Meet the New Road Nomads

22nd Jul 2020

For these modern-day bush wanderers, there’s no roughing it as they tour the Outback to work and play. Author Steve Cooper is one of them.

The Great Australian Dream has become much more than just homeownership. Nowadays the dream is about an independent lifestyle, one that more often than not incorporates travel.

Nor is traveling the sole domain of such groups as the grey nomads, silver gypsies or retirees. Many people who are still active in the workforce are taking to the road – and taking their homes with them.

They are the sundowners – 21st century-style: a resurgent nomadic subculture of Australians who spend their lives traveling the national highways and byways. Sundowners can travel single or as couples, and like the swagmen and sundowners of folklore, they travel to find work, and then work and save to pay for the next leg of their journey.

However, they don’t carry their worldly possessions in a Matilda slung over the shoulder … or sleep in a no-frills horse-drawn wagon. They use caravans wherein food is cooked on a stove and water is boiled in an electric jug. In the heat of the day, modern-day sundowners may park their van under the shade of a Coolabah tree, but you can bet your life there will be air conditioning in it for cooling and warming.

It’s a tough life on the road: Welcome to my world.

I am a freelance writer and editor. Modern technology allows those of us who earn a living by tapping computer keyboards, to take our work on the road.

My office is a Jayco Sterling Outback caravan that you will find parked beside a river, lake or beach … somewhere. It’s the best residential option on the planet: no rates, no house repairs, no mains gas or electricity bills, and a million-dollar view every day. When I don’t like my neighbours, I hook up the van and move on.

Mine is a carefree lifestyle assisted by technology that allows me to combine travel and work: on good days I am a tourist or angler, on lousy days I work. If the fish aren’t biting, and there are no deadlines to meet, I move on. Who said life wasn’t meant to be easy?

There are thousands of people like me. You will meet up with them in unexpected places – such as Darwin’s Mindil Beach market where I met former Channel Nine breakfast show weatherman extraordinaire, Monte Dwyer, selling his books at a stall.

Monte put entertainment into weather forecasting as he pioneered the travelling weatherman concept. He spent 11 years with the Channel Nine Today show from 1991. Then he disappeared.

For the past five years Monte has been living the life of the nomad in a motorhome he calls Claude. These days the only weather of concerns to him is “whether” to turn left or right when he reaches a T-intersection.

Monte spends the Dry Season at Darwin. Claude is parked in the backyard of a suburban property, and Monte has his “office” set up alongside. The office bears a marked resemblance to his market stall: the furniture is a couple of chairs, a desk of sorts decorated with a computer, and in the corner is a large pedestal fan.

Monte opted out because he was sick of mainstream television, and was bored: “It wasn’t easy, walking away from big money, but I did.”

He took on the role of roving reporter for Charles Wooley, who was hosting a radio program in Tasmania. “They organised a sponsorship of a campervan, and I jumped in that thing and drove around the country for nearly a year talking to people,” Monte says.

“It was a great experience; one that opened up the country in ways I never knew.

“I wasn’t sure it would be of interest to anyone, but I persevered, and the first book was the result.”

That book is Red in the Centre: The Australian Bush Through Urban Eyes. Monte then took on a similar role for television – Channel 7’s Sunrise. They gave him a television camera and a Winnebago that, he says, kept getting bogged every time he took it more than “10 feet off the road”.

“That chapter of the Red in the Centre idea was fraught with misadventure, and I only did Sunrise for a short period. Then I bought a 4wd bus, thinking it would solve all my problems. But all it did was replace them with a more expensive set of problems.

While Monte says “being an independent in this country” is harder than people realise, fellow travellers have been vital in helping him stay on the road.

Grey nomads who go to the markets seeking mementos find his books a perfect fit: “God love ’em. Many of the nomads remember me from television. That helps me no end.”

Nigel and Janie Baxter left Sydney and took to the road for more than a decade, doing three laps of Australia, driving across the middle, and around Tasmania before settling down for a couple of years in Darwin.

“We love the life and take to the road at every opportunity,” Nigel says.

The Baxter’s lifestyle is more in tune with most sundowners: Find a town you like, get job, and settle in for a while to save enough money to take off again.

In the beginning, the couple opened a special savings account, and put $10,000 into it.

“We would stop, work for four or five months, until the bank account was full again, then get going,” says Nigel. “We spent $14,000 on our first caravan, a single axle, 16ft unit with no shower, toilet or air conditioning.

“After five years on the road, we knew exactly what we wanted, and bought a semi-off road, dual axle, 21ft van with all mod cons.”

Anyone considering the sundowner lifestyle must be prepared to take on any job: “Janie and I have no particular skills; we would drive into town, print and deliver our resumes, and the work would come,” says Nigel.

A former electronics industry executive, he and Janie have worked in bars, gaming lounges, service stations, caravan parks; he even did stint as a traffic control officer, holding stop and go signs in outback Western Australia.

Nigel adds: “Every dollar you give away means the sooner you have to go back to work. The way we travel, we work for about six months of the year. That’s not a bad style of life.”