As a white, dare I say it middle aged, want to be middle class New Zealand born Male, I have never felt I am part of a minority, never been marginalised, never been discriminated against, apart from being the butt of the odd intimate sheep joke when I first stepped on to this continent back in the early 1990s. Now as we are in the grip of this Covid 19 crisis, I and my family could be experiencing all of these things for being wait for it: A full time travelling family. Three months ago we were the envy of anyone who had the desire to down size, pack up, and hit the road to explore the endless gems this country has to offer, and live a simple life soaking up every experience that comes our way. Now in these troubling times if a caravan or motorhome dear trundles through a small town, locals conclude you are ready to spread a bit of virus about as you empty the supermarkets of essentials before continuing on your wee jolly, and have even been referred to as the “cruise ships of the Outback”. Pitch forks are being sharpened and muskets loaded to send a strong message to travellers to stay out and go home, but home for many is that 20 odd foot structure they pull behind them.
We have been travelling in our well experienced Motorhome since October 2018 and have yet to venture beyond the West Australian border. We don’t have a large pot of money behind us so we need to stop and work as we go and have done this in Margaret River, Esperance and Shark Bay, all very different places and the only thing in common is the breath taking natural beauty that surrounds them, Like most travellers we spend our money at local supermarkets, butchers, produce stalls, farmers markets,cafes, mechanics, and local attractions as we travel about the State. Working as a Chef I have never had a problem finding casual work to replenish the funds before we move on again, and I have often churned out the phrase “as a chef you are never out of work” how wrong was I.
When the Covid 19 pandemic started to impact Australia we were in Western Australia’s Southwest spending a month volunteering on an Alpaca and small animal farm, in between paid jobs, before planning to head to Victoria finally breaking out of WA. By early March I was beginning to get worried for the chance of getting work as we travelled so contacted my previous employer in the States North, and they were happy to have us back and at that stage and still had a busy Easter period to look forward to. Our Motorhome had other ideas and we ended up in Albany with a problem that kept putting the engine into limp mode restricting the speed; an emission problem apparently, but one that has yet to be pinpointed and after 6 visits and countless hours sitting at a mechanics the problem still exists! During this time we got the news that the job was no more, the establishment was due to shut down. With all this down time I made the fatal mistake of turning to Facebook.
When we travel the easiest way to find casual work is to join the local community notice board or job sites on Facebook, and my account is littered with groups of small towns we have passed through, stayed in, or planned to visit. It was posts on these groups that I first noticed the intolerance and bigotry that I am afraid to say just sits under the surface of some sections of Australian society, bubbling up. The common message was tourists, backpackers, travellers, Grey Nomads “you are not welcome here, go home”! The message is understandable in this time of fear and uncertainty but the way it was delivered disappointed me; with anger, ignorance, bigotry and without compassion. My second mistake was commenting on a post to give some balance, my third was replying to the responses all in a polite and informed manner I must add. Three strikes I was out, I was banned from commenting on this group until April 30!
The point I was trying to make was that these towns exist because they are tourist towns, the majority of the working residents derive their income directly or indirectly from tourism. Yes this is certainly not the time to be going on holiday and yes you should return home if you can. But for those who find themselves stranded in your town that you lured them to, you should be more understanding and compassionate, no more than that. Australia has had a hell of a 2020 so far, but the one positive outcome of the tragic bush fires was the way the whole country came together, Hawaiian holidays aside, to offer help and support and raise millions of dollars from the smallest towns to the largest cities, that compassion for our fellow Australian in need has deserted some of us when we try and fight this invisible wildfire. The main concerns of these small and sometimes isolated communities is they don’t want outsiders coming in putting further strain on diminishing grocery supplies, bringing the virus into the community, and stretching the towns’ already limited medical facilities. All valid concerns as like any settlement they include vulnerable citizens, although the lack of even a full time Doctor doesn’t restrict the growth of tourism infrastructure in these places to accommodate the thousands who flock to soak up the sun and sights in the good times.
In our own experience we have felt the feelings getting more hostile towards our kind from the relative safety of social media, when we were safely parked up in caravan park in Albany, Western Australia, you could dismiss it and put it down to the usual few vocal keyboard jockeys. Though for others still out there trying to find a safe haven the hostility has been more real: Threats of violence, bad language, road rage, unofficial road blocks, tyres slashed, abuse in shops as travellers stop to support local businesses as they pass through and the list goes on. There are many Facebook groups we use as a resource when travelling the country, but you dear not ask a question these days on most of them as you would be met by a chorus of “go home”!! Many full-time Travellers have vowed never to return back to these towns and regions where they had these unpleasant experiences, many of which have been high on a nomads must see list.
I realise not too many people out side of the RV groups realise people like us exist; there is an estimated 75000 full-time travellers on the road at the moment according to the Caravan Industry Association; these include travelling families, Grey Nomads, young couples, singles and everyone in between. Many of these travellers are like us who do not have a home of bricks and mortar to go to in Australia, some may have rented there house out, some may be from abroad who are travelling for an extended time, and many of us need work to sustain this life style as we go. The ability to find work has been severely hampered due to this crisis, so finding a caravan park that will remain open is one thing, being able to afford it for a number of months is another. Even more vulnerable are the 1000s of backpackers who are lured to regions for their cheap labour only now being told to leave, they do not usually have self contained campers that many of the still open parks require, and may not have funds sustain a long stay in more permanent accommodation.
Its not all bad news and I sense the worm is starting to turn; on the social media front; a group has been created for full-time travellers which is full of positivity, and grew to over 3500 members in a week. Every heart breaking story is met with messages of support and suggestions as well as tangible offers from land owners offering a place to park, one of the members works for Australia’s biggest Caravan Park companies and has worked tirelessly in finding travellers a welcoming Caravan Park near where they are stranded and making sure they are not being over charged in the process. Caravan Parks have stopped taking casual travellers and only are accepting full timers, this may not be financially viable so some have closed. Most of the still open have reduced their rates, in our own case we have an en suite site less than half the usual tariff. however the scene in caravan park life is drastically different: In the pre corona era resident numbers would be starting to swell heading into Easter, now we share our park with about 20 others, all the amenities are closed, camp kitchens and worst of all for us the play ground and jumping pillow out of bounds, how do you explain that to an adventurous 3 year old?
This is by no means a refection of all small towns in Australia, and travellers have reported warm receptions as they pass through, and even signs welcoming fulltime travellers to the community. I have also noticed a changing of tone on many of the community social media groups, with negative, cruel, and often uninformed comments being met with contempt, sound reason and compassion by fellow members. Admins on some groups have reminded the community of where these towns derive most of their income from in good times – Tourists, and to protect the integrity and reputation of the town by toning down these hostile comments, so they will return when things get back to normal, what ever that may look like.
Everyone around the world has been affected in some way because of this virus; a true definition of a pandemic, some have paid the ultimate price , most have suffered the economic fall out and our issues pail in comparison to others hardship. But this is our world and it does matter to us and people in similar situation so its a story I think needs to be told. We are not looking for pity as the lifestyle we have chosen for this period in our lives comes with inherent risks and we will get through it and hopefully be back on the road soon, I just hope that great country hospitality, compassion and understanding for our fellow human being, especially for those in need returns in abundance soon too.