After decades of working hard to put food on the family table, thousands of older Australians are now hitching up their caravans and heading off around the country to live the ultimate retirement dream.
At last count there were some 350,000 recreational vehicles plying the highways and byways of this great brown land, the vast majority owned by retiring baby boomers. It seems the rise of the so-called grey nomads has become nothing short of a social phenomenon, the Big Lap around Australia a veritable rite of passage for the over-50s.
Most of these older travellers are hoping the nearest they come to hard work on the road is folding up the campchairs at night or laying out the welcome mat next to the van door. However, for some, either financial necessity or a desire to continue to contribute to society, means the alarm clock has had to be packed alongside the fishing rod and the stubby holder.
And it appears their work ethic, their energy and their can-do attitude has made these born-again employees a highly sought-after commodity – particularly in the more hidden away areas of regional Australia.
There are a thousand jobs available to them on any station or outback property, especially the ones doing tourism. Every year, all of us in the sticks would be happy to have full- or part-time people to do stuff like gardening and laundry and cleaning. For places that do tourism, meals and accommodation, there are also the guest rooms to clean and a million dishes to do. Grey nomads with other skills, like mechanics or tilers, are in even greater demand.
While casual cleaning and maintenance jobs are favourites with grey nomads, they are by no means the only employment opportunities out there. You won’t have to visit many caravan parks or camping areas before you come across a little sign saying something like “Cheap hairdressing, see site 29,” or “Craftwork for sale, see site 72”. Travellers with certain skills or interests are happy to sell their services to fellow nomads and, as long as the business doesn’t become too big, nobody seems to mind.
And then there are the fossickers. In often desolate free camping areas in places such as the Harts Ranges in the Northern Territory and the gemfields near Emerald in Queensland, an army of grey nomad treasure seekers will be in residence. In these designated fossicking areas, they can seek and legitimately keep everything from sapphires and rubies to garnets and gold. Despite the physical demands of all the digging, sieving and washing, many stick at the task for months at a time, making a nice little income by selling their finds.
For other hard-working older travellers aiming to earn some extra cash, nothing beats the fruit-picking trail. Traditionally the domain of overseas backpackers, the grey nomads are now making their presence felt in the orchards of Australia and apparently they are worth their weight in gold. While older people may not necessarily be as fast as some of the ‘young guns’, they tend to be reliable, stick at it, and get the job done … and that’s why farmers love them.
Another way in which grey nomads are creating work for themselves is simply by flocking to various scenic campsites all over the country. Many places have proved so popular that the National Parks and Wildlife Service in most states has instituted a camp hosting program whereby travellers stay at a campsite for free in return for carrying out basic tasks such as cleaning facilities, collecting fees, and perhaps conducting visitor surveys.
It seems though that while thousands of older travellers choose to work as they meander their way across the country, their wages cannot adequately be measured in monetary terms. For these lucky grey nomads, their real reward is simply being out there in the first place.