Grey nomads and young backpackers – ships in the night (and day!)

As I travelled, I soon discovered that there are two great streams of people continually moving around the ‘wide brown land’ of Australia: grey nomads and young backpackers.

Grey nomads (GNs).

Nomads are primarily Australian, and usually retirees. They stay in van parks and pull their caravan with a 4WD or powerful sedan. It’s usually a long trip, ranging from 3 months to a year; Australia is a big country. It’s hard to take that amount of leave when you are still working, so most people plan to do the trip soon after clocking off for the last time.

It’s not long before a novice nomad hears some unfamiliar expressions, ‘on the wallaby’ being one of the more interesting.

‘On the wallaby’ derives from the 1840’s, when swagmen (aka sundowners) would fan out across the country, looking for handouts. When times were tough, itinerant workers would also be ‘on the wallaby’, looking for work.

The phrase is an abbreviation of the original expression ‘on the wallaby track’, a reference to the fact that swagmen (swaggies) would often follow tracks made by small wallabies through thick bush.Wombats may have helped to make, or at least maintain, some of these tracks, though ‘on the wombat’ doesn’t have quite the same appeal!

Swaggies humping their swags (aka blueys) were a familiar sight in the Australian landscape till well into the 20th century, so ‘on the wallaby’ maintained its currency also. However, in the 1890’s, some of Australia’s most creative names helped promote the legend.

In 1891, Henry Lawson penned his poem, ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’, as a sharp comment on the national shearer’s strike of the same year. The poem caused quite a ruckus, culminating in calls in the Queensland Legislative Council for Lawson to be arrested for sedition.

In 1895, bush poet Banjo Patterson wrote ‘Waltzing Matilda’, which was to become Australia’s unofficial national anthem. While not mentioning ‘on the wallaby’, the song is about a down-on-his-luck swagman, who, quite clearly, was on the wallaby track.

The following year, artist Frederick McCubbin painted his best-known work, ‘On the wallaby track’, which depicts a forest trail, a woman sitting with a child on her lap (McCubbin’s wife Annie and son John), and a man boiling a billy (Annie’s brother).

Nearly fifty years later, in 1942, author and naturalist, Charles Barratt, wrote a book titled ‘On the Wallaby’. Barratt broadens the meaning of ‘on the wallaby’ to involve any travel, including overseas. One of the chapters has the intriguing title of ‘Palestine Walkabout’.

These days, ‘on the wallaby’ generally means travelling around (or across, through, over, etc) Australia, which brings me to the next word in the GN’s vocabulary: laps.

When you have completed a circuit of Oz, around 20-25,000 km, you are said to have done a ‘lap’. This, naturally, gives rise to an unofficial pecking order in GN land; the more laps you have notched up, the greater your bragging rights – as you have been to more places than those with fewer laps, so you know all the best places to camp, fish, boat, drink, etc – the list is endless.

On my trip, I met a couple who were on their 7th – and last lap – before they retired to their ‘best place’: Tasmania.

Number 3 on the word list is the acronym SKI. Nomads love to tell everyone that they are ‘Spending the Kids Inheritance’. Now, the ‘kids’ don’t mind the oldies doing one lap, or 2 at a stretch. However, when the folks (Future Lump Sums and Current Baby Sitters) gear up for lap number 3, the kids start getting a bit twitchy – laps are not cheap!

Last, but certainly not least, is the word ‘Macca’. For those who don’t know him, Macca is Ian McNamara, long-time host of the ABC’s ‘Australia All Over’ radio program. Between 6 and 10, each Sunday morning, up to 2 million Aussies tune in to hear the laconic Macca chat to travellers ‘on the wallaby’, in Australia and sometimes overseas, the bulk of who are GNs. ‘Australia All Over’ is to GN’s, what ‘Blue Hills’ was to the outback – you don’t miss it!

So there it is, GN-speak. If you are really clever, you can incorporate all of these GN words into the one sentence.

For example:

A bloke comes up to you and says ‘How ya goin’?’

You reply:

‘ I’m on my 5th lap skiing the wallaby, and I’m about to have a cuppa with Macca’. (NB: This reply is suitable only for Sunday mornings. For the rest of the week, you’ll have to have your brew with the missus!)

Backpackers (BPs)

BPs could not be more different from the nomads. Most are from overseas, and in their late teens to early 20’s. BPs from the UK and western Europe are usually on a ‘gap’ year – the year between leaving school and starting university. It’s a ‘rite of passage’ for young Europeans, a chance to travel, see the world, have fun, grow up – and think about whether they really want to study the uni course they have been offered! Unfortunately, the concept of a gap year does not exist in the United States. Very few Americans backpack.

BPs travel primarily by Greyhound bus, but also use trains and other bus companies, though some buy or hire a car and travel independently. Most stay in either Youth Hostels or BP hostels, and do their own cooking. They are usually on a tight budget.

However, it doesn’t matter how they travel, or where they stay, they are also ‘on the wallaby’.

Cairns is BP heaven; the city buzzes with young visitors 24/7. Over 600 tours are offered daily heading in every direction, doing every thing.

Not only do GNs and BPs travel differently, and stay in different lodgings, they also do different things. BPs are into adventure; GNs into comfort. For example, in Cairns there are 2 popular offshore cruises – one goes to Green Island, a coral cay; the other goes to Fitzroy Island, a continental island formed by rising seas. Fitzroy is a ‘fun’ island, that’s where the backpackers go; Green is a pretty island, that’s where the nomads go.

Every day, thousands of GNs and BPs are ‘on the wallaby’ around Australia, but because of the way they travel, where they stay, and what they do, they rarely meet – ships in the night (and day!). Funny isn’t it?


Happy travelling

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