Oldies at Large – Freecampers and Squatters

The MerooWe’ve been back on the wallaby for a few weeks now, making our way north chasing the sun. There are two routes to choose between when travelling between north and south in Queensland.

There is the inland route, which takes you through the gold and gem fields. It travels across the vast flood plains above the great artesian basin and over the flat landscapes of ancient seas, such as those found throughout the Queensland outback. It is a stockman’s route, a road train route and a droving path for the long paddock. It is also a favoured route for grey nomads as it takes you away from the daily grind of traffic and the more frenetic seasonal holiday-makers.

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 4.25.44 pmThen there is the coastal route, which is the holiday route. There you can skirt the wonderful towns within reach of the Great Barrier Reef. It is a route of endless sugar cane and other coastal crops. The road is generally good and the scenes vary. Services are plentiful (for Aus.) and people mill happily around.

Choosing the coastal route has its attractions. There are some excellent freecamps along the route, particularly in the north. Many of the towns welcome freecampers and provide great camps for the public. And there are services… food outlets and other businesses and distractions more readily available.

So why is it that more often than not, The Man and I will choose the inland route?

Firstly it is because it is simple and direct. We know the road and we know when it can’t easily be travelled. We are familiar with the few freecamps to be found along the tar track. We seriously need more stops along this route, people are taking to gravel pits due to the lack of safe and comfortable stops.

Over the holiday periods the coast road freecamps become quickly congested as people and families travel to and from their holiday destinations. They take time out to rest along the trip, ensuring the safe arrival of their little band of family. I often wonder if the authorities in general appreciate how much in-demand freecamps and free rest stops are needed for tired travellers.

Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 8.03.25 amThere are few enough of freecamps in many stretches of tar and the road tolls are climbing every year. They are not only under pressure from high use, but from some councils and businesses who want them closed. Those who want to restrict their use and force people into local caravan parks in the hope of making a buck from a weary traveller who can’t afford the tariffs for a simple overnight transit stop, merely to take a much needed rest.

We like the inland road as it is less crowded at these times and it is quirky… it floods and it has large stretches of lonely tar. You have to watch your fuel stops, ensuring you can get to your next fuel outlet and you have to carry your food. There aren’t a lot of little towns for entertainment along the way. Meeting cows and kangaroos along the road is a given and you will even see the occasional old man emu fostering his chicks along.

On the inland road you can count on one hand the number of freecamp stops found within the vast distance. They are good, there are some excellent stops with sound water running in outback creeks but we need more on this route. This year… on this trip… these freecamps were packed. The grey nomads had deserted the coastal strip for the Outback.

It was the edge of holiday time and the families and youngsters had taken over the coastal road and it camps, as well as many of the caravan parks while on their holiday. We had expected an upswing in traffic on the inland route because of this, but we hadn’t expected so many caravaner’s nestled into our favourite spots. The Oldies at Large fraternity seem to be becoming a huge demographic of travelling ‘silverbacks’… everyone of them now chasing the winter sun, the quiet and raucous sounds of the bush and gentle entertainments.

Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 8.04.49 amWe are camped up in a special place though and it is amongst the cream of the crop when it comes to freecamps. On this trip, this place is why we chose the inland route even though we were expecting the grey nomad brigade, caravan division, to be here in multitude. They were.

Fletcher Creek reserve, 42 clicks north of Charters Towers is a gem amongst gems. There is only one toilet block and this year we noticed that they have added a dump point. Someone is thinking outside the box and they need to be commended. There are cold showers also for those few who don’t have their own amenities but there is a fast running creek and it is a rare blessing in the region. It is also a cattle trail, long used to move and feed stock.

Communication links are sketchy at best but there is a ‘circle of sound’ near the amenities block that if you stand up on one of the rocks carefully positioned, like within an old Bora ring you can regularly pick up a link. The rocks were put there to protect the pits from the amenities block and it is here you can even hold a conversation with the rest of the world. Life here can be pleasant. As people go to the loo near the ‘circle of sound’ you can hear the reassuring pings of messages arriving to the tune of the water flush.

We had heard along the track that the place was busy; never a good sign and we held our breath as we approached this much-loved freecamp, one of our favourite northern freecamps. Busy it was, we later counted over 80 vans stretched along the creek within the boundaries of the reserve and it was mid-week, I am told that it can get up to 200 in number. The area however is extensive and as we crept down the dirt access road, towards our favourite spot we were happy to see that there was plenty of room for us and our little troop. It was like coming home.

There is a caffoffle going on here though. Fletcher Creek has a one month camping limit, and rightfully so. It is a reserve enjoyed by travellers and locals alike. Currently this restriction is not over-policed by the Council of Charters Towers, likely because of the trouble this would take. I did mention that the camp was 42 klm from town, that makes for a near 100 klm round trip for any enforcement body.

Many if not most of the freecampers wouldn’t stay for more than a month. They would also be happy to drop a maintenance donation into a secure box. Someone needs to put up such a box. Most freecampers will be here only a week or even maybe two. This freecamp is under pressure because it is free and it is pleasant.

To take the pressure off Fletchers Cr they need to be providing more camps of the like, not restricting the one they have. It is the only single camp within hundreds of sq klms. I asked the grey nomads if they would go to Charters Towers caravan parks, should Fletchers Cr be restricted. The answer was a simple no. Most would go to the coast and put more pressure on the camps there, particularly in this high season of the year for FNQ.

Screen Shot 2014-01-04 at 7.06.44 amFreecampers are a demographic on their own, they are not the run-of-the-mill holidaymakers as is commonly believed. They are in general pensioners or those on limited fixed incomes. They are retire or semi-retired and in the older age group. Many are travelling for a month or two or even three, some tour permanently. Most will frequent a caravan park occasionally but can’t afford the often-high tariffs for amenities they don’t require and they genuinely prefer freecamping for the economics, convenience and practicality and easy companionship of like travellers. They bring commerce and $ to struggling towns and they in general bring little inconvenience or trouble to a community.

One camper pointed out that the caravan parks have a restriction of the two week stay, he needed to be in the area longer that this. Another pointed out like many, the costs are beyond the pension to stay in caravan parks, particularly during the perk periods when tariffs become higher and any caravan park worth its salt are full anyway.

It is a simple thing and the grey nomads bring thousands of $ into the nearest town, Charters Towers, in petrol, services and supplies. I know, as a freecamper, we would have turned right at Clermont and headed for the coast if it wasn’t for Fletchers Creek freecamp.

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 4.27.38 pmThere are also some squatter’s camps, here on the north bank generally. These folk have settled in for what looks like the long haul. So what is the difference between a squatter and a freecamper?

It is simple… a freecamper is a camper who is on an adventure or a transient traveller who will move on within a reasonable amount of time. A squatter has little intention of moving on soon and will likely stay until the issue is forced.

Squatters will also camp back away from the general camps, they will behave in proprietorial ways. Often they will set up perimeters around their camps and even plant trees to demark boundaries. They also generally don’t welcome neighbours. They are squatters and should be treated as such. They are not freecampers!

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 4.28.08 pmConfusion between these two groups causes a lot of friction with councils but I think often people forget that these campers are not the same group. To presume proprietorial rights over what is public land when there should be none, is not in the public interest. Nor is it the practice of a freecamper. People should not be allowed to set proprietorial limits on public land, this is regardless of whether you are a member of a council or of the general public.

A spade is a spade… a squatter, a squatter and a freecamper in general majority is a demograghic group of golden oldies who are paid-up members of the public. Freecampers as a group are not short-term holiday-makers who prefer caravan parks. I can’t see what is so hard about this understanding though confusing the groups can be a tactic used by the self interested businesses (such as caravan park proprietors) to gain custom and advantage often at the expense of other businesses in the area.

The cultural practices of Aussies is a changing thing. New groups emerge and old groups fade into history. The demographic identity of the freecamper is a time honoured and traditional group… it has been around since Governor Phillip raised the convict tents at Sydney cove (not personally) and this mob is not going away anytime soon. If anything it is a growing demographic of independent spirit who, unlike holidayers, do not require the services and amenities of a caravan park all the time.

Freecampers won’t be forced into caravan parks anymore than you could force a truckie there… we will just move onto another camp and take what financial resources we have with us. We might call into and stay at a caravan park, but it is a visit. We usually prefer to live on the wallaby.

Happy Travelling 

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