Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Let's abolish middle-age

Recently, my mate Leigh and I jumped in the Volvo and had a quick run around the countryside. Eight thousand kilometres later, we returned. I won't bore you with the sightseeing details, except to say that you've got to do this trip. It was fantastic; the south-east corner of Australia is as diverse, beautiful, wild, intimidating and heart-breakingly, gobsmackingly spectacular as nearly any place in the world.

Like I said, I'll tell you all about it if you really want me to. But today's post is about something else: getting old, and what to do about it. You see, along the course of our trip, we met lots of a rather modern species of humanoid: the Grey Nomad. This unusual species displays characteristics and habits that are decidedly peculiar, and got me thinking about the nature of aging.

Now, I've come to believe that "age" is a social construct. I'm 55, and Leigh is 59, but we still act, and think, like blokes in our twenties. At least I like to think we do; unfortunately, it's been that long since I was twenty that I have no recollection of any thoughts I may or may not have had at that age. I can imagine, though, that they were the normal thoughts that young men have, or, if you like, the single, solitary thought that most young men use to keep themselves in a permanent state of priapic befuddlement. Now, of course, our bodies betray us more often than they used to; we are the victims of a life of wear and tear. The knees and ankles ain't what they used to be; we're not as strong as we were, etc etc. And our faces - well, let's just say that we're in no danger of displacing the current Mr Universe from his spot.

Well, we loaded up the Volvo with all the things we thought we'd need on a 28-day camping trip: a couple of two-man tents (no way were we considering sleeping with each other); a one-burner stove, billy, couple of pots and pans; bag of clothes each; some food staples (rice, sugar, flour, coffee) and plenty of drink - and that's about it. We thought we'd just play it by ear - camp where we liked, stay in any one spot for as long as we deemed appropriate, not make any firm plans or rendezvous points. We were off to see parts of our glorious country neither had visited before, and we were going to do it sans mod cons.

Now, the only reasonably firm part of our plan was that we'd get to know a place by visiting one of its pubs, and see what happened next. As it turned out, this was a masterstroke of foresight, because it led us into some exceptionally wild adventures. And the funny thing about it is that most of these adventures occurred with people about half our age. Think about this for a moment: here we were, two late middle-age guys having a ball with a whole crew of youngsters, everywhere we went. How does that work? I've got some theories.

But now, to the Grey Nomads. These are people who, as they hit retirement, get out on the road to see Australia. Well, good on them - it's a great thing to do, obviously; much better than copping your last pay cheque and the gold watch, settling down in the comfy-chair in front of Neighbours then curling up your toes and carking it.

But it's the way that they get to see the country that started to get me concerned. You've got to realise that the GNs are the most important supporters of the regional Australian economy; they keep entire towns alive. We went through South Australia, for instance, at the end of the worst drought in the country's history. Evidence everywhere of people just walking off the land; towns shuttered and boarded - it was pretty horrific, and it was only the GNs, in many cases, that kept these places faintly buoyant.

The GNs do this: use the superannuation, or sell the house, or somehow get their hands on a great big stack of money. They buy a Landcruiser or Nissan Patrol with all the bells and whistles, and a dirty great fucking caravan big enough to house Ali Baba and forty or more of his mates. (I was taken on a guided tour of a couple of these monsters - I mean, they've got dishwashers in them, for fuck's sake!) So they hitch these behemoths up and take off on a three, six or twelve-month tour of the country. This is going to be their last hurrah; their swan-song. We saw the country, Edna; now we can die in peace.

Now, Leigh and I had a kind of system: we'd usually pull up at a camping ground mid-afternoon, set up, then reconnoitre the area. Then we'd hit the pub, and see what eventuated. This usually worked rather well, except for the time at Apollo Bay when the three Vietnamese prostitutes commandeered the pool table (but that's another story).

We started to notice another system in operation. We'd be sitting outside camp with a beer in hand, having successfully negotiated the process of erecting tents, when a whole convoy of GNs would arrive. They'd spend half an hour getting their rig into exactly the right spot, wind out all of the paraphernalia on their vans, erect the TV mast, and go inside, lock the door and stay there all night. In the morning, by the time we got up and checked that there were no pieces of our bodies missing after the night before, the GNs had gone!

They just drove from one camping ground to the next! The only time they got to see the real world was out the window of their rigs, which were nothing more than their suburban homes chucked on a tri-axle trailer. They never went for a walk. Leigh and I did plenty of big hikes while we were travelling; the GNs do none. While we went trekking up a 3000ft mountain, the GNs sat in their campsites, spraying their caravans with spider repellant and chatting to each other about the benefits of having a luxury en-suite on the road. Or cleaning; these guys were fanatical about owning a spotless caravan. By the time we got home, the Volvo looked like it had been through a mud bath - which it had, several times, but the GNs' always looked as though they'd just rolled off the assembly-line.

The thing is, these people were barely older than us. There was nothing stopping them doing fairly big day walks, as we did - and the only way you could really see much of the landscape on our trip was to trek into it. This all passed the GNs by; they never went to a pub, played pool with the locals, and got hammered. We did that sort of thing probably too much, but fuck, it was fun.

By the time we got home I realised I'd had one of the very best experiences of my life. I felt good. I was fitter, tanned and ready to plough myself back into life. I can just imagine a pair of these Grey Nomads coming home and turning the television on. For many of them, nothing would have changed. And that's a great pity. Because they'd have missed out on a great opportunity to find the boy, or girl, within.

...to be continued.


TheWhitePearl said...

oooo ooo I love this story. I can't wait for the continuation.

I have a body that fits my age, an old spirit and the mind of a 5 year old (at times). I can relate. I've hung out with much older people as well. Door swings both ways.

I think all I would have needed was alcohol and coffee. And a tent. And a toothbrush. But mostly alcohol....

Oh and, um..what's a billy? My american is showing.

Apathy Personified said...

Great story Laurie - good for you, i hope you keep going on those trips for decades to come.

'GN' also cause traffic jams by driving their caravans so damn slow - another reason to be against them. :)

Philip1978 said...

Great post!

I have been down Australia from Cairns to Sydney then across to Perth for a bit - the outback is just amazing, I really enjoyed staying in a place called Namoi Hills cattle farm - in the middle of nowhere, a road leading to it is 3 hours long in a straight line - boy did we have to ply the driver with caffeine that day!

It was truly amazing out there, will never forget it, even made my own didgeridoo whislt there.

I have just recently turned 30 but have realised I still have my 18 year old mind, its positively wonderful!

What is the saying? Old enough to know better but still young enough to get away with it!

Woo Hoo, bring on the continuation!

Jonathan said...

Good post Laurie, I look forward to the next one!

Sharon said...


All I can say is "spider repellant"?! Who knew.