No dementia without adventure: why Australia’s “grey nomads” hold the keys to the kingdom

Australia can indeed be an intimidating place, which is why the grey nomads are entirely worthy of respect.

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A bumper sticker I saw on a caravan somewhere out in the wilds of Australia filled me with joy. It read: “NO DEMENTIA WITHOUT ADVENTURE”. This is the sentiment espoused by the “grey nomads”, Australians who sell up their homes after retirement, buy a recreational vehicle and take to the roads that snake across their illimitable hinterland. The numbers of grey nomads have been building for years, and now, at almost every roadhouse, rest stop or lay-by, you’ll see a rig or three parked up, owners sitting nearby on folding chairs, having a cup of tea from a recently boiled billy or possibly – if they’re tech-savvy – skyping the grandkids using a laptop linked to a satellite dish, which in turn is powered by a portable solar panel. It is estimated they are now in the hundreds of thousands, sufficient to earn them their own category in the census and lengthy appendices in Australian Bureau of Statistics reports. The phenomenon is often explained as a function of Australia’s warm weather and benign final-salary pension schemes. I’m not so sure.

Being herded about the place or herding other beings about the place is deeply encrypted in the collective psyche of White Australia. This great island-continent wasn’t even crossed overland by European interlopers until 1870 – an achievement driven by the rampageous desire of expansionist pastoralists to acquire more land to pasture their stock. The juxtaposition between the great crowds of sheep and cattle that sustained White Australia for decades and the sparseness of the human population has also left its semiotic mark: Australian English is a dialect typified by its use of diminutives. Thus the elderly are “wrinklies” and the invalid are “sickies”. This time I discovered “boardies” (airline boarding passes) and “firies” (firemen). My feeling is, the desire to render the commonplace diminished is an unconscious response to the paradoxical nature of the Outback: a vast, semi-arid tract in which human artefacts, no matter how insignificant, loom large. By the same token, the foundational poem of White Australia – “Waltzing Matilda” – celebrates the quotidian activity of an isolated traveller/jolly swagman stopping at a lay-by/billabong.

The grey nomadic life also consists of puttering about. If you go on one of the web forums they’ve set up, you discover unravelling threads of information: the bush fires north of Newcastle are under control now, while hailstones as big as golf balls have been falling from the Queensland skies. The dismaying news of this or that rig jackknifing is reasonably frequent – I saw a couple splayed across the highways as I drove, their bemused owners sitting on the verge massaging their injured bingo wings.

Australia can indeed be an intimidating place, which is why the grey nomads are entirely worthy of respect. Puttering is far better than cluttering up a care home. I, for one, would far rather expire beside my jackknifed rig than cease upon the midnight with no pain because a Macmillan nurse has jacked me up with diamorphine.

I also believe that the big mobs of grey nomads are responding to far deeper imperatives, ones woven into the raddled fabric of the land by its first peoples. For the Aboriginal people, to travel is to “sing up” the country: human consciousness is best conceived of in their metaphysics as the land’s own reverie, while human activity is designed to maintain it in an ever-inchoate state, as animals and plants continually “jump up” into existence. White Australia is a profoundly uneasy and febrile culture: the big five cities, where over 90 per cent of the population resides, are like Vegemite smears on the edges of this huge burnt slab of toast – and even when sitting in the plate-glass confines of temperature-controlled modernity, you can still feel the looming darkness out back. If this is acknowledged, the refusal of successive governments fully to acknowledge the genocide perpetrated on the indigenous inhabitants becomes point for point congruent with the refusal to accept the physical reality of the country. It’s as if even contemporary White Australians have to uphold the doctrine of terra nullius that “justified” the landgrab in the first place.

The grey nomads have broken with this: they may be importing little simulacra of suburban life to the majestic Outback but at least they’re getting out there. And who knows? Perhaps, if the tendency towards white nomadism continues, all of settled Australia will up sticks and head for the back of Bourke, leaving the skyscrapers of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane to decay gently, so forming a new desert realm, out of which more marvels may be sung into being. I like to imagine that way out in the Tanami, the Simpson, Gibson and Great Sandy Deserts, maddened crowds of grey nomads will unite with equally numerous crowds of black nomads. Together they will dance – not strictly ballroom bullshit, but the sort of corybantic excesses you expect at a full-blown magical-mystical corroboree.

I like to imagine this, yet I fear the bumper sticker may have got my own number, and this is simply dementia before adventure.

Next Week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War