I have mixed feelings about Grey Nomads – those adventurous folk of 50+ age bracket who spend every minute of their retirement years exploring every inch of Australia in their trusty caravans and motorhomes.
I have to tread carefully on this issue as my parents are your typical Grey Nomads – escaping the Winter chills to the Queensland Gold Coast each year. However there is nothing worse than getting stuck behind a string of caravans in convoy – all sitting on or under the speed limit and travelling so closely together they are impossible to pass safely and squeeze in between.
I also need to tread carefully as ‘in the olden days’, I was a super-excited, restless child bouncing up and down in the back seat of a 1970s sedan towing our very own family caravan. It is the old case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’, but in this case, it was dull silver with a canvas awning and contrasting stripes down the side.
Our first caravan was a 1950s Carapark Zestline – a hulking silver beast that originally belonged to my Uncle Arthur. Uncle Arthur was my great uncle, a kind and gentle man who had loose and clicking false teeth that would dance around his mouth as he ate. That used to freak me out no end, but the purchase of his caravan made him so much more acceptable.
The caravan was tired and dated but it must have been the right price, and Mum set to freshening it up with a repaint of the cupboard doors, new brown and orange floral curtains and new brown chenille bedspreads. Yes, the last word in mobile style.
The Zestline had your typical caravan floor plan – twin beds up the back and a table that collapsed into a double bed. I doubt much has changed in floor plan design to this day but perhaps the vans are now made from lighter materials and have a stronger focus on aerodynamics. Uncle Arthur’s van was built to survive a nuclear holocaust unscathed and towed like a brick dunny. It was solid, square and indestructible. But as children, we loved it and were so excited to be off on our first caravan adventure.
The caravan was duly packed, hooked up to the Valiant, and we were on the road north. We made good time and our first night ever sleeping in a caravan – I can still remember the thrill – was spent at a tiny village called Bendemeer on the Northern Tablelands of NSW. Bendemeer has a pub, a school and a convenient caravan park just off the highway and on the side of a hill.
At first glance the hill wasn’t an issue, and it wasn’t an issue for anyone else in the family except me. You see, the way the beds were configured and the way that Dad parked the van meant that I spent the entire night trying to stop myself from rolling out of bed. My brother was fine as he simply rolled into the wall (and had the ability to sleep through WWIII anyway) and my Mum simply made up the bed for her and Dad so their heads were higher than their feet. Just like a rock climber, I spent the night tensed up, jamming my hands and feet into any available crevice or gap between mattress and wall and hanging on for dear life.
Added to that, it was the coldest night in living memory of Bendemeer residents. My parents had each other to provide warmth, my brother slept on oblivious, and I was rock climbing in the Himalayas for the entire night. Or so it felt.
The journey continued on to Coffs Harbour on the north coast of NSW. It was significantly warmer and flatter there, and the holiday soon stretched out into carefree days of roaming the beach and caravan park with packs of other holidaying children – all of us decked out in midriff tops, flared shorts and surf thongs. Ah, what’s not to love about 1970s fashion?
Coffs Harbour had endless beaches, a marine park and the Big Banana. A holiday just can’t get better than when it’s in an Australian town with something BIG in it. On a damp, grey day we abandoned the beach to tour the Big Banana. Picture it: banana train, banana trees, banana souvenirs and banana food. As a child I was permanently hungry and scoffed the full menu of banana food including a chocolate-coated frozen banana. This was finished off with a large bucket of hot, buttered popcorn. Yes, my appetite knew no bounds!
Unfortunately even my cast iron stomach could not handle this blend of cuisine and I spent the next 24 hours throwing up. I was past caring but I can only imagine how unpleasant this was for the rest of the family in the cramped confines of the caravan. To this day I cannot stand the smell of hot popcorn. One of the few things I don’t like to eat!
Mum very quickly tired of making up their bed on the table each night and we spent the entire two weeks eating off our laps – either inside when the weather was wet or outside under the red/orange/green striped canvas awning. Being an uncoordinated kid, I spent a good part of each meal trying to catch my sausage as it rolled off my plate or retrieving various food stuffs from the floor or grass. No doubt this was a great boost to my immune system, enabling the development of some resistance – alternatively it could have been the cause of the popcorn fiasco.
As always when you are a child, the holidays are too quickly over, and all too soon we were towing the silver sinker on the long road trip home. As we rolled into my home town of Dubbo, Dad suggested one last splurge of a Chinese meal before we covered the final 30km to the farm. We ordered up and as one, we dropped our elbows onto the table and heaved a combined sigh of relief. For once Mum let our manners go west as we luxuriated at a real table, just perfect for resting elbows.
Ah, childhood holiday memories – so simple and powerful – but don’t ask me ever again to sit in the backseat of a car for 10 hours towing a caravan. I am more than happy to leave these sunny memories in the distant past and intend to ignore any grey nomadic tendencies well into the future.
Sometime in the 1976