Sunshine Coast, Australia (CNN) – For many Australian retirees, the home is not always a fixed address.
Nicknamed “gray nomads”, a growing number of older Australians are abandoning their suburban facilities to spend months, even years, on the road.
According to Tourism Research Australia, 30,000 to 40,000 gray nomads travel across the country every quarter, on average.
After I retired from real estate, all my grandmother wanted was to join them.
However, as a single woman in the early 1970s, the idea of living on the road for the long term was not a reality that she felt comfortable pursuing on her own.
Enter the stage on the right … A gray haired musician with a travel trailer in tow and a promise of adventure. The two put their furniture away, attached two khaki kayaks to the roof racks and decorated the caravan with dream catchers.
It is probably worth mentioning at this point in history that the mysterious gray haired musician is actually my grandfather.
My grandparents, Val and Dan Atherton, met 23 years after their separation. Nine months after the start of their grand tour of Oz, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.
Ten days and over 4,000 miles (about 6,500 kilometers) later, they had traveled from coast to coast through the sixth largest country in the world in an attempt to return home.
Australia’s deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth recently praised the country for its “overnight” response to the coronavirus epidemic. Yet quickly enforced travel restrictions have left many vulnerable citizens stranded on the wrong side of the country.
Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory have all closed their borders to non-essential travelers.
Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images AsiaPac / Getty Images
“In those early days, there was an unfortunate reaction in some communities against the gray nomads who were simply trying to go home or find a place to sit against the pandemic,” says Gough.
“There were a lot of things going around the rumor mill. We shared government updates, advice from those who had returned home and we worked to promote positivity in the midst of the crisis,” said Marg.
My grandparents, members of the Gows’ Facebook group, were in Carnarvon, Western Australia, a coastal town about 560 miles north of Perth, when the country went into hibernation.
Their hometown of Gympie in Queensland was further than a transatlantic flight between London and New York.
“Going home crazy was a no-brainer for us,” says Val. “We made the decision together and left with a few hours’ notice.”
Acquiring waivers to cross state borders, the duo hit the accelerator at a pace exclusively reserved for truckers.
“For 10 days, we drove, refueled, parked in a fleet of vans, slept and then drove again.” Dan remembers. “We had masks, a disinfectant and gloves. Not all van parks were in touch, which meant that we were practically isolated from ourselves all the way back.
The trip was relatively smooth, despite a few crocodiles, theft of a license plate and a disturbing call from the police.
“A border policeman we crossed a few days ago tested positive for the virus,” says Dan. “Fortunately, however, we did not contact him or his team.”
Arriving at a family member’s property just over a week after deciding to flee, the couple described the feeling of arriving home as “ecstatic”.
The coronavirus has forced many gray nomads from Australia, including Val Atherton, to return home.
Courtesy of Val Atherton
“Crazy panic, not a dash of madness”
Normally, Pam and Alan Little spend the majority of the year on the road.
When the pandemic hit, they could afford to pay to stay in a trailer park for the long term while reducing the rent for renters living in their homes in Newcastle, New South Wales.
“We saw people leaving our home in mid-April,” Pam told CNN Travel.
“Alan said, ‘It’s time to go home.’ We were 500 miles from the nearest border when the government announced restrictions on interstate and regional travel. It was crazy panic, not crazy racing. “
Pam describes the scene when they reached South Australia as disorganized.
“No one wore a mask,” she recalls.
“My husband has a pre-existing condition, but the quarantine officers went through our business without gloves. It blew us away.”
The Littles went home in eight days, but say it came at the cost of many anxiety attacks.
Farms provide lifeline to stranded nomads
Some gray nomads did not have the opportunity to make a boomerang at home.
Last June, Colleen and Russ Lines sold all of their belongings and left Brisbane for the trip of a lifetime.
“You don’t know what’s around the corner,” said Colleen about the decision. “We wanted to see Australia for as long as possible.”
“Without a home, we had no clear option,” says Colleen. “There was a lot of uncertainty because we had to find a place to stay for the long term.”
Their solution came in the form of a lifeline offered by Olive Hill Farm. Like many other farmers, Benji and Helen Leggate have closed their doors to the public. However, they did provide a paddock for those who were stranded.
“Like a mother hen spreading her wings and gathering her chicks, we extended our farm to those on the road with nowhere to go,” says Benji.
Four caravans are now sleeping on the property, Benji describing a new feeling of unity on the farm.
“At first, the atmosphere was very disturbing, but over time, we created our own community and people started to keep pace with the farm. Now there is a great feeling of peace, friendship and community.”
No stopping the harvest
My grandfather’s brother Greg Atherton and his wife Jill Fewtrell, 65 and 64, have been traveling wherever the harvest takes them for over a decade, working across Australia on different farms.
When the coronavirus struck, the couple were working in what they described as the “bowl of farm food” from the Murray River in Victoria.
With an almond harvest in March and an olive harvest in May, the duo usually return home to see their family in Queensland while continuing their agricultural work.
However, this year, they erected an isolation sign at their campsite and wrapped the perimeter of their caravan with red and white tape.
Jill Fewtrell and her husband Greg Atherton went into strict quarantine between harvest seasons.
Courtesy of Jill Fewtrell
“We did about two weeks of quarantine and tested the virus before the olive harvest,” says Jill. “Every morning, before we start our shift, we have our temperature checked as we arrive on site. We also continuously disinfect all machines.”
“We have to protect the crop,” adds Greg. “If something goes wrong, it’s not good for anyone.”
The long road to go
The first case of Australian coronavirus was confirmed in January, in the middle of a summer of devastating bush fires. April marked the first month of the year when no fires were burning, but with tourism almost over, consecutive crises apparently cut the last thread to which many regional and rural communities were attached.
The caravan and camping industry alone reported more than $ 135 million in losses for the month of April. According to the Caravan Industry Association of Australia, park revenue for the locked month has dropped 90%.
The devastated industry now indicates that the travel habits of gray nomads are part of the solution for the long road to recovery.
“Gray nomads are vitally important to regional Australia as they disperse more across the country than other tourists,” said Peter Clay of the Caravan Industry Association Australia.
“Once the restrictions are relaxed, we ask all travelers to support regional communities. It will be imperative to revive the economy and generate as much economic value as possible to help families put food on the table.”
Tourism Australia also focuses on domestic travel after restrictions are relaxed.
“Autonomous driving and car travel will certainly be a key goal, which, as we know, are very popular segments of the gray nomad market,” said Phillipa Harrison, Managing Director of Tourism Australia.
Dan and Val Atheron traveled to Australia with their caravan for nine months.
Courtesy of Dan and Val Atheron
“Australians spent more than A $ 80 billion on overnight trips last year and more than A $ 26 billion on day trips. While domestic tourism alone cannot fill the void of lost international business, more Australians traveling within the country have the potential to provide a lot – necessary income. ”
With many people concerned about a second wave of Covid-19, Clay argues that trailer parks have a unique advantage for safe indoor travel.
“In many cases, they already comply with the health directive with regard to the requirements for social distancing. By law, they are required to guarantee a minimum distance between campsites and chalets, as well as the need to meet strict cleaning standards. caravans do not have common spaces or air conditioning systems, as seen in hotels and motels. ” he says.
When asked if they would get back on the road when the restrictions were relaxed, the response of many gray nomads was an overwhelming yes.
“As soon as it’s safe, there’s no question,” says Pam Little. “My story is not over yet.”