For two enthusiastic bike riders, it looked promising: 7 kilometers outside the small town of Rushworth in the north of Victoria was 50, 000 acres of native forest plied by unsealed roads and minor trails.
The next step was to find somewhere to stay at or near Rushworth. The internet turned up the following: there were two caravan parks at the outskirts of town; at one of them, it would cost us 50 dollars just to put our small tent down on a patch of grass; at the other, we could rent an on- site caravan for 35 dollars a night.
The choice seemed obvious.
Driving our car through the entrance of the caravan park where we had booked an on-site caravan – by phone from the mountains of eastern Victoria – we were puzzled: everywhere we looked, there was luxuriant growth, a mass of trees and bushes – including native flora as well as palms, creepers, bamboo, and cacti. We were surrounded by green; it was like we were in a botanic garden or a hot-house.
We drove down a narrow lane winding its way through the undergrowth.
Periodically we caught glimpses of old caravans, sometimes with attached annexes, set back behind the green. There were no open areas where one could park a car – let alone a car and a caravan.
What kind of caravan park was this?
Following the lane, we completed a circle and found ourselves back at the entrance. Anya whipped out the phone and rang the number given on the website. An eccentric elderly lady answered and observed that she had seen us drive past. There was no reception office, she explained. She lived in one of the old caravans we had seen on our excursion into the green world.
We found out where she lived and walked over to meet her.
On the walk down there, it struck me: this was a caravan park for permanent residents, not for tourists.
I knew what to expect then, or least, I thought I did.
In Australia, most caravan parks cater to middle-class tourists especially retirees – the so-called ‘grey nomads’ – who travel around Australia with an SUV and a huge, expensive caravan in tow, or a large mobile home. A typical caravan park catering to the grey nomads is like a transplanted version of contemporary suburbia. It is often expensive but has good facilities including large communal kitchens and dining areas, barbecues, landscaped surroundings, swimming pools and so on – it provides a gated community for suburban residents on the move.
There is however another kind of caravan park, where most of the residents live permanently; these cater for the down and out, people who otherwise would be homeless – ‘sleeping rough’ as the expression goes – in cars, in parks, under bridges; people occupying the lowest rung in a society characterized by galloping social injustice and accelerating inequality.
In the past, Anya and I had stayed a few caravan parks for ‘permanents’ during walking and bike riding trips – and they were usually quite depressing. Poverty is a bitter social economic reality and it is also a culture, a mentality, which goes hand in hand with apathy: not caring about one’s appearance or well- being, along with the copious use of drugs and/or drink. There are many reasons why people end up in this situation, but the bottom line is: homelessness is increasing in Australia and there doesn’t appear to a nationally coordinated policy to deal with it.
What was unique about Rushworth was this: it had one of each kind of caravan park: middle class and under class. You didn’t often see that: such a stark social-economic division in one town and in this case, hardly a big town either – population about 1000. Then again, most of the residents in both caravan parks came from outside Rushworth.
The proprietor was a character; a character in a country which knew a wealth of ‘characters’.
‘Sorry about the entrance, we had a boom gate there you know, but some drunk smashed into it one night, it was an Aussie of course.’
She had it in for Aussies. She was an Aussie herself but she had remarkably little sympathy for her compatriots.
‘Lazy and stupid. They can’t say anything without swearing and the women are worse than the men. They drink and take drugs. They’re a waste of space.’
And so on. No, she didn’t think much of Australians.
She much preferred Asians.
‘Hard working, polite, clean …yes, and they speak English too!’
Asians. She couldn’t praise them up enough.
In the poverty caravan parks, most of the residents were Australians; often, entire families living in one caravan.
This poverty caravan park was different.
Half of the residents were elderly Australians and the other half were young Asians who worked on the farms and orchards in the area.
‘The employers around here don’t want Australians, not if they can get Asians. Can you blame them? ‘
Long before I stopped in Rushworth, I had noticed the appearance of increasing numbers of Asian workers on the land.
The first time I noticed the change was on a bike ride in 2007 through the Barossa Valley in South Australia – a well- known wine region. I had to do a double take when one day, I saw a long row of conical hats in between the vines. It reminded me of travelling in the rural areas of south-east Asia, only there I had seen the conical hats in rice paddies.
When I was at high school and later, at university, I went fruit picking during the vacations to earn a bit of extra money. I had met other students, but also the itinerants who spent their lives moving from one area of Australia to the other, picking fruit or pruning trees and vines. Those people were Caucasian Australians and I cannot remember any of them being lazy or ill behaved; fact was, fruit picking was damn hard work. During my second year at university I got a part-time job as a cleaner – and it was luxury in comparison to fruit picking.
By 2017, there wasn’t a Caucasian to be seen picking grapes – or, for that matter, other kinds of fruit and, olives.
It was part and parcel of the world we were living in.
I had seen the same demographic developments unfolding in The Netherlands. Eastern Europeans – Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians – had taken over most of the menial, unskilled work, and like in Australia, they were overwhelmingly dominant in agriculture – with the main difference being that in The Netherlands, ‘agriculture’ meant: glass houses or, rather, glass factories. In immense glassed-in areas stretching for hectares, the air and water controlled by computers, vegetables, fruit and flowers were grown on a massive scale. There were roads inside these glass factories plied by electric vehicles and people on bikes. Circuits built into the glass provided solar energy. The glass factories made a substantial contribution to ensuring that The Netherlands was the second biggest exporter of food in the world after the U.S. But the entire industry was totally dependent on non-Dutch workers. Attempts for example to force Dutch citizens living on unemployment benefits to work in the glass factories had led nowhere; the employers didn’t want them.
The Eastern Europeans were far more motivated and worked harder.
The Dutch it seemed, were as lazy as the Australians.
But I made no mention of this to the camp proprietor as she led us to our van.
She was convinced that the Australians were uniquely lazy.
She was all in favour of what she called ‘The Asians’ and it didn’t take long before I found out why.
The Park Land on a typical cold winter morning
The other side of the caravan not quite so impressive…
Nearby historic Rushworth, a former gold mining town now a popular tourist attraction.
Next: The Park Land Part 2