March 2006

The Nation Reviewed

Highway robbery

By Andrew McMillan

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Early one morning, when he was running Three Ways Roadhouse at the lonesome junction of the Stuart and Barkly highways in the Northern Territory, Jon Jenkins strolled out to turn off his sprinklers in the caravan park. He found the taps, fed by a rainwater dam eleven kilometres away, gushing onto the ground. Overnight, his entire sprinkler system had been ripped up and swiped.

It was, he surmised, the work of the Grey Nomads, the shiftiest of the nation’s criminal gangs. Disguised as retired couples who’ve dreamt for decades of doing the extended trip around Australia once the super kicks in, they prowl the highways in air-conditioned Toorak tractors, towing huge getaway vans. With brand names like Windsor, Regent, Viscount, Statesman and Royal Flair on the outside, the caravans offer a facade of aristocratic respectability.

On the inside, if you’re to believe roadhouse workers, the vans are stacked with pilfered sprinklers, tap fittings, toilet rolls, shower roses, sink plugs, bath mats and, for use as siphons, two-metre lengths of garden hose (always cut from the middle). These outlaws will stop at nothing, jemmying toilet-roll holders off the walls, unscrewing cistern floats (useful for crab pots), and pinching pot plants, ashtrays, bar mats, place mats, cups and anything else that isn’t bolted down. The worst offenders allegedly wear Victorian plates – not surprising, given that a third of all caravans in Australia are registered in that state.

In the highway robbery stakes, the Grey Nomads’ arch rivals are the Hire ’n’ Drive mob, who favour Britz vans and tend to affect European accents. Their infamy stems from their targeting of 15-centimetre lengths of hose for the construction of plastic juice-bottle bongs. They’re also renowned removalists, booking rooms and then driving off with pillows, doonas, blankets, sheets, towels, jugs. In more serious cases they’ve taken the beds, mattresses and chairs as well.

According to Northern Territory Tourist Commission figures for the year ending last September, there were 142,000 self-driving visitors who took to the Territory’s roads, but there’s no breakdown of numbers between Grey Nomads and their younger rivals. Add 108,500 backpackers to the equation and you’ve got a hell of a list of suspects.

Roadhouse staff are constantly baffled by the loss of tap fittings. Some speculate that pensioners return to the city and open weekend market stalls specialising in such devices; others figure that retirees plan on spending more time in the garden once they get home and are simply stocking up. Perhaps it’s just payback for fuel prices in the bush, which are often up to thirty cents higher per litre.

At Wycliffe Well, a roadhouse and UFO-themed caravan park 125 clicks south of Tennant Creek, owner Lew Farkas explains, “They don’t realise that by taking one tap fitting, if it can’t be replaced that night, it’s a whole week that your garden or lawn is suffering. It’s not like you can just shoot down the local hardware store and get another simple little fitting, so you’ve got to carry heaps of stock. But you run out all the time because they just keep taking them.”

The crime wave tends to be seasonal, peaking in the southern winter months as the convoys of ‘tourists’ wend their way into the tropics to loot and pillage at will.

In Aileron (population five), 135 kilometres north of Alice Springs, affable roadhouse proprietor Greg Dick bemoans the scrapping of the Territory’s mandatory sentencing regime, under which a Grey Nomad pinching a toilet roll could score a fortnight’s leisure at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

“I was as busy as hell on a Monday morning, so I shot down to the toilets and put some extra rolls of paper in. I had five customers in the front part of the shop, and I was serving away and this woman goes past with this roll of toilet paper in her hand. She’s heading out. And I thought, ‘Shit, I didn’t serve her.’ So I said, ‘Excuse me fellas,’ and flew around the side. I yelled out to her, ‘Hey luv, what about my toilet paper? Ya bloody thief!’

“She wheels around and throws it at me. So I let off with a mouthful of stuff. ‘Look what you got over there: a bloody 25-foot caravan and a bloody four-wheel-drive towing it, and too frigging miserable to buy a roll of effing toilet paper.’

“I gave ’em a good mouthful on it and I said, ‘Look, you want something free? We got mandatory sentencing here. I’ll get your numbers now and I’ll ring ahead and you’ll get bloody two weeks’ free holiday.’ Well, for God’s sake, you should’ve seen them all empty their cups of coffee and take off.”

Out on the Lasseter Highway at Curtin Springs Roadhouse, owner Ashley Severin attributes the theft of charity boxes such as plastic guide dogs, Legacy helmets and Royal Flying Doctor Service hats to the Hire ’n’ Drive mob and backpackers. But it’s the Grey Nomads he holds responsible for the most unusual thefts.

“The urinal lollies – those little, pretty-smelling things you stick in the urinal – we’ve had them pinched. Christ knows what they do with them: put ’em on their caravan wall and say, ‘Isn’t that lovely, that reminds me of Curtin Springs’?”

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