DUNCAN GRAHAM. The Bush Drivers Lament.

Aug 24, 2018

Thousands of escapees from chilly southern cities are currently cruising northern Australia in search of warmth, wildflowers, new friends and a little adventure.

The grey nomads prefer caravans, some so lavishly equipped they’re really villas on wheels with solar panels, family pets and air conditioning. The young and foreign go for small vans with a mattress and a gas stove.

All bring money into backblock towns to buy fuel, food, souvenirs and spare parts.

Local government reaction is mixed; some see opportunities so encourage visitors, others begrudge using ratepayers’ funds to supply services for outsiders, particularly budget travellers. The confusion is damaging tourism. Duncan Graham reports: 

How did chucking a swag in the back of a ute, the DIY camping tradition, turn into a RV (Recreational Vehicle) event?

When the lanyard wearers found a fresh way to screw the public – and take the fun out an Australian lifestyle. In the wide open spaces, narrow views lurk.

Melburnian Michael Harvey is one of the many victims. The foolish fellow allegedly stopped in a parking bay outside Kununurra to take a kip around midnight. Illegal, snarled local officials, hammering his van door at 6 am and writing out a $100 ticket. He intends to appeal.

This is the Kimberley, the land of dingoes; signs say tourists are welcome; the unstated condition is that they use high-price hotels and caravan parks when all they want is a quiet spot to cast a line and stare at the stars. 

The only other option is to ignore the road safety warnings about driving tired and keep pressing the gas to beyond the bureaucrats’ range, even though you’re shagged and reckon outback highways after dark are for roos not RVs.

Occasionally ‘RV Friendly’ notices are posted at city limits. In Geraldton on the west coast, the weary can park overnight in the city centre. The Council reckons this gesture puts tourists at ease and encourages longer stays in commercial parks.

Other towns seems to be run by older persons with fingers in accommodation businesses, so pass regulations deterring tourists without full wallets. PROHIBITED is these folks favourite word, and always in caps.

Naturally, they mask their misanthropy with arguments about health and hygiene claiming casual campers foul the bush with human waste and trash.

The truth is otherwise in the Pilbara. The State’s Main Roads Department has a few excellent 24-hour free stopovers where caravaners settle comfortably without having white-striped zones and signs forbidding everything but breathing. The sites usually have compost toilets but no power or water, meaning travellers need to be prepared.

Most are. It’s surprising how humans can organise themselves when busybodies aren’t telling them how to behave.

As no uniforms strut the sites, users follow the bush code of respecting neighbours and the environment. The only discarded junk comes from pastoralists who reckon old tyres, empty fuel drums, rusty wire and crashed machinery is best left where it expires. Land care is for townies.

Travellers want consistency; one law across the land would make for happy campers but in a nation famous for putting state rights above human needs this is unlikely anytime soon

It’s also an issue across the Tasman. New Zealand isn’t cursed by a federal system but it does have 100,000 ‘freedom campers’ every year. Caravans are less popular with the hills and winding roads; better to go by campervan.

Only the biggest and dearest have their own toilets and showers so backpackers on budgets use cars. If the much-promoted lookout or pristine beach doesn’t have a toilet there’s a risk of befoulment; if it does someone has to maintain. 

At peak periods like Christmas, road gangs are on leave so bins overflow and tanks run dry. That’s a fault of management, not the wanderers.

Enterprising residents are starting to offer backyard space for a few dollars, undercutting the parks which charge up to $60 a night, though to be fair many provide hot-water showers, laundries and kitchen facilities.

What to do? 

The standard suggestion is to charge a levy as visitors enter the country and risk introducing an international travel tax. Another popular fix-it is to impose fees on tourists visiting sites that are free to locals – which is done in places like Indonesia’s Borobudur temple.

But in multicultural Australasia slugging anyone with dark features or a funny accent ten times the ticket price would turn into a lawyers’ feast month. 

Another idea from NZ’s Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts is to set-up budget areas for freedom campers who’ll tolerate fewer facilities.

This proposal was binned by the big park chains which are starting to dominate the industry, as they have with hotels.

So it’s back to the traditional response to a public dilemma – form a committee, call for submissions and publish a report – a process guaranteed to take at least two seasons. In the meantime, the tourists check their apps before heading out to get the buzz on which towns want them.

Councillors note – the dog’s bark, but the caravans move on to the friendly shires where drivers are happier to drop their dollars on necessities. Real campers aren’t into niceties. 

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in Indonesia

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