5 January 2012
It is these little guys my wife and I like to support. Not just for the good heartedness towards the local and sometimes struggling community or to save a quid, but these establishments quite often offer more bang for our bucks. I don't mean jumping pillows, water parks, pushbike rental or even in-house cinemas. It's the personal touches, like bush kitchens with a touch of reality to them. What could be a better definition of happy hour than sitting around a campfire with golden syrup-covered damper on your plate while exchanging experiences with fellow travellers?
I'm sure there are those who would disagree with me, as the major caravan parks in popular tourist destinations provide luxuries that we are happy to pay for. Or do they?
ARE CARAVAN PARKS WORTH THE CASH?
I have encountered parks wanting three-figure sums, as in $100 plus, for a simple powered site per night in peak season, while others still provide excellent facilities in the $25 to $35 range. Caravan parks are businesses and there are many factors that contribute to the establishment of a set price. Yet does the customer, particularly the grey nomad, receive value for the extra hard-earned dollar?
To be fair to the caravan park owner, local councils could do the right thing here by reducing rates for what is essentially the main tourist drawcard, particularly in smaller towns.
Highly rated five-star parks don't always cater for the grey nomad, and quite often it is the little, lower-rated one you'll be recommending to your friends at happy hour. Mind you, star ratings are not necessarily accurate either. It seems that if you have a swimming pool, then you get a tick, never mind the standard of its upkeep. One park we stayed at, situated just one hour's drive from the Sydney CBD, was listed as having a laundry. However, upon inspection it was nothing more than one standard household washing machine in a shed normally reserved for the lawn mower. This park is currently rated 3.5 stars, indicating that the star rating system is in desperate need of an overhaul.
Two of the better stays we have enjoyed are also two of the more isolated parks on the map. One is nine hours west of Brisbane, the Evening Star just 9km out of Charleville. All sites on offer are huge grassed drive-throughs – the sites are 20m long by 8m wide! The park is run by the Debney family and they jokingly refer to their colossal sites as 'marriage-savers'.
The Debneys literally roll out the red country carpet upon your arrival. Nothing is too much trouble for them. Raised garden beds with fresh vegies, ripe to pick, are there for the taking. Then there is the wonderful undercover country kitchen, complete with licensed facilities. Large logs for sitting on surround the nightly campfire with the Debneys in attendance as the perfect hosts.
Old farming instruments are dotted around this beautifully appointed park, giving the place a proper rustic feel, complete with the impossible to miss hand-painted, florescent 1960s caravan welcoming visitors at the entrance.
The other personal favourite is the Erldunda Roadhouse Caravan Park located 200km south of Alice Springs on the T-junction to Uluru. The site layout gets the nod here in this clean and simple park. All sites are again drive-through, fish-boned along all access roads at 45 degrees. No more right-hand-turn reverse parking from tight, narrow roads.
I am reasonably competent at parking a van, but one site in far north WA stands out in my memory. Imagine reversing on a one-way road 11ft wide (I measured), into a site facing rearward 135 degrees in relation to the approach the so-called parking helpers brought you in on. Obviously this well-meaning pair and the designer of the park layout have never heard of jack-knifing. Leaving the next morning was even better. The bonnet of our HiLux, when hitched up to the van, was 15cm from the front awning arm of the caravan opposite. With a tree within centimetres of our van's rear, it was near impossible to leave!
FELLOW TRAVELLERS' CONCERNS
A former work colleague of mine named Dave expressed a real concern common amongst novices. Looking at buying his first RV, he asked me if owning a larger rig would exclude him from many parks, a good question that is asked time and time again. Many older van parks still have sites suitable only for the 14ft 'woody' van and the HQ Kingswood towing it. Updates in these parks are badly needed if they want the modern, much larger rigs to roll through the boom gate entrance.
At the 2011 Adelaide Caravan Show held in February, country attendees Edith and Robert were among many turning away from caravan parks purely due to their 'rack 'em and stack 'em' attitude during peak season. "I don't like the idea of my extended awning hitting the neighbour's window," Robert said.
There are so-called 'caravan parks' listed as such in various publications that shouldn't carry this name at all. One NSW 'caravan park' we came across has 90 sites yet only five are for travelling tourists. Perhaps an industry criteria should be set up where a pre-determined ratio of sites must be achieved before being allowed to call oneself a van park or similar.
This is all very subjective, because what one person loves in a park stay may not suit another – happy hour discussions are testament to this, aren't they? After all, tourist parks with all the bells and whistles certainly have their place too. Without them, a large part of the RV market, namely young families, would be ignored and everyone deserves to enjoy this lifestyle no matter their age.
Denigrating caravan parks is not constructive in any way and certainly not my aim, for without them tourism in this country would suffer tremendously. Although only two personal choice parks are mentioned, I have many favourites, and I stress that the majority of parks are providing the same high standards. All we expect is honesty and value for money, and a consistent rating system would act as a guide for all.
WHAT VANNERS WANT
1. Overhaul the star rating system to truly reflect park standards.
2. Create or redesign sites to be large-rig friendly.
3. Accommodation costs to be more in-line with what the park facilities offer, rather than just a good view.
4. If park owners want tourists to stay for extended periods, have the permanents raise their appearance standards.
5. Limit those who wish to be called and listed as a caravan park to meet a pre-determined ratio of permanent to tourist sites.
• Look for parks that have 'stay seven nights for six' deals or similar.
• Travel in low or shoulder seasons. You not only save money, but can stay in the more popular places with no overcrowding problems.
• Join one of the caravan park chains as most offer 10% off rates.
• Pay cash in remote areas. Some outback places charge extra for credit cards.
• If set up for it, try free-camping to save money.
• Outback parks may need helpers. It's a good way of earning money and accommodation is normally cheaper or even free.
CAMP QUALITY CHECKLIST
• Is the asking rate within your budget?
• Does it have good infrastructure?
• Clean amenities and laundry? Do all the washing machines/dryers work?
• Are the managers and staff members friendly?
• Request drive-through sites when booking, these are great for larger rigs.
• Check for well-kept grounds, it's often a good indicator of service.
Keep a list of favoured caravan parks you have stayed in for future reference and sharing with fellow travellers. Word of mouth recommendations are a great way of discovering the best an area has to offer.
WORDS BY BRETT KEMPSTER PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRETT & KATHY KEMPSTER ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY BY SIMON BAYLISS