Take an early morning look on the outskirts of any town, along quiet beaches, in the roadside stops and parking bays of the highways and in the parks and gardens of towns and you will find an amazing cross section of people who have pulled in and set-up camp for the night.
We're not talking about the homeless and destitute, these people are often well healed tourists who have embarked on a mini adventure to see and traverse one of the worlds safer tourist destinations.
Truck and Road Train drivers have always pulled off the side of the road for a quick nap when the need arises and these days with the ever tightening restrictions on log books and driver fatigue, truckies are compelled to spend more of their lives asleep at the side of the road. Modern prime movers used for long distance transport are often accessorized with comfortable 'sleeper cabs' containing beds, fridges, perhaps a mini oven and even televisions and DVD players. Anything in an effort to make an arduous job more comfortable and tolerable.
- roadside rest areas can consist of a simple 44 gallon rubbish bin under a tree or elaborate mini cities resplendent with solar showers, chemical toilets, tables, shelters and barbecues. Many people choose to pull in to places like this for the night because they're tired or because they want to avoid the rabble of caravan parks and designated camping grounds. Some just don't want to pay fees.
Who Camps Roadside?
Who doesn't? Apart from the truckies there is a broad array of people who are perfectly happy to bed down beside the bitumen for a peaceful and relaxed meal and a nights rest.
They can be European professionals with big holiday budgets who still prefer the romance and adventure of camping under the stars alongside the Australian bush.
They could also be young foreign students who, for all intents and purposes, are essentially backpackers who happen to have a vehicle. They travel from job to job seeking seasonal work on special visas. It's not unusual (especially in the warmer and more relaxed northern regions) to find a group of young foreign tourists having a wash or doing the dishes under the tap in the local park.
Many are Australian kids who have pooled their resources and travel in two's, three's and four's driving from beach to beach, staying by the road, in hostels or backpackers lodges and who party, mostly harmlessly, from one stop to the next. They hire or buy small economical vans from company's like 'Wicked' or 'Juicy' and load up on a few easy meals and perhaps a few beers and head from sunset to sunset, camping wherever takes their fancy and generally leading a free and abandoned lifestyle before settling in for the rigours of conventional life.
Of course, there is also an abundance of 'grey nomads' (retirees in caravans), station workers on the ground in swags and the ever growing number of families towing a boat or camper trailer.
Is It Legal?
What are the legalities of setting up camp wherever you feel like it? Who knows? It's a bit of a Catch-22 situation. Australia is comprised of eight states and territories who have all, at one stage or another, entertained various notions of seceding from the federation and forming their own nation. Consequently we are left will a hotchpotch of mismatched and differing laws relating to everything from speed limits to family law.
Regulations in State and National parks regarding camping are fairly clear and well defined and you are generally left in no doubt as to how the presiding ranger is entitled to deal with campers who bed down in the wrong place. The rules regarding parks are governed more vigilantly than along the roads and highways, with park rangers given well defined areas and definitions to enforce.
Get out onto the highways and the rules regarding overnighting and camping get enforced far less rigorously. Although many areas still fall under police jurisdiction, by and large, enforcing camping rules is left to the hundreds of local councils whose rangers are kept occupied chasing stray dogs and issuing parking tickets.
Surfing Mecca's like Western Australia's Margaret River region and popular backpacker locations like Cairns in Queensland draw people like flies and the councils of these high profile tourist destinations often wage a serious battle against undesignated camping. Highly visible signs warning of fines for undesignated camping (normally around $100) are placed at the most desirable and likely locations and generate a general feeling of not being welcome. These councils much prefer you stay at a luxurious hotel or at least a caravan park or hostel.
Not all councils are so intolerant and many will, especially in the northern regions, erect and maintain overnight bays on the highways, complete with advisory signs for the wandering tourist. It's a moot point because in such a vast country, with town rangers finishing work anywhere from 3 to 5pm and the police mildly disinterested in such a trifling offence there isn't really anyone patrolling for non complying campers.
The Catch-22 comes with the fact that the Australian federal government has long had a policy of encouraging country drivers to rest and to not drive fatigued or tired. This is delivered via education, advertising and programs like 'Driver Revive' where free coffee is administered for tired drivers at roadhouses. Often temporary roadside vans dispense the same free brew along the highways.
Truck drivers already have to keep detailed and complex log books describing mileage, sleep and hours driven and this is heavily checked and regulated by a special division of the police force. If a means of measuring fatigue is ever developed then you can be sure Australian drivers will face penalties for driving tired similar to the penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
This creates a situation where on one hand a local council may erect a sign prohibiting roadside camping right along a state or federal sign - urging you to pull over and rest if you become fatigued. It becomes a difficult situation to enforce with the declaration that you were "too tired to carry on".
Where to Pull Up and Camp?
Deciding that the most pleasant place to park your trusty and exuberantly graffitied van is on the lawns of mansions in Sydney's north shore is just asking for trouble. So is entering private property or camping in the Botanical Gardens (although we've seen it done successfully in Townsville).
Designated and specially designed parking bays for trucks are to be avoided. Truck drivers need to plan their stops according to hours driven and often know exactly where they will pull up in order to comply with log book regulations. These bays are designed to accommodate Road Trains up to 54 metres long that don't fit anywhere else along the highway. It's a fair bet that you will be woken by the bellowing air horn of every passing truck, by the high beam of spotlights and a grumbling truck radiator at your back door and there's every chance a passing police car will move you on. An unpleasant night for everyone.
Use the roadside bays designed for cars or turn into a side road and find a peaceful bit of bush. If you have a four wheel drive then a dry river bed makes for a great camping spot as do the millions of tracks that criss-cross the Australian landscape.
Station owners are pretty forgiving about you pulling into a station gate for a nights rest and you will just as likely go unnoticed anyway. If you are able to locate the homestead then asking permission is a good option and may see you directed to a great spot that you would otherwise never know about.
Discretion is often the better part of valour and setting up for the night and managing to go unnoticed is a pretty good policy. The highways can be pretty noisy affairs with a continual stream of trucks and getting further away from the bitumen is a quieter option.
The policing of improper camping is much tighter around larger urban centres and the last twenty kilometres entering or leaving the town may be a more relaxing proposition. Smaller towns (especially northern towns) seem much more forgiving.
What to do if you're Confronted?
Remember that you haven't actually spent a night by the side of the road until you've actually woken up in the morning. Parking and Rest Bay's are exactly what the signs announce. They exist for people to park and rest.
If you understand that the majority of council officers have finished work by 5pm and the police are too busy chasing real criminals to worry about a roadside van or two, then you have probably begun to understand that you're not likely to be bothering anybody.
Cap it off with the knowledge that the government actually encourages drivers to pull over and rest when necessary and you've used a bit of common sense about your location, you begin to realize you are pretty safe from any official harassment.
If you happen to encounter a particularly belligerent ranger or member of the police force who insists on pushing the point, then maintain an even temperament and politely explain that you were too tired to continue. Most officials are decent people and it would be an unreasonable person who got really upset about someone (who wasn't creating a disturbance) bedding down for the night. Four dozen empty beer cans and a pile of rubbish laying around your site will act like a giant magnet to anyone with any authority - just like taking a nap on the lawns of Government House or under a sign saying 'No Camping - $100 Fine'. You will probably get just that - a fine.
If you've set up camp with dinner simmering and happen to be enjoying a beer or glass of wine as the sun sets and consider that you have too much to drink to drive then never, ever be persuaded to get into your vehicle and move on. Even if it's by an extremely insistent member of the police force. You'll probably find yourself pulled up 50 metres down the road and booked for drink driving which is a far more severe and less tolerated offence than grabbing a nap by the road.
As time goes by, with ever increasing regulation, it gets more difficult, but never impossible, to travel the highways and enjoy the freedoms of the road and bush and set up camp wherever takes your fancy. If you're one of those campers who does no harm and refuses to be herded, sheeplike, into designated camping zones - then we salute you.
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