Simple splendours on the grass

Keep the mod cons of the caravan park renaissance. Just leave Simon Webster to his awning, a barbecue and a good spot by the water.

THEY say someone has to die before you can get a front-row spot, right on the river, at the Silver Sands Holiday Park. Each Christmas and Easter, the same families return, year after year.

If one of those front-row caravanners were to meet an untimely demise (banging their head on the low ceiling while washing the dishes, perhaps; or starving to death after becoming trapped while trying to convert the fold-out table into a bed), Miss Marple would have her work cut out. But at least she would have access to a ready-made roll-call of suspects. Somewhere, there's an old waiting list with 200 names on it. (It has since been scrapped; it was getting too long.)

It's all about position, position, position in the van park world. And this spot here on the banks of the Evans River, at Evans Head, an old-fashioned seaside town an hour south of Byron Bay, isn't bad at all.

At high tide, families step out from beneath their caravan awnings and wade into the river like pilgrims immersing themselves in the Ganges, with fluorescent boardshorts and bikinis doing a passable impression of colourful saris if you're squinting into the sun.

The river is shallow enough for children to venture right out into its spangly, shimmering middle, where they throw tennis balls and frisbees, muck about on bodyboards, chase the fish that leap out of the water and generally do just what they're supposed to: tire themselves out so their parents can pack them off to bed early and have a barbecue and a cold beer in peace.

Fishermen throw in their lines a safe distance from the swimmers, the odd pleasure boat cruises past and the occasional kayaker glides through peacefully (or, depending on his level of skill, drags his kayak off yet another sandbank, cursing like a navvy).

Other than that, the action is limited to seagulls squawking for chips and toddlers wailing because they've dropped their ice-cream in the sand (instant, organic hundreds and thousands! What's wrong with kids today?). At low tide, when the river turns into muddy shallows, the crabs take over and the humans move to the ocean beach just around the corner for surfing and sandcastles. It's not sophisticated entertainment. These are simple pleasures, made possible by Australia's great climate and coastline. It's the type of holiday that would be familiar to families from Broome to Batemans Bay. We're spoilt.

The van park itself is nothing special. Don't get me wrong; that's not a criticism. I'm just saying it's old-school. It sticks to the basics and does them well. The gardens are neat, the toilet blocks are clean, the barbecues are free and the washing machines work in the laundrette, which is no mean feat considering there can be 2000 people here when it's full, making it one of the biggest holiday parks in NSW.

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It seems van parks everywhere are enjoying good times. "The industry's going gangbusters," says the chief executive officer of the Caravan and Camping Industry Association NSW, Barry Baillie.

A record 88,000 people attended last year's annual caravan supershow at Rosehill, an event that's been going for 40 years. The manufacture of caravans, motor homes and camper trailers is at its highest level in 30 years, Baillie says. Visitor nights are on the rise (up more than 8 per cent in five years) and visitors' expenditure is rising higher still (up 67 per cent in the same period), which is great news for van park owners.

Part of that success is due to the fact van parks are changing. The addition of cabins has radically improved many a van park's bottom line and attracted new customers, who want luxuries such as airconditioning and a toilet in the same building as their bedroom. There was a time when collecting bugs and cycling up and down the van park paths for hours on end were considered entertainment enough for children but parks are increasingly adding facilities such as kids' clubs, pools, jumping pillows, internet access, movies and other entertainment.

Some have even gone five-star, with gyms, hairdressers and spas and, in at least one case, a caravan valet parking service (dubbed the "marriage saver"). "They are becoming 'destination parks' rather then just somewhere you go to pitch a tent," Baillie says. This doesn't come cheap. At the extreme end of the scale, a top-of-the-range villa at the Ocean Beach Holiday Park in Umina, on the central coast, costs $640 a night in peak season. You can stay in the best Silver Sands cabin for more than a week for that money.

Baillie calls old-school van parks "a dying breed". But he acknowledges it's the old-fashioned simplicity of a caravan park holiday that for many people is its main appeal.

A big growth area is in families going to van parks and setting up large tents, with the paraphernalia to make the experience a comfortable one, Baillie says. They're doing so because holiday parks offer a unique experience."You can enjoy nature and mix with people," he says. "You meet people you wouldn't otherwise meet, you compare notes, your kids play together. It's back to family values."

Even Silver Sands is not immune to change. The park is on Crown land. Management of the park trust recently transferred from local council to state government and plans have been approved for a "water recreation area", a new camp kitchen and accommodation that is more upmarket.

Long-visiting families - including some on that sought-after front row - have complained their much-loved sites will be lost, replaced by more lucrative cabins. Prices will inevitably rise.

Sitting at a bench at the famous riverside kiosk, scoffing fish and chips and ginger beer with the kids as the sun goes down, you can only hope things don't change too much.

Trip notes

Getting there Evans Head is 727 kilometres north of Sydney, about a nine-hour drive. It's a half-hour drive from Ballina-Byron airport. Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Rex fly there from Sydney daily.

Staying there Options at the Silver Sands Holiday Park include unpowered sites ($21 a night off-peak; $31.50 peak), powered sites ($26.40 off-peak; $37 peak) and en suite cabins with aircon ($415 a week off-peak; $525 peak).

More information 1300 072 484, (02) 6682 4212, silversandsholidaypark.com.au.

Three other things to do

1 Explore the bushwalking tracks of Bundjalung and Broadwater, the coastal national parks north and south of Evans Head.

2 Go fishing. Take a tinnie up the Evans or Richmond rivers, jump on a charter out to sea, or throw in a line off a wharf, river bank or ocean beach.

3 Watch for whales. On a clear day, Razorback Lookout, a short drive away at South Evans Head, offers views to Cape Byron

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