Members of the Tribe

Cathy Anderson — 5 September 2019
New stats reveal the average RV owners aren't your typical Grey Nomads. So who are Australia's real caravanners?

It’s long been assumed that the wandering tribe of caravan owners across Australia are dominated by Grey Nomads, that iconic class of retired or semi-retired travellers spending their savings on rigs to see the country now they are unshackled by jobs and school-age kids. 

But, while they occupy a significant proportion of highway at any given time, it may surprise you to know that Grey Nomads are not your average Aussie vanner.

The inaugural RV Consumer Report 2018 from the Caravan Industry Association of Australia (CIAA) reveals the average caravan owner in Australia is 33 years old, earns between $48,000 and $72,000 and has most likely owns a van that is 5.7 years old. Ford, Toyota and Holden are the most common tow vehicles, 71 per cent purchased their van second-hand and 51 per cent want to upgrade but are waiting until they can afford it. They enjoy the great outdoors, fishing and spending time with family, and 67 per cent camped as a child. 



The report revealed some other characteristics of RV owners across all age groups and types. Children play a major role in the decision-making process about buying an RV, when to use it and many sell their vans when the kids are in high school. And 42 per cent of current RV owners having children under 15 living at home.

Nearly half (40 per cent) of RV owners said road handling was the most important factor when buying a van, and only one in seven would sacrifice this for a lower price.

Time commitments for work etc restricts many caravanners in terms of available time to go touring, but the majority of respondents in the survey had something in common — a sense of adventure. A staggering 80 per cent are likely to travel to new places without planning in advance, and are also confident exploring regional destinations.

And future RV owners were included, too. Those who had not yet purchased a van are waiting for either financial ability or retirement, have an average age of 40 and will most likely buy a used RV. Of these, 74 per cent say they would rent a van beforehand and 45 per cent are happy to use a peer-to-peer rental platform. 

Here we meet a varied bunch of RV owners to find out more about their vans, their type of travel and what they really love about the caravanning lifestyle.

YOUR AVERAGE VANNERS: THE HALSEY FAMILY

  • Young family with two kids
  • Camped as young people
  • Love free camping
  • Full offroad Wonderland van

Todd and Kirryn Halsey, and their two young sons Taj, (age) and Jai (age) pretty neatly fit the bill of your ‘average’ caravan owners. They have been camping for years before upgrading their tent setup to a soft floor camper, a Jayco Expanda pop-top caravan, a semi-offroad 22ft Wonderland RV Adventus and now a 22ft fully offroad Wonderland Amaroo 2200.

They are huge lovers of the outdoor lifestyle, and take weekend trips from their home in Newcastle, NSW, whenever they can. In 2017 they took the plunge and embarked on a four-month adventure around Australia, living the van life with oodles of beach time for the kids, fishing, exploring and free camping.

“We find that when we were away we are all just happy,” says Kirryn. “You just realise life is so short and it is where we make memories that last a lifetime. We are totally addicted!”

The beach-loving family are really keen on free camping, particularly on coastal spots. Parking their Adventus at Tamala, Warroora and El Questro stations in WA for weeks on end was their ultimate dream, and the semi-offroader towed by their Isuzuz didn’t disappoint. 

They added few off-grid modifications to the van at that time – 150W solar panels on the roof and a mobile 120W panel, gas heating, toolboxes, bike racks and instant hot water – and their tow tug was kitted out with new suspension, airbags, roof cages and dual battery systems.

“The semi-offroader took us to 95 per cent of the places we wanted to go,” says Todd. “Everyone said at some of the places we stayed said, ‘you won’t get that van in there, that’s too big’ and we honestly didn’t have a drama.”

On their big adventure, Todd says they had a rough plan of the direction they wanted to go and a checklist of destinations, including Uluru, Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest, Cable Beach and Brome, Karijini NP, El Questro Station and the Kimberleys. But mostly they flew by the seat of their pants. 

“We knew what we wanted to see, but there was never any day to day planning. We would just go and see where we’d end up.”

THE GREY NOMADS: JOHN AND CATH BURGES

  • Retired travellers
  • Owned vans for 45 years
  • Stay in caravan parks
  • On-road tourer Concept Innovation

Caravanning is in the blood for retired West Australian couple John and Cath Burges. Aged 74 and 72 respectively, they have been living the ‘van life’ for more than 45 years, long before it became a trendy hashtag.

The couple were 28 and 26 in 1975 when they bought their first 4.9m (16ft) Viscount pop-top for holidays with their two daughters, Sianne and Amanda, and used it for short holiday trips to Busselton to take the girls fishing and swimming at the beach. 

“We found motels too restrictive,” says Cath. “Once we were in a caravan the kids could get out and about — they were living the life. The Viscount was the layout we wanted and at the time it was the ease of hooking it up and going. Caravans had nothing in them then but we were thrilled with that anyway.”

When the family had to move towns so John could find work, they sold their house and pop-top and bought a 24ft Viscount which they lived in for a few years. It made economic sense at the time and the family were used to being in a smaller space. Like many parents, caravanning took a backseat while the kids were in high school, so it wasn’t until they were older that John and Cath bought a 5.3m (17ft 6in) Millard Sunseeka pop-top in 2009 and started travelling again. 

This time they ventured much further than local WA spots — when they retired seven years ago they did a half lap around Australia up through the Red Centre, and the following year did a complete clockwise Big Lap.

“We wore it out,” says Cath. “We did 80,000km in it.” 

Their latest van is a 5.9m (19ft 6in) Concept Innovation, which has all the “bells and whistles” including an ensuite and washing machine according to John. “We just thought that the money was there and we might as well have the best just because we won’t be doing it much longer, so we thought we would go for comfort and spoil ourselves,” he says. 

Over the years the couple’s tow tugs have changed too. They began with a Ford Falcon back in the day, and now their Concept Innovation van is towed by a Jeep Grand Cherokee. 

“You have to have the correct tow vehicle for safety — we went through a couple before we found the ideal one as far as we are concerned,” John says.

The couple don’t book ahead but they always stay in caravan parks: free camping is not their thing. They are not big planners but appreciate the time they have when touring, and they travel every six weeks mostly to quiet locations avoiding large towns and cities. They do a lot of sightseeing, birdwatching, fishing and simply relaxing.

“I love the freedom,” says John. “Just sitting outside and watching everything go by. I just like to see different things, different places.”

THE SEASONAL TRAVELLERS: THE TAYLOR FAMILY

  • School holiday family adventurers
  • Carefully planned holidays
  • Upgraded from a hybrid to full van
  • Outdoors focused

Libby and Mark Taylor, both 40, are determined that their kids Drew, 9, and Amy, 6, can enjoy the outdoors lifestyle as much as possible. Both have grown up camping, staying in caravan parks with relatives on school holidays and being active — and so it’s a focus for the Sydney-based couple with their family adventures.

“That’s how I grew up being outdoors and all the summer activities,” says Libby. “Even when we went away, we didn’t go places to stay in a hotel, so I didn’t want that to be our lifestyle when on holidays with the kids. I wanted them to be out and about. I didn’t want holidays to be the same thing as when you are at home.”

It was such a priority that Libby took some convincing before the purchase of their first van, a Jayco Swan hybrid, and then their recent upgrade to a full-sized New Age 20ft Manta Ray caravan with toilet and shower. 

“Libby would never be a ‘caravanner’, so the Swan was a good compromise,” Mark says. “It still looked like a tent. A caravanner to her is a 72-year-old driving around! 

“We thought when we got the bigger van, we would stay inside. But because we have been so used to camping we didn’t want to lose that. But now we have the big one we still sit outside and we have meals outside, the kids play outside. The van is really for bed and night time and when it is windy and raining.”

Thus far they have stayed in caravan parks, but the Manta Ray is fitted with enough power and water capacities to live off grid if they choose to.

The family take chunky holidays for a few weeks at least twice a year, in April and over Christmas when the couple can swing time away from Libby’s job and Mark’s small business, as well as smaller trips here and there. They have spent some time in Queensland but prefer to travel through NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

Unlike the majority of those surveyed for the CIAA report, Libby is a planner — there are spreadsheets galore before every trip noting the costs for park accommodation, driving distances and mountains of information about local sights. 

“It’s all planned down to the site!” Mark says.

The couple say they love the adventure that their caravan holidays provide.

“The freedom that you have and that it can be quite relaxing sitting outside the van in the different environments, in bush watching the wildlife — kangaroos, kookaburras — or by the water with rivers, lakes, oceans can all be calming at the end of the day,” Libby says.

Mark says the social aspect of caravan park life is pretty great.

“At home you walk in and shut the door, but in a caravan park you have no choice but to say hello to people, and we love that,” he says.

And Drew and Amy are big fans of van life, too, enjoying swimming, fishing, panning for gold at tourist spots such as Sovereign Hill in Victoria and hanging out with other kids on the same kind of family adventure.

“They have that independence to get on their bikes, especially through the caravan parks,” says Libby. “They can go to the jumping pillows (Amy’s favourite), and make friends. Drew is very big on making friends at the parks — he’s the talker!”

THE RENTERS: THE WILSON FAMILY

  • Family travellers 
  • Rented a motorhome via Camplify
  • Trialling the RV lifestyle
  • Waiting to be able to afford their own RV

Nat Wilson, 37, and her husband Tim, 38, are starting to dip a toe into the recreational vehicle lifestyle. For the past three years the Melbourne couple have rented an onsite caravan in seaside Barwon Heads with their three daughters Jada, 9, and six-year-old twins Asher and Harper over Christmas with friends.

The kids have taken to the caravan park life like ducks to water, and the couple wanted to start exploring Australia a little more instead of taking overseas trips. They investigated the costs of hiring a car and booking motels or Airbnb accommodation, but landed on the idea of renting their own mobile home away from home instead. 

They came across Camplify, a peer-to-peer platform where RV owners can rent their caravans, campers or motorhomes to others when they are not using it, and found the VW six-berth Renegade motorhome owned by Faith Davey, aka Motorhome Mama. 

“We don’t have a car that can tow a caravan and we are not experienced in towing a van so a motorhome was the perfect option for us,” says Nat. 

It turned out that Faith and Nat’s children attend the same school, so it was a fortuitous coincidence that the motorhome was so close. 

“We booked it through Camplify, which was super easy to use, because of the insurance for both sides,” Nat says. “When we saw that Faith’s one — we are a family of five but we also took our eldest daughter’s best friend so there was six of us and it sleeps six so it was perfect for us.”

The troupe did a seven-day trip to South Australia’s Barossa Valley, staying in caravan parks along the way.  

“It was a trial because we would like to do the Northern Territory next year — it was just to see if we didn’t all kill each other,” says Nat.

“We got on really well, and even though it was the middle of winter, kids don’t care. They got up, we fed them and they put their boots on and coats and beanies and out they went. 

“Because we were doing a road trip we weren’t in the same spot every time, so every time they woke up we were in a different location and they couldn’t wait to get out and explore.

Nat says the family are keen to keep renting until such time as they can afford their own. 

“We are not in the position at the moment to buy a caravan ourselves, nor do we have anywhere to store it. The motorhomes are amazing for road trips, but down the track we would probably consider a caravan when we get a bit older, just because if we do long stints caravans are just a little bit more spacious inside.”

Tags

Caravanners Family Grey Nomads Road trips

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