The trip around our massive continent with the van on the back of the Holden station wagon has meant to many Australians what retiring to Malaga is to the Brits or the world cruise is to the Americans.
With classic Australian understatement grey nomads call it “A Lap of the Block”. It’s that age-old rite of passage that many Oz couples opt for when they step from working life into retirement.
From Maleny, David McAully and his wife Jane Kennedy are planning their own particular “ lap of the block”. But this is 2008 and technology has come a long way since the days of an overheating FJ and a drafty plywood caravan.
David and Jane have planned their 6 months trip in great detail. With the most sophisticated off-road equipment and all the comforts of home on board, this promises to be a wonderful gourmet adventure.
With a lifetime in government service David says the focus of his retirement has always been the extended trip around Australia.
“I’m a keen bushwalker, a keen bird watcher. I appreciate nature and the vegetation and Australia’s pastoral history. And I love the outback and exploring new places that I’ve never been before. And I want to see the sun set in a thousand different ways and in a thousand different places.”
“I want to see the sun set in a thousand different ways”
A former teacher librarian, Jane is a passionate bush walker too, and this couple’s shared interests have often been kyaking, bird-watching, 4-wheel driving and camping. But as Jane says, “you get to an age when you don’t want that hardship anymore. The tent is OK but you can’t stand up. Lying on your back to pull your pants on… that’s not something you want to be doing months on end.”
The van chosen by Jane and David was specially made and they reject the suggestion that it’s luxurious. At 19 feet long it’s compact and really only made for two in comfort. They intend using their new investment regularly over the next 20 years so they designed it together with the makers, BushTracker of Kunda Park.
“We wanted a caravan that would allow us to stay in a national park where there are no facilities. So we have three solar panels and three heavy duty 120amp batteries. We have three water tanks, one has potable drinking water and the other two are for showering and washing etc. It’s got a shower, a toilet. The entertainment package has DVD, flat screen TV and radio”.
There’s also a washing machine, a gas stove and micro-wave. And the van is heated and air-conditioned.
“We’ll be able to do the track comfortably”.
In case you think this is a pure pleasure craft, the rigid construction makes it a seriously heavy-duty off-road caravan. It’s shaped to go down creek banks and has seals that will keep out water up to three feet deep.
“After all”, says David, if you break down on the Tanami Track you’re a long way from getting it repaired and towed out. With this van we won’t have that problem. We’ll be able to do the track comfortably”.
One of the essentials, particularly for Jane, was communications. “We had to have phone contact and email because we both have ageing parents and family. So, the laptop goes with us”, she says. They have a satellite dish on the roof too for inland TV and a wireless aerial for Broadband.
When asked where in Australia they thought they’d be out of contact, David responded with a wry smile, “Policeman’s Spur in Maleny is one example where there is no mobile reception and no wireless broadband”.
There are times says David when they will go seriously off-road into the “rough stuff”. So pulling their van is a Toyota V8 diesel Troopcarrier. It is fully self-sufficient with all the necessary camping gear, its own batteries, storage drawers, a bed and a fridge.
With all this risk-free equipment and tracks well worn around the continent by the grey nomads, does Australia still offer a sense of adventure?
“There’s plenty of scope out there for adventure in the bush”, says David. The number of national parks has increased in recent years and many of them are undeveloped. So there’s plenty of opportunity for exploring uncharted territory. And we can stay there for a week or two or three and be totally independent.”
You have to ask if all this sophisticated engineering requires training to operate it. “Well, I do”, says Jane. “Can you see me reversing that caravan? It would be foolish of me to go and not be able to operate it, particularly if something were to happen.”
We should mention there’s a video camera on the back of the van with a screen in the Troopcarrier, so reversing should be a breeze. Part of the joy of the ‘lap around the block’ is not having a definite route. It’s about meeting people who tell you about the secret places not found on tourist maps.
“You might spend two days or two weeks there”, says David. “Or you might have on your list to go somewhere but when you get there you think this is a dump, and after six hours you’ve seen it. We have plans of course but we will just go with the flow.”
David and Jane will leave Maleny in the next few weeks and go north west through central Queensland to the Northern Territory; on to Western Australia and back around through South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.
Fuel costs are a consideration but as David says, it’s not going to get any cheaper and “you don’t have to drive fast or go a million miles a day”.
Will this unsettle them once they’re back in Maleny. No way they both claim.
This will be the first of many trips and as David is quick to point out, “retirement is the age when you stop doing what you have to do and start doing what you want to do.”