The Australian “gray nomads” hit the back of the coronavirus

The Australian

Sunshine Coast, Australia (CNN) – For many retired Australians, home is not always a fixed address.

Nicknamed “gray nomads”, an increasing number of older Australians are demolishing their suburban structures to spend months, if not years, on the road.

According to Tourism Research Australia, 30,000 to 40,000 gray nomads travel home on average every quarter.

After retiring from real estate, all my grandmother wanted to do was join them.

However, as a single woman in her seventies, the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčliving on the street in the long run was not a reality she felt comfortable pursuing alone.

Enter the right stage … A gray-haired musician with a travel trailer in tow and a promise of adventure. The two put their furniture in storage, tied two khaki-colored kayaks to the roof grates and embellished the trailer with dream catchers.

It is probably worth remembering at this point in history that the mysterious gray-haired musician is actually my grandfather.

My grandparents, Val and Dan Atherton, returned together 23 years after the separation. Nine months after their big tour around Oz, the World Health Organization has declared a global pandemic.

Ten days and over 4,000 miles (approximately 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.

Beat the boundaries

Australian Deputy Health Director Nick Coatsworth recently praised the nation for its “overnight” response to the coronavirus outbreak. However, the travel restrictions quickly applied have left many vulnerable citizens stranded on the wrong side of the country.

“Many gray nomads were impressed by the speed with which the events unfolded,” says Cindy Gough, founder of, with reference to the closure of state borders and camper parks in late March.

Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and Northern Territory have closed their borders to non-essential travelers.

Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images AsiaPac / Getty Images

“There was an unfortunate backlash in some communities at the time against gray nomads who were simply trying to get home or find a place to sit outside the pandemic,” explains Gough.

In response, the experienced gray nomads, Bruce and Marg Gow, used their online platform Baby Boomers on the Road support displaced persons displaced persons.

“There was a lot going on about the rumor mill. We shared government updates, the advice of those who had come home and worked to promote positivity during the crisis,” says Marg.

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My grandparents, members of the Gows Facebook group, were in Carnarvon, western Australia, a coastal city about 560 miles north of Perth, when the country went into hibernation.

Their hometown of Gympie, Queensland, was further away than a transatlantic flight between London and New York.

“The crazy ride home was a breeze for us,” says Val. “We made the decision together and left with a few hours’ notice.”

By acquiring exemptions to cross state borders, the duo hit the accelerator at a rate reserved exclusively for truck drivers.

“For 10 days we drove, refueled, took to a van parking lot, slept and then drove again.” Dan recalls. “We had masks, disinfectants and gloves. All the van parking lots were out of contact, which meant we were practically self-isolating all the way home.”

The trip was relatively smooth, despite a couple of crocodiles, a license plate theft and a disturbing police call.

“A border police officer where we had crossed days ago tested positive for the virus,” says Dan. “However, luckily we didn’t get in touch with him or his team.”

Upon entering a family member’s property a little over a week after deciding to escape, the couple describes the feeling of arriving home as “ecstatic”.

The coronavirus forced many of Australia's gray nomads, including Val Atherton, to return home.

The coronavirus forced many of Australia’s gray nomads, including Val Atherton, to return home.

Courtesy of Val Atherton

‘A mad panic, not a crazy dash’

Normally, Pam and Alan Little spend most of each year traveling.

When the pandemic hit, they could afford to pay to stay in a long-term trailer park, reducing the rent for tenants living in their home in Newcastle, New South Wales.

“We had people moving out of our house in mid-April,” Pam tells 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 a mad panic, not a mad rush. “

Pam describes the scene when they reached South Australia as disorganized.

“Nobody wore masks,” he recalls.

“My husband has a pre-existing condition, yet the quarantine agents were going through our things without gloves. He left us breathless.”

The Littles returned home in eight days, but they say it cost several anxiety attacks.

Farms offer a lifeline to blocked nomads

Some gray nomads were unable to return to the boomerang home.

Last June, Colleen and Russ Lines sold all their belongings and left Brisbane for the trip of a lifetime.

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“You don’t know what’s around the corner,” says Colleen of the decision. “We wanted to see Australia as long as we can.”

The couple was field hosting an hour north of Perth, in Yanchep National Park, when Western Australia closed all caravans and national parks to travelers.

“With no home to go to, we didn’t have a clear option,” says Colleen. “There was a lot of uncertainty, since we had to find somewhere to stay 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 the doors to the public. However, they provided a paddock for the stuck ones.

“Like a hen stretching its wings and gathering its chicks, we have extended our farm to those on the street with nowhere to go,” says Benji.

Four caravans are now on the property, with Benji describing a rediscovered sense of unity on the farm.

“Initially the mood was very disturbing, but over time, we created our community and people took the rhythm of the farm. Now there is a great sense of peace, friendship and community.”

No crop interrupted

My grandfather’s brother Greg Atherton and his wife Jill Fewtrell, 65 and 64, have traveled wherever the harvest takes them for over a decade, working across Australia on several farms.

When the coronavirus struck, the couple were working on what they described as the “farm food bowl” of Victoria’s Murray River.

With an almond picking in March and an olive picking in May, the duo usually head home to see the family in Queensland as they continue agricultural work.

However, this year they erected an isolation sign on their campsite and wrapped the perimeter of their trailer with red and white tape.

Jill Fewtrell and her husband Greg Atherton entered a rigorous quarantine between the harvest seasons.

Jill Fewtrell and her husband Greg Atherton entered a rigorous quarantine between the harvest seasons.

Courtesy of Jill Fewtrell

“We completed the two-week quarantine and tested the virus before the olive harvest,” says Jill. “Every morning, before starting our shift, we check our temperature when we get there. We are also continuously disinfecting all the machines.”

“We have to keep the harvest safe,” adds Greg. “If something goes wrong, it’s not good for anyone.”

The long way to go

The first case of Australian coronavirus was confirmed in January, in a summer of devastating forest fires. April marked the first month of the year when fires did not occur, but with tourism almost completely stopped, consecutive crises apparently broke the last thread to which many regional and rural communities hung.

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The caravan and camping industry alone reported losses of over $ 135 million in April. According to the Caravan Industry Association of Australia, park revenue for the blocked month decreased by 90%.

The devastated industry is now pointing to the travel habits of the gray nomads as part of the solution for the long road to recovery.

“Gray nomads are vital for regional Australia as they disperse further in the country than other tourists,” explains Peter Clay of the Caravan Industry Association Australia.

“Once the restrictions have been eased, we will ask all travelers to support regional communities. It will be essential to start the economy and generate the greatest possible economic value to help families put food on the table.”

Tourism Australia is also focusing on domestic travel once restrictions ease.

“Self-driving and road travel are sure to be the center of attention, which as we know are very popular segments with the gray nomad market,” says Phillipa Harrison, CEO of Tourism Australia.

Dan and Val Atheron traveled to Australia with their trailer for nine months.

Dan and Val Atheron traveled to Australia with their trailer for nine months.

Courtesy of Dan and Val Atheron

“Aussies spent over 80 billion Australian dollars on night trips and over 26 billion Australian dollars on day trips last year. While domestic tourism alone cannot fill the void of lost international affairs, more Australians traveling on national territory has the potential to offer much-needed revenue. ”

Concerned about the second wave of Covid-19, Clay claims that trailer parkings have a unique advantage for safe domestic travel.

“In many cases they already comply with the health directive for social removal requirements. By law, they are required to ensure a minimum distance between campsites and cabins, as well as the need to comply with strict cleaning standards. Furthermore, cabins and caravans don’t have shared spaces or air conditioning systems, as seen in hotels and motels. ” he says.

When asked if they will return to the road when restrictions ease, the response of many gray nomads is an overwhelming yes.

“As soon as it is safe to do so, without a doubt,” says Pam Little. “My story isn’t over yet.”


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