As debate rages in many rural communities about the extent of the economic benefit brought by grey nomads, the bigger ‘rosier’ picture is often ignored.
Caravan park operators seeking to restrict free camping may dispute the amount of money that grey nomads spend in small towns, but there can be no debating the desire of travellers to make a difference.
At the end of the day, the real worth of a community is measured in a currency far more precious than dollars and cents.
There is endless evidence to suggest that grey nomads who have lived in a city instinctively empathise with the residents of country communities who may be struggling with the impact of drought, flooding or bushfire.
Volunteer organisations such as BlazeAid report a huge proportion of their helpers are grey nomads. In cattle stations, grey nomads are helping owners to cope with the many jobs that must be done to survive a harsh environment. And, of course, there is that desire to buy a coffee in a smaller town in order to ‘give something back’.
As people from different backgrounds interact and spend time together, strong bonds are often forged. And, for many, the experience is life changing.
“My husband Alan and I spent six weeks helping on a station and I couldn’t believe how much our assistance was needed and appreciated,” says Pat J, who has lived in Melbourne all her life. “Right from day one, we felt like we belonged. I know we have made a lifelong connection.”
Like many long-term travellers, Pat says the Big Lap gave her a much greater understanding and appreciation of how this country was built.
To academics, the desire to re-engage with their country’s history is actually one of the key reasons many older Australians hook up their caravans in the first place.
In her thesis on grey nomads, Edith Cowan University academic, Donell Joy Holloway, concludes that – for many caravanners and motorhomers – the Big Lap helps re-enforce their sense of national identity.
“As outsiders in rural and remote Australia, grey nomads’ understanding of the landscape is also dependent on an individual’s understanding of Australia’s past,” concludes Holloway. “These meanings may also change as a result of their lived discoveries and experiences of the Australian road trip.”
Certainly, for grey nomads like Pat J, the Big Lap has forever changed her perspective on life.
“I always thought I knew what it was to be Australian and what it was to face challenges,” she said. “But I realise now that I never really knew either, and I’m a better person for it.”
So, while the prospect of Happy Hours, new friendships, and stunning scenery may well be major drawcards to the grey nomad lifestyle, there is perhaps an even more compelling motive that draws travellers to the open road. And Australia is the richer for it.