The great pandemic getaway

Tane Fairbairn, 10, and his parents have used the pandemic as an opportunity to see Australia. (Photo: Emma Wallace)

When the lockdown hit in March David Riley felt an urgent, overriding desire – to change his life for the better, and take back some of the control the pandemic seemed to have wrested from people all around the world.

Over the coming months he rented out his house and with his wife and three kids hit the road in a caravan to see Australia. He had originally planned to do something similar in 2022 but the lockdown gave him the confidence to seize the moment.

“The routine of lockdown and homeschooling gave us the family time we had always wanted,” Riley says.

“Family has its seasons and our kids are young enough to want to be with us but old enough to be fairly self-sufficient.”

The pandemic has seen more people prioritise making a tree change, the trend of moving to a quieter area away from the city where the quality of life is better, but increasingly people unable to make a permanent move are choosing instead to make a temporary one.

Minister for Decentralisation and Regional Education Andrew Gee tells Hatch a lot of people are dreaming of a tree change or sea change and there’s no better time.

“COVID-19 has brought great devastation to Australia, but if there has been a silver lining to this pandemic it’s been the revelation that people can work from home productively,” he says.

Much of regional NSW has been experiencing a tourism boom because of border closures, with international travel off the table and employers adjusting to allow employees to work productively from home in the suburbs of the cities.

“This sentiment is reflected in our national tourism data for July, which showed positive signs with tourism spending in our region’s growing by over $1.2 billion in June,” Gee adds.

“And visitor nights in regional Australia are at their highest since January.”

A lot of parents are saying, ‘hang on, this homeschooling thing’s not too hard, it’s not that scary’

Chris Michel

Riley, a 51-year-old pastor who lives in Mudgeeraba on the Gold Coast with his wife Joanne, 45, a stay at home mum, and their three children Jessica, 13, Kea, 11, and Theodore, eight, says the pandemic showed him life can change dramatically and quickly with no warning.

He wants his kids to learn and experience life with a more hands-on approach and taking the plunge, he thinks, enriches the family dynamic.

“The education opportunities of just being out there and seeing places and learning,” he says, “… I just think it’ll be a wonderful family experience that will bless us for many years to come.”

And he’s not alone.

David Riley with Joanne, Jessica, Kea and Theo. (Photo: David Riley)

Since the pandemic hit more people are moving out of the cities to live and work remotely in rural or coastal areas.

Moving from the ‘hustle and bustle’ to the country is what defines a tree change and since the pandemic there has been a big influx into regional areas.

Tim McKibbon from The Real Estate Institute of New South Wales says the change is continuing to grow.

“From the earliest stages of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw tenants relinquishing their properties in favour of more affordable options in suburbs more distant from the popular metro hubs,” he says.

“In fact, even further afield into regional areas.”

Chris Michel from Sunseekers Caravans on the Sunshine Coast says their caravans are sold out until November next year and a lot of people have used COVID-19 as a reason to take extended holidays.

On average a caravan will cost $80,000 and they tend to hold their value very well.

Sunseekers caravans have never seen such numbers; for the period of June 1 – October 31, 2020, compared to the same time last year, their web traffic has grown 150 per cent and sales have doubled.

Michel thinks the pandemic has shown people they can be self-sufficient and stick to their own schedules.

“A lot of parents are saying, ‘hang on, this homeschooling thing’s not too hard, it’s not that scary’,” he says.

“That was the most frightening thing for parents, that they would disadvantage their children and they’ve figured out it’s easier than they thought.”

He believes this has given parents the courage to take extra time off, extended holidays, or travel indefinitely depending on their occupations.

“Caravans are so sophisticated and so practical these days, as well as the affordability and flexibility – why would people stay in a hotel?”

Overseas travel now seems unlikely, for at least another six months, and some people are spending their savings to live indefinitely in a caravan or campervan travelling Australia.

Sunseeker caravans specialise in self-sufficient caravans, meaning you don’t depend on caravan parks for electricity or water.

“With this massive influx caravan parks are going to struggle to be able to house all of these newfound travellers to our sector,” Michel says.

“The caravans are fully autonomous so people can do whatever they want and go wherever they want.”

Those in the industry think the massive surge in families taking on caravanning is both a wonderful thing for the industry and a positive for general lifestyle and quality of life.

But not all choose a caravan.

The COVID conditions arose and we just grabbed the opportunity, it was like this is our moment.

Emma Wallace

COVID is seeing some families hitting the road for an extended road trip.

Emma Wallace, a 46-year-old theatrical tailor, took nine weeks off to travel Australia with her partner, Graham Fairbairn, who has a small construction company, and their 10-year-old son Tane, in July when work was obsolete.

The pandemic gave her family the freedom to take an extended holiday of a lifetime; which she says was the best time in her life.

Graham Fairbairn and Tane at an outback water hole. (Photo: Emma Wallace)

“The COVID conditions arose and we just grabbed the opportunity, it was like this is our moment,” she says.

“It was just incredible and it was just so beautiful.”

Wallace, who lives in the inner-west Sydney suburb of Newtown, believes the trip taught her son so much; about grit, beauty, the Australian landscape and Aboriginal history.

“It was a very powerful trip,” she adds.

Sam Verlaan, Co-director of Häuslein Tiny House Co, says the pandemic has seen their business grow 20 per cent which he sees, in part, as less focus on city living and more on quality of life.

“People have been interested in buying a Tiny House for a long time but haven’t had the time to do anything about it,” Verlaan says.

“Now they have the time to think about things and turn their dreams into a reality.”

The lack of socialising has many of his consumers thinking ‘why am I paying this much rent in a city to stay indoors’? And the average Tiny House will set you back $120,000, a fraction of the cost of buying a regular bricks and mortar home.

Some customers have parents or friends in the country and have built a Tiny House on their acreage.

This is exactly what Robert and Dita Rayner did.

Robert, 59, an Australian, and Dita, 53, originally from Berlin, are musicians who have been living between Germany and Australia since 2006.

Touring Australia in April, they couldn’t get flights back to Germany and decided to stay put.

Robert and Dita Rayner in their new Tiny House. (Photo: Dita and Robert Rayner)

Dita said it’s been difficult as they can’t make any plans to travel or tour – so they thought why not move to the country.

In June they decided to take the plunge and buy a tiny house they could set up on a friend’s farm in Victoria, and drive into the city when they have gigs.

“We took one of our friends offer up, as she’s got a really big paddock, and we only share the paddock with one horse!,” Dita says.

“It’s so lovely to have your own little space and it is a tree-change for us.

“There’s this great song about a tree change, it’s a German song about a bird that doesn’t want to have any roots anymore because she wants to be free and travel and see the world.

“It’s one of my favorite songs.”

Look here for more information on travel in Australia, or to regional NSW. And to find out more about caravans and tiny houses go to Sunseeker Caravans or Tiny House.