Trailers and dreams: on the road in a caravan

The media pack forms a messy semicircle around Paul Golding, general manager of Nova Caravans “where life’s luxuries never end”. It’s before 8.30am but, in the midst of a late-summer heatwave, things are already heating up at Caulfield Racecourse where the Caravan Camping and Touring Supershow is minutes from opening to the public. A camping and caravan industry veteran of 34 years, the stocky, broad-shouldered Golding, 51, evokes the image of an AFL football coach in his polo shirt, but instead of offering up rousing footy speak he spruiks off-road “toughness”. One of Nova’s latest innovations, he says, is the Nova Vita Workabout, a caravan featuring desk space ideal for a home office (and handy for craft projects “for the ladies”). The Workabout is “catering for a lifestyle on the road”, says Golding. Last year the buzz in the world of caravans centred on the Sky-Deck, a verandah that folds out from the rear of a caravan and which has a powder-coated aluminium merbau or jarrah timber look. Could the Workabout be the big story of 2013?

Caravans are more popular than ever, but for novices the caravan scene can feel like a dizzying parallel universe – a world of fishing lures, sunhats, fancy snap-lock containers and camping furniture that miraculously unfurls from nothing.

It’s tricky to pinpoint exactly how many caravans are schlepping along Victorian highways and byways but Rob Lucas, CEO of the Caravan Trade and Industries Association of Victoria, says that at least 131,000 recreational vehicles (including motor homes) are registered and there are another 351,000 in the other states. Plus, “if we think for a moment,” he says, “that in caravan parks all over this great country there are on-site caravans used for permanent and semi-permanent living accommodation … there could be over one million.”

There are about 90 caravan manufacturers in Australia; only 10 per cent of the market is imported. Victoria is the manufacturing hub, responsible for 85 per cent of the 21,000 recreational vehicles made last year. The largest maker in the country is Jayco, with 45 per cent of the market. It commands its own street, Jayco Drive, in Dandenong South, which leads to the huge Jayco factory compound. The company’s founder, Gerry Ryan – who is also behind the GreenEDGE Australian cycling team and chairman of Global Creatures, which creates animatronics for events such as the musical King Kong – is a legend in the caravan industry, famously starting Jayco when he was 22 in a “small shed” in Cranbourne. “To sum it up in one word, it’s freedom,” says Ryan of the allure of caravanning. “The freedom to go where you want, when you want. And friendships. When was the last time you went to a motel or a hotel and got to talk to people in the room next door? … It’s just a different lifestyle.”

Increasingly, that lifestyle can be an expensive one. A new caravan can cost anywhere from $10,000 for a tent trailer to $340,000 for a “fifth-wheeler” luxury van at Jayco. “Caravans are getting bigger,” says Ryan. “People are doing that big trip around Australia and heading off for the sunset in the west or north. They’re certainly going for a lot more features. We’re fitting washing machines as standard now, we’ve got satellite dishes, every unit’s air-conditioned. [Customers] are going for more comfort features than they had at home.” Dishwashers are not unheard of, either.

But it wasn’t always like this. While homemade tinkers’ wagons rattled around the streets of Melbourne in the first half of the 20th century, it was only after World War II that the idea of “modern caravanning” really took off. Conditions were perfect: there were mass-produced standardised cars and decent roads coupled with higher wages and increased leisure time. In the early years, a lot of small firms made caravans, says Guy Hansen, head curator of Australian society and history at the National Museum in Canberra, and people would build caravans in their home garages using plans from handyman magazines. “I think there is a great desire (for Australians) to get out and see the country and, particularly coming from the Depression and World War II, I think the idea of being able to see the country and do it on a budget was very attractive. People weren’t thinking about staying in resorts, they were thinking about getting out and camping and caravanning. This is the kind of holiday that appealed to [the returned soldiers] – there was a level of self-sufficiency and can-do-ness about it. Obviously, it’s still popular today but people aren’t really roughing it in the way that they used to.”

Ken Anderson, 86, built his first caravan, Happy Days, in 1956 – amateur-built caravans usually had names such as Happy Wanderer or Carefree Days – when he and his wife, Pat, had two young daughters. “We loved building it and on our first rally we only had pink primer on the outside, only half the cupboard doors, a shellite stove, an ice-chest and a five-gallon water tank that hooked up onto the wall. We had many a good time in that.” The Andersons, who live in Seaford’s Long Island retirement village, are what you might call “grey nomads”. Now on to their sixth Happy Days (Pat, 85, wouldn’t let Ken build any more himself after the first one took him eight months), the couple have been members of the RACV Caravan Club since 1956. They take Happy Days, a second-hand, 5.2-metre Evernew, on monthly Caravan Club rallies around Victoria and every Christmas to Sorrento for a month. By August they are already in NSW for the warmer weather, setting up in Coffs Harbour, Yamba and Noosa. In the 57 years that Ken has been a club member, he’s logged every tow-kilometre he and Pat have travelled. At last count, it was 295,278 kilometres over 637 rallies.

Grey nomads are familiar to most of us but what of other tribes such as “glampers” (glamour campers)? “I’m a bit of a five-star camper,” jokes Libbi Miriklis, 37, of Mitcham. “I’ve got to have the luxuries.” Libbi and her husband Harry, 38, who is in the earthmoving business, and their children, Eboni, 10, Fletcher, 8, and Zoe, 7, recently invested $74,500 in a new Lotus Freelander. At 6.4 metres long, the six-bed, semi-off-road caravan comes with television and DVD player, solar panels, LED downlights and Italian leather upholstery as well as air-conditioning, toilet and shower and washing machine, although no dishwasher – “that’s why the husband comes!”. The Miriklis family’s most recent trip, from Melbourne to Alice Springs then Darwin and Sydney, took eight weeks. The idea of getting out into nature armed with all these modern luxuries and conveniences might seem contradictory. Not to Libbi. “I always say to people, ‘If you can do it, do it. It’s amazing. Life is simple in a caravan. The kids have got pen and paper, a ball and bikes or a skateboard – admittedly, they’ve got their iPod but that’s really helped with the big days in the car.’”

The Miriklis family members are also what are known as “annuals”. They have leased a spot in Ocean Grove for six weeks every Christmas for  the past six years. It costs $4300 and comes with an annexe. “We don’t spend a lot of time in the van,” says Libbi, “depending on the weather. But there’s always kids riding around the park. You feel quite safe for them. Other people look out for everyone else’s kids.”

Caravan parks have evolved too. Big4 Beacon Resort in Queenscliff has been a family park for 43 years, says owner Lorraine Golightly. Her park has room for 33 caravans and 75 per cent of business is repeat or friends of regulars, mostly younger families and couples (people call it “Little Ballarat” in the summer, she laughs). “It’s about making memories. Families are looking to get back together,” she says, but “it’s all about ‘me’ as well.” In response to customer demand, Golightly recently installed a day spa offering beauty treatments and massages. “These days people want pre-cooked meals, online groceries delivered and wireless access. People have changed.”

The sun is now beating down at Caulfield Racecourse and caravan manufacturer Bill Deralas is talking trends on the Sky-Deck of a Royal Flair Piazza. Deralas, a big man in a polo shirt and aviator sunglasses, was the first person to oversee the manufacture of caravans with fold-down Sky-Decks (the deck was designed by Brett Bell of Melbourne Caravan Repairs). The innovation had caravan and camping media buzzing at the Supershow last year.

“There’s a lot of trends that come in and disappear. Others stay as standard features,” says Deralas. “Air‑conditioning. Once upon a time, you were adding that in. Now it’s a standard feature. Your rollout awning. Once upon a time, no one wanted awnings because [they] were a thing that hangs over past your van and we can scratch it, we can hit it. Now, if you don’t have one on, you won’t sell a van.” Nowadays, 80-litre fridges have become 240-litre fridge-freezers, hot water services are 240-volt or gas (for stints away from powered sites). LED downlighting, flat-screen televisions, microwaves, built-in batteries and solar panels are all standard. “There’s not much more you can put in a caravan,” says Deralas.  

Not everyone is caught up in the latest fads. Eamon Baruday, a 55-year-old carpenter, and his son Sam, 19, built a caravan in their Lilydale front yard when Sam was in year 9 at school. The design was a slightly enlarged version of a 1940s Teardrop, a picture of which Eamon had found on the internet. The father-son project was a chance for Sam to see if he liked carpentry and building, says Eamon. But, five years on, the caravan still gets a workout, mostly for short fishing trips in Victoria. By modern standards, the Baruday caravan is basic – a place to sleep with a camp kitchen. “It’s a nostalgic thing and it’s the simplicity that I like about the older caravans,” says Eamon. “Nowadays, you’re spending $80,000 to $150,000 on a caravan that bloody walks, talks and, you know, you can burp or fart and go to the toilet. There are showers in the things – it’s just not caravanning. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really nice – good luck to everybody that’s trying to cram more crap into ’em – but when I go camping I like to listen to a bit of music, sit around the camp fire and eat and drink and have a good time, relax, enjoy the bush out in the sticks.”

In Carrum Downs, Tony Galea, 48, loves old Holden motorcars. He’s collected or restored a dozen. The father of three remembers one day seeing a friend with a vintage Bondwood caravan at a Holden car club rally. He was hooked. “It goes with the car, if you know what I mean,” says Galea. “You’ve got to have the period caravan to go with the period car.” The trick for Galea was finding a caravan small enough for his not-so-powerful vintage car. Eventually, in 2005, he discovered a 1961 Sandrover. Made in Mordialloc, it’s 3.2 metres long and weighs 550 kilograms. It took Galea a year to repair the rotten timber, re-enamel the stove and paint the plywood interior. “Now I’m just enjoying the fruits.” Galea and his wife, Dina, 55, (also a vintage Holden enthusiast), take their car and caravan out for swap-meets and vintage caravan outings in Victoria that are organised by enthusiasts on an online vintage caravan forum. In 2015, when Galea will turn 50, he and Dina plan to take Dina’s 1963 EH Holden and the van to central Australia for a month “to climb the rock”. “Like I said to my wife, ‘We’re going to do it in style but not comfort.’”

In Lysterfield, in Melbourne’s east, Steve Bridges, 58, and Geraldine Grove, 55, seem to be addicted to restoring vintage caravans. Or rather, one in particular: the Californian-built Silver Streak. A slightly boxier version of the rounded Airstream, these caravans have smooth anodised aluminium cladding, riveted together like an aircraft fuselage. Steve, a hot-rod enthusiast who works in transport logistics in the mining sector, first talked about the idea of restoring vintage Airstreams with a mate over a few beers but decided Silver Streaks were a better option – “they were the Cadillacs or Rolls-Royces of the American travel trailers of that era”. The first travel trailer or caravan that he bought, in 2010, was cheap – $US5000. But little did he know how much they would cost to transport and fix up. “They’re too big to fit in containers,” he says, “so, a bucketload of money later [$12,000 sea freight] I got this thing here.”

The 1975 Continental Supreme Silver Streak took the semi-retired couple one year to restore and when they finished the plan was to travel. But, says Bridges, someone offered to buy it and the offer was “too good to refuse”. Since then, they have restored two more caravans and sold one. The latest is a 1975 Silver Streak Continental Supreme. “[It] has little weird features like an inbuilt ducted vacuuming system … most of [the Silver Streaks] have under-floor ducted heating, reverse-cycle air‑conditioning – they’ve even got doorbells.”

Set on the kikuyu grass of a Northcote backyard is a Franklin 1900 from the 1970s complete with orange streak down the side and a yellow-orange awning. Perched on a red milk crate padded with a folded-up beach towel sits a handsome young man sporting jeans and a pony tail. You might know him already. Andrew Mellody spent several weeks putting up posters, sending out Facebook messages and even letterbox-dropping residents in the northern suburbs, looking for a backyard in which to plonk his caravan. The 28-year-old disability support worker and volunteer with YMCA Victoria had been living between Melbourne and overseas for the past 10 years, building and testing challenges for the CBS television series Survivor in China, Brazil, Palau and West Africa. Recently, he decided to simplify his life in Australia. “Often you find yourself working day in, day out to pay the bills and to keep up. For me this was, like, OK, how can I live really cheaply in Melbourne? I am pretty environmentally minded, I love the idea of living more sustainably and this has allowed me to do a whole bunch of different little things to reduce what I need; and also, to stay happy in Melbourne. I thought this could be a really fun thing to do and keep me in the right mindset.”

Initial interest in his flier, pitched at people who he considered had underused backyard space, was slow. Ten weeks later, though, responses started flooding in. Many people didn’t have the space and simply wanted to wish him well on his quest, but there was a genuine offer, from Northcote artist  and puppeteer Colleen Burke. Part of the attraction for Burke was that her dog, Sasha, would have company but the extra rent doesn’t go astray, either. Mellody uses a shared outdoor toilet and is building an outdoor shower and solar panels to go off-grid. In winter, he plans to use a gas-powered outdoor shower. He has used his Survivor skills to set up a screen along the rear fence and has modified the caravan cabinetry next to his gas fridge to channel warm air into a beer-brewing kit (called a hot box). Jack Kerouac and Jonathan Safran Foer are among books on his caravan shelf as well as Dr Seuss.

With the Caravan Supershow at Caulfield Racecourse done and dusted, Nova Caravan’s Paul Golding reflects on what might have been. There was plenty of interest in his off-road Terra Sportz (from $60,000) but the new Vita Workabout with desk space ($65,000) failed to sell a single unit. “Disappointed is probably a strong word [but] it would have been nice to do a couple – one or two,” says Golding, adding that, on the positive side, a number of dealers were interested in the new model. In any case, “it’s not always about immediate result,” he says. “It’s about, I suppose, having the gumption to go out and do something a bit different – and that’s what we’ve done with the Workabout.”

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