Grey Nomads: wrong way, go back

April 29, 2013
grey nomads courier mail 2010 google

A couple buys a campervan, decks it out for the trip round Australia, and departs Sydney on the adventure of a lifetime. Six months to a year on the open road is what they have in mind. But in a national park three hours north of the city they stop for thermos tea. They look at each other and realise they’ve made a terrible mistake. They’re already bored. The life of a grey nomad is not for them. They call the enterprise off, turn back down the highway, and end up at the Sydney Opera House that night.

I was told this story years ago but perhaps it’s apocryphal. Surely they couldn’t have made it to the Opera House that very night! But its subversive elements made me laugh. Australia’s grey nomads are legends of enthusiasm and camaraderie. It’s practically de rigueur for retired people to pump their savings into mobile McMansions, take a turn around this vast country, and then enthuse about it.

Having just returned from a three-week trial run through the NSW and Queensland hinterlands, I’m wondering whether I’m cut out for the full odyssey. I’m wondering whether baby boomers will maintain the grey nomad tradition. We’re part of the generation that re-shaped tourism: we bussed across India, Afghanistan and Iran to London in the 60s and 70s; generated demand for singles’ resorts in the 80s; spurred a boom in boutique luxury hotels in the 90s. At the same time, many of us never lost our thirst for adventure, exotic destinations, and more physically challenging experiences. As I write, one of my 61 year-old friends is scaling Mt Everest (well, aiming for the base camp) and another in her 60s has recently returned from the six-day Cradle Mountain trek in Tasmania. Grey nomading, with its endless hours of driving followed by long stints sitting in caravan parks, even when punctuated with a hill climb, or an evening stroll around a shut-down country town, its Indian and Chinese restaurants the only signs of life, may not be our cup of billy tea.

Don’t misunderstand me. I had a great time. The fraction of Australia we saw is stunningly green right now, and breathtakingly beautiful. Who could not be moved to raptures over the Glasshouse Mountains looming crazily from the coastal plain or the dancing waterfalls in the Main Range? Who could not enjoy the national park at Noosa that snakes around the coastline giving a bird’s eye view of the patient surfers; nor find charming the village of Maleny where, if the local business is not organic, it’s co-operative, natural, or healing?

I have a partner who was born to drive. He looks forward to being a grey nomad. We were spared the discovery that we preferred opera to each other. Given the sound system on our 13-year-old four-wheel drive is pretty shaky and rejects all CDs and audio books, we spent a lot of time talking. We were still talking as we drove back in to Sydney. But I have misgivings about extending this trial. For a start, through a genetic twist of fate I’m not yet grey. Am I qualified to join the grey nomads? Reading new research by Dr Wendy Hillman, of CQ University, called Grey Nomads Travelling in Queensland, Australia: social and health needs, I have the impression of an older crowd carrying with them a good deal of medication and repeat prescriptions, having survived triple by-passes and hip replacements, and looking to de-stress. Good on them. It’s soothing watching the scenery go past but the journalist in me eventually tires of weeks of looking and wants to know, especially in the towns, what’s really happening here. Take Bellingen. I visited the old NSW dairy town as a reporter three decades ago to investigate the war between the hippies and the established residents. Now that I was back, I had no idea how the town had become so yuppie and, as a traveller passing through, no satisfactory means of finding out – though I did try quizzing a barista and a startled woman in the street.

The grey nomads, Hillman shows, are a convivial lot; but our experience was lonelier, more in line with earlier findings that people kept to themselves. To be fair, we didn’t hang around long enough, and our Subaru marked us out as dilettantes. The main misgiving I have though is leaving the web of relations and interests I’ve forged, some since having left full-time work, that I hope will sustain me as I grow older: the book group, the new poetry group I’ve joined, the volunteer work, this blog and my related work; connections that require some commitment. Some can be put down for months and picked up again easily enough, others not so easily.

We need new experiences as we get older – and for baby boomers, including me, travel remains a high priority. An upsurge in adventure tour companies for the 50+ market shows shorter, physically challenging, small group tours to unusual destinations like the Papua New Guinea highlands or even the Kimberley may better satisfy our thirst for knowledge and adventure. As for grey nomading, I see a compromise with the man who was born to drive: say a maximum of six weeks on the road – and a new sound system.

What’s your experience? (Click on ‘comments’)

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