in thousands of campsites and caravan parks across Australia, travelers gather for an informal "happy hour" to share a drink and swap tales about life on the road.

It is a ritual that Melbourne-based Rob and Judy Tudor have been enjoying often for the past 13 years after Rob quit his job as an information technology professional to do what Australians call the "Big Lap" -- a 15,000-km circumnavigation of Australia by road on Highway 1 that can take anything from a couple of months to a year or more.

The Tudors are part of a growing band of over-55 retirees, known as "gray nomads," who embark on the great Australian road trip to see their "wide brown land" (as it was once described in the famous Australian poem "My Country") while they are still sprightly enough to tow a caravan or drive a campervan or motorhome.

"It's a great social experience," Tudor, 69, told the Nikkei Asian Review from the comfort of a caravan park in northern Queensland. "You meet new people, see new places, and you can take your time. You're not locked into a set itinerary."

It also makes for a welcome escape from the chill winds of the southern hemisphere winter. When temperatures in the big southern cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide start to plummet in June and July, the gray nomads start wending their way north to the warmer climate of Queensland, the Northern Territory and the northern half of Western Australia.

By mid-July, it is not unusual to see lines of vans waiting at the entrance to the most popular caravan parks across northern Australia. For latecomers, sometimes a "no vacancy" sign greets them. But that is not a problem for the gray nomads. With a caravan, there is always somewhere to pull up for the night, even if it is at the back of a truck stop or in the car park of the local hotel. It helps that the luxury caravans favored by today's baby boomers probably have their own shower and toilet.

Luxury campers

The recent fall in gasoline prices and a lower Australian dollar have encouraged Australians to holiday at home rather than head overseas. While "camping out" is popular across all ages in Australia, the gray nomads make up the biggest group, accounting for about 40% of travelers using caravan parks.

As a result, their contribution to the Australian economy -- particularly to country towns and outback communities -- is significant. Road travelers, about 10% of whom are foreign tourists, are growing more rapidly than other tourism sectors. According to Tourism Research Australia, they spent almost 50 million nights in caravan parks or camping grounds last year, contributing 8.6 billion Australian dollars ($6.6 billion). National parks and forests also offer campsites -- sometimes free of charge -- and some local councils throw open their show grounds to generate revenue for facilities that otherwise are unused for much of the year.

Although they need to spend money on camping fees, fuel and food, the biggest expense for the gray nomads is the cost of a caravan or camper van, which can range from as little as A$20,000 to several hundred thousand dollars for the most luxurious models. There are about 586,000 recreation vehicles registered on Australian roads, made up of 528,000 towed caravans and camping trailers, and 58,000 motorized camper vans and motorhomes.

According to the Caravan Industry Association of Australia, caravan and camper van registrations were the fastest growing vehicle category in Australia for the sixth straight year in 2015. Domestic RV production last year was worth about A$1 billion, made up of 22,700 units, of which 21,600 were caravans and 1,100 were motorhomes.

The privately held Melbourne-based manufacturer Jayco, which has been in business for four decades under founder Gerry Ryan, dominates the market, accounting for half of new sales of caravans, camper trailers, motorhomes and "pop top" vehicles (where the van roof can pop up to provide more space). The company's sales last year topped A$500 million, and a third of all caravans and motorhomes in Australia bear the company's logo. Jayco's competitors include dozens of smaller local makers (some specializing in rugged off-road caravans), plus a growing range of stylish European brands and Chinese imports.

Rob Tudor, who is treasurer of the Australian Caravan Club, drives a Toyota Land Cruiser station wagon that pulls a 6.1-meter caravan that was custom built by Melbourne-based Future System. "Our van is now 13 years old," he said. "It was the Rolls-Royce of vans when we bought it -- expensive but tough as old boots."

He completed his first Big Lap in early 2004, not long after he retired. Now he and his wife Judy spend about four months a year on various road trips around Australia.

The Tudors are now on the return leg of one of the most popular gray nomad routes -- the Savannah Way, a 3,700-km network of main roads and byways that links Cairns on the east coast with the old pearling port of Broome on the west coast, interspersed with side trips to the Northern Territory capital of Darwin and Queensland's Gulf Country.

The gray nomads have their own website, thegreynomads.com.au, which shares information about road conditions, camp sites, caravan equipment, upcoming events and job opportunities. The swapping of information is an important part of the gray nomad adventure. Tourism research found that when choosing a caravan park, 51% of gray nomads rely mainly on word-of-mouth recommendations.

Advice about equipment is also much in demand, particularly as many gray nomads are new to towing and setting up a caravan. One of the biggest problems these days is to prevent caravans from becoming overweight. "The luxury additions and the outback packs are adding to the weight of vans to the point where some are virtually untowable," Tudor said. "They are just too heavy for an ordinary vehicle."

The gray nomads can also find part-time jobs on the road to finance their trips. Or spend some of their savings on buying new gadgets, such as solar panels, for their mobile homes. Fruit growers rely on gray nomads as well as young foreign working holidaymakers to help with picking and packing fruit at peak harvest times. And if a gray nomad finds the Big Lap too exhausting, there is sometimes the chance to house sit for someone else who is away on a road trip of their own. As the saying goes among seasoned gray nomads: "Just do it!"

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